In 2008, Wagatwe Wanjuki reported to her school, Tufts, that her boyfriend had repeatedly assaulted her. But the college refused to investigate the claim. The stress of the abuse and institutional betrayal took a toll on her grades, but without the school’s support she could not afford the tutoring she needed. Tufts then expelled Wanjuki for her substandard academic performance in 2009. (Tufts declined to comment on Wanjuki’s experience, citing confidentiality laws.) No longer enrolled as a student, Wanjuki’s student debt continued to accrue. Years later, she transferred to Rutgers University. Now a prominent anti-violence activist (and friend of mine), she graduated in August with a degree in sociology. But she also has more than $100,000 in debt from two schools.
Under Title IX, schools must ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities regardless of gender. According to courts and the Department of Education, this requirement includes an affirmative duty for colleges and universities to help survivors of gender-based violence continue their educations. That means schools must provide services such as tutors, dorm changes that allow victims to avoid their abusers, and mental health support to survivors who report harassment or abuse — even if they do not pursue disciplinary charges against the offender.
Yet stories from students across the country show that colleges and universities often shirk their responsibilities to support survivors. Students are then left to fend for themselves (with the help of their families, if they are lucky) as they try to stay in school. Thousands of dollars can disappear into rent for a new apartment off campus, away from an abusive ex, or into bills for hours of much-needed counseling. When a school denies survivors the services and support they need to recover, students may be forced to take out additional loans — or even to leave school, a semester’s tuition down the drain.
These expenses are a heavy burden for middle class survivors and their families, and often simply beyond the reach of low-income students. For a student who lacks the means to swallow these costs, sexual violence might mean the end of her education. College’s Title IX failures, then, are a problem not only of gender inequality but of class.
Recognizing that problem, the Education Department this month announced that Princeton’s sexual assault policies violate anti-discrimination law, and that the school must reimburse victims for expenses resulting from its mistreatment. In doing so, the agency shed much-needed light on the financial costs of victimhood, a significant but overlooked burden of sexual violence. When schools fail to live up to their legal responsibilities to survivors, students pay. Literally.
Another example is a friend of mine I'll call Allison, who was told by her small northeastern college, in the middle of the fall 2011 semester, that she should leave campus until her abuser had graduated and return when it was safe to do so. This is a clear violation of Title IX, which requires schools to remove dangerous students and work with survivors to continue their educations. In the end, the evidence against her assailant proved strong enough to prompt him to withdraw before the school could expel him, but Allison was denied a refund on her tuition for her own lost semester. This is essentially a $19,000 fine for victimhood.
To understand the scope of the injustice students like Wanjuki and Allison face, we need to read not just their stories, but national surveys on dropout rates and financial hardship. The anecdotes I have heard, through the campus violence advocacy organization I co-direct, suggest that the “victimhood fine” these women paid is all too common.
Any attempt to calculate costs based on these stories will be speculative. Yet research on the costs of gender-based violence off our campuses is instructive for our attempts to approximate the economic impact on students. Medical care after a sexual assault cost victims an average of over $2,000, according to a 2003 CDC study, the last year from which data is available. More than one-fifth of working survivors lost days of paid work — and did so for the same reasons student survivors would miss classes (potentially enough to be forced to drop out). One in five of the roughly 10 million women enrolled in college, and a number of their male classmates, will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus. Let’s conservatively estimate that only one in 50 campus survivors loses one semester of tuition, which cost an average $5,150 in 2011-12. That puts a rough estimation of the cost of sexual violence to the students of a single national graduating class at nearly $2 billion.
Responding to public pressure, the Department of Education has begun naming universities for violating Title IX and requiring major overhauls of campus policy. The government should also address the financial burden that survivors carry, fulfilling the promise made federal guidance that students should not face penalties for gender-based violence. Taking Princeton as a starting point, it should require schools to return tuition when survivors like Allison are forced off campus by violence and university mistreatment. In its role overseeing student aid, the Department should also make sure interest on federal loans does not accrue when survivors leave campus because of sexual violence and institutional inaction.
Further, to make sure the financial cost of sexual assault never forces students out of school, the government should clarify the set of services schools are required to provide free of cost. While the department has explicitly required some accommodations, like free mental health services, it has yet to address similar needs like long-term medications for sexually transmitted infections.
For a few months now, Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz has carried her mattress around her campus as a symbol of the burden of victimhood. Part of the heaviness borne by survivors can be measured in dollars. And it’s time for schools to carry that weight.
Alexandra Brodsky is a student at Yale Law School, editor at Feministing.com, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national student campaign against campus gender-based violence.
Special To The Washington Post