Students fear studying abroad under proposal
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 fulfill 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 effect 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 offcampus 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 file 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 effect on reporting from students after they have been harmed,” Ibrahim said. “They also put a chilling effect 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 effect 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