Stu­dents fear study­ing abroad un­der pro­posal

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Ma­rina Pitof­sky

If An­nie Blalock was study­ing abroad in 2020, she fears what sup­port she could get from her school if she was sex­u­ally as­saulted or ha­rassed by a class­mate abroad.

Blalock, 20, a ju­nior at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege in Mid­dle­bury, Ver­mont, will be study­ing for the next four months in Irkutsk, Siberia. Be­fore she left, a pro­fes­sor told her that go­ing to Rus­sia “is like step­ping into a time ma­chine and go­ing back 50 years” for many women.

But, due to pro­posed Ti­tle IX guide­lines the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­leased in Novem­ber, Blalock said she is also wor­ried about pol­icy changes for Amer­i­can vic­tims who ex­pe­ri­ence sex­ual as­sault from a peer while they are abroad and want to seek jus­tice through the Ti­tle IX process once they are home.

“Ex­ist­ing as a woman in a for­eign coun­try which val­ues my abil­ity to fulfill stereo­typ­i­cal fem­i­nine roles over my ex­pe­ri­ences makes me feel vul­ner­a­ble,” said Blalock, who will be tak­ing classes in ecol­ogy and Rus­sian. “Com­bine this with cow­ardly leg­isla­tive moves that refuse to val­i­date the ex­pe­ri­ences of and sup­port sur­vivors of sex­ual vi­o­lence. Yes, I feel de­fense­less.”

Ti­tle IX of the Ed­u­ca­tion Amend­ments of 1972, which guar­an­tees ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams and ac­tiv­i­ties re­gard­less of gen­der, cur­rently says that when a stu­dent re­turns from a study abroad pro­gram, they are guar­an­teed sup­port­ive mea­sures, like limited con­tact between an ac­cuser and the ac­cused in cam­pus hous­ing or classes.

When the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion drafted new guide­lines for in­ter­pret­ing the law last year, Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Betsy DeVos said the rules sought to make Ti­tle IX clearer for all stu­dents.

“Through­out this process, my fo­cus was, is, and al­ways will be on en­sur­ing that ev­ery stu­dent can learn in a safe and nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment,” DeVos said in a state­ment. “That starts with hav­ing clear poli­cies and fair pro­cesses that ev­ery stu­dent can rely on.”

How­ever, one con­tro­ver­sial sec­tion of the guide­lines says sex­ual as­sault or ha­rass­ment ad­dressed by Ti­tle IX “must in­volve con­duct that oc­curred within the school’s own pro­gram or ac­tiv­ity.” That means Ti­tle IX could po­ten­tially not ap­ply to off-cam­pus lo­ca­tions like pri­vately-owned stu­dent hous­ing, bars and res­tau­rants and study abroad pro­grams. An­other pro­vi­sion of the guide­lines that calls for live hear­ings and cross ex­am­i­na­tion of ac­cusers in Ti­tle IX cases has al­ready gone into effect due to court rul­ings in the Sixth Cir­cuit.

Al­though the pro­posal states that it would not pre­vent a stu­dent from al­leg­ing sex­ual mis­con­duct against an­other stu­dent, Shi­wali Pa­tel, se­nior coun­sel for ed­u­ca­tion at The Na­tional Women’s Law Cen­ter, says this still cre­ates a dan­ger­ous gray area for stu­dents study­ing abroad “be­cause com­plaints al­leg­ing sex­ual as­sault out­side of an ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram or ac­tiv­ity would have to be dis­missed, which in­cludes most offcam­pus con­duct.”

“It’s un­clear how this would ap­ply to a study abroad pro­gram linked to a school in the U.S., which school should be re­quired to re­spond to un­der Ti­tle IX,” Pa­tel said. “Wouldn’t it be an ex­ten­sion of the school? What would the obli­ga­tions be when the stu­dents come back to school? What hap­pens when a com­plainant has to sit in a class with an as­sailant af­ter re­turn­ing to the school?”

Maha Ibrahim, staff at­tor­ney at Equal Rights Ad­vo­cates, warned that stu­dents who file sex­ual mis­con­duct com­plaints may have to go through the process of prov­ing that their col­lege or univer­sity even has to take ac­tion, a process that could be ex­pen­sive and re-trau­ma­tiz­ing for sur­vivors of sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment.

“The pro­posed reg­u­la­tions don’t just put a chilling effect on re­port­ing from stu­dents af­ter they have been harmed,” Ibrahim said. “They also put a chilling effect on stu­dents and their fam­i­lies feel­ing safe with a stu­dent trav­el­ing to other coun­tries with their schools.”

An Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment spokesman said the depart­ment can­not com­ment on pro­posed reg­u­la­tion, but it ac­cepted pub­lic com­ments on the guide­lines un­til Jan. 30 and will “re­view and fully con­sider all com­ments.” The guide­lines would not go into full effect un­til 2020.

An es­ti­mated 333,000 U.S. stu­dents stud­ied abroad dur­ing the 2016-17 school year.

Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos says her goal was to make Ti­tle IX clearer for all stu­dents. SU­SAN WALSH/AP

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