Recently, I've felt like I can’t even glance at my social media newsfeeds without a story of sexual assault on campus smacking me straight in the face.
With Lizzy Seeberg’s case being ignored by the administration at Notre Dame, Landen Gambill’s federal complaint against the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Dana Bolger’s activism after her assault at Amherst, and Audrie Pott’s suicide after her high school classmates savagely assaulted her while she was unconscious, it saddens me to say that the filing of a Title IX lawsuit against a Michigan public school this week by the National Women’s Law Center (my employer) and a Michigan law firm for failing to address a student’s sexual assault didn’t surprise me at all.
Instead, news of the case only cemented the fact that this is not a new problem, and that high school and college administrations don’t take the threat of assault seriously enough.
In the Michigan case, a high school girl was sexually assaulted, and after one of her teachers notified the principal, the school did virtually nothing. The school ignored its Title IX obligations (schools receiving federal funds must not discriminate on the basis of sex) to investigate the assault and protect the student and left the attacker in one of her classes for two and a half weeks; refusing to switch him out of the class for that period of time. Can you imagine trying to learn trigonometry or the specifics of the French Revolution when your attacker is sitting a few seats away from you? Well, she couldn’t either, and for those two and a half weeks she spent that class period sitting in the school counselor’s office, rather than receiving instruction.
The attacker and his friends verbally and physically harassed the student and the school still did nothing, even though the student’s parents brought it to the attention of administrators and the school’s Title IX Coordinator, according to the lawsuit. Even after the attacker was found guilty of his assaults of two students and was sentenced to attend Kent County’s Adolescent Sexual Offender Treatment Program, the only sanction the school imposed was temporarily benching him from the basketball team.
The case in Michigan has elements that ring true for all of these tales of assault in schools. In Amherst, a former student submitted an essay for the school paper detailing how poorly the school treated her after her rape. In Notre Dame, Seeburg committed suicide ten days after reporting the attack, and after friends of the accused text-messaged her with warnings “not to mess” with Notre Dame football. The school essentially ignored the case, not even investigating the attacker until five days after her death. He never even sat out a game. Gambill was charged with violating UNC’s Honor Code for creating an “intimidating environment” for a student whom she said raped her, even though she didn’t name him in any of her statements. Audrie Pott experienced the trauma of her attackers taking photos on their cell phones of the assault and sending them around — the photos went viral around the student body. Pott’s parents have accused the school district administrators of being negligent. And this isn’t just an American problem — 17-year-old Canadian student Rehtaeh Parsons hung herself recently after an alleged rape and months of bullying by her classmates.
Some of these instances demonstrate obliviousness by the school administrations, and some are tales of straight-up ignoring the problem and deciding it isn’t as important as winning a game or the reputation of the school. Our culture of allowing for excuses in rape — “she was asking for it” or “look at the way she was dressed” – and our idolatry of high school and college athletes combined with our “boys will be boys” attitude about young men must change. Title IX is an amazing law with lots of protections for students who are raped or assaulted, but laws mean nothing if our schools ignore their responsibilities to uphold them.