Despite claims of being “trauma-informed,” AU’s Title IX Office does not contextualize sexual assault and fails to provide proper support to victims.
Content warning: this article contains descriptions of sexual assault, stalking, threats, and abuse that may be disturbing to some readers. Like all Agora articles, this is an opinion piece reflecting the views of the author.
University policy often neglects context. But creating solutions based on an oversimplification can exacerbate the problem while allowing the administration to point to their work and say they have met their duty of care.
I am a survivor of domestic violence. When I was a sophomore in high school, I dated a guy who would emotionally, mentally, sexually, and physically abuse me throughout our relationship and after. When I left for the final time in May 2021, he texted me, “I just want to kill you. Keep you forever,” and told me that if he saw me dancing with my prom date he would “kill everyone” on prom night.
My high school took swift action and banned him from any school events through the end of the year. I went through the courts and obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) after sitting in a room alone for five hours, joining zooms and detailing everything I could remember about his behavior and his property: his texts, emails, hysterical snapchats to my younger sister, threats of suicide, guns in his household, and the make and model of his father’s truck. I was shaking by the end, but the TRO was granted pending the completion of my trial for a Final Restraining Order (FRO). It was bizarre — in the aftermath — to go home and still have schoolwork to complete by 11:59pm. I was a senior in high school. No one should have had to experience this at such a young age.
I hired an attorney, who cost $3,500 to retain. After leaving work in the middle of my shift to speak with her, she informed me that it would be difficult to secure an FRO but that we could negotiate a Civil Restraint, which was a contract with similar language to the FRO only with less severe legal consequences for my abuser. After negotiations, I dismissed the case against him on the condition that he would adhere to the Civil Restraint.
This is my context.
American University’s Title IX office claims to be trauma-informed, but I have seen no evidence of that. I am a sophomore at AU now. Over the course of my freshman year, I was the victim of threats against my safety and life. Yet most of the Title IX staff was outright apathetic or hostile towards me.
The process of speaking to Title IX for me began towards the end of February. I was informed July 13th that my live hearing, which is one of the final steps in the process, was automatically scheduled for the end of July at 9am EST, when I would be in California with my family for vacation. I recognized the scheduling conflict and emailed July 15th to ask about the process of rescheduling. I did not want to face someone who had made me terrified to step out of my dorm room during a time when I would have no privacy, and was supposed to be enjoying time with my family. I was emailed by someone at the Title IX Office and told that the hearing “cannot be rescheduled.” Expecting I was being told the truth, I began the process of emailing with my advisor about what questions and statements could be made in my absence. I received an email from another staffer in the Title IX Office on July 25th, who essentially accused me of wasting the time of the Title IX Office. They said, “You were informed on July 13 of the date of the hearing and did not work with our office to address any concerns you might have about the date of the hearing.” I responded, sending them a screenshot of my email in which I was told Title IX would be unable to reschedule the hearing. I was then chastised for my reason for rescheduling being a vacation, for not providing them with an end date to my vacation, and for apparently signaling that I had "disengaged from the process."
According to Title IX, a victim interviewing, emailing for updates throughout the five-month investigation period, multiple rescheduling attempts, and collaborating with their advisor to prepare statements for the hearing is a signal of “disengagement.” According to Title IX, making victims feel guilty for putting their mental health first is a response that is “trauma-informed.” Aside from it being simply untrue that I disengaged from the process, if Title IX personnel were truly “trauma-informed,” they should understand that it is common for victims to be hesitant, frightened, or conflicted about facing their attacker. Victims are already putting themselves in a vulnerable position when they lay out the malicious acts against them. If Title IX is supposed to be a safeguard against sexual violence, they should be compassionate and encouraging to all parties to increase participation in the process without adding to the distress of the victim. AU’s Title IX Office failed me, and they continue to fail other victims.
This is my context.
On October 31st, AU students received the first email about a sexual assault in Leonard Hall, which the university referred to as an incident, after a concerned parent had posted on the AU Parents’ Facebook page. The investigation sparked conversations about sexual assault on campus, with survivors coming forward to share their stories with the hopes to protect others and spread awareness. It was inspiring to have so many people step forward publicly to talk about their experiences, and, when I shared my story, I was comforted by the number of people who messaged me to send strength and support. The outpouring of stories in posts and private messages were devastating. Victims I talked to also felt abandoned or failed by the AU Title IX office. This community of victims was not organically formed. We sought solace from those in our AU community that were forced to understand our position, as they had lived through it as well. The AU Title IX Office failed to present us with an avenue for healing otherwise. I hate that shared trauma is what it took for me to connect with these women, and I was hurt by their hurting. But regardless, the community I found with these other victims proves to me the importance of sharing one's story.
This is my story.
I was raped in my freshman dorm room on December 7th, 2021, when I was intoxicated and could not consent. My rapist was someone I had trusted — someone I had considered to be a good guy. He lived on my floor, and he was part of my friend group. When I woke up the next morning, with tear-stained cheeks and blood in my underwear, I felt confused and betrayed.
I confided in the girls on my floor, and tried to reconcile with my rapist. It felt awkward to not forgive him. I did not want to cause tension amongst our friend group. But when I found out he had been lying to our floormates to turn them against me, while taking full responsibility for his actions to my face, I was devastated. I cut contact with him, and I anticipated my friends would be disgusted with his behavior. Yet some of my friends were planning on rooming with him for the next academic year. They decided against living with him, but it took me recounting my rape in detail half a dozen times to prove its legitimacy, despite having confession texts from my rapist. My girl friends I expected more of. They were my closest friends at AU, and they were self-proclaimed feminists. Yet they reminisced about what a nice guy he was to me, and still thought of him first when we needed rescuing after a night out. He was still their white knight. His reputation had not been tarnished, after all. American University’s policies failed me, but so did its students. If students cannot demand a change in the culture, the policies supporting that culture will never change.
I was accused by the Title IX Office of disengaging with the process. The reality is, victims are the only people who do not get to disengage. They have to live with the burden, and they are charged with the responsibility of obtaining justice for themselves. If they do not go through all the proper steps to advocate for their case, then they do not get to feel indignant about any injustice they endure. They have to be survivors.
I have already been a survivor. It’s exhausting. In April 2022, my abuser from high school violated the Civil Restraint by attempting contact through Snapchat twice. I emailed my attorney, and after recovering from COVID, I refiled for a TRO. It was granted, and my trial was set for a week later, where I would come face to face with him after over a year. I faced him with my mother and attorney by my side, while he was alone. I answered my attorney’s questions and listened to my abuser’s testimony. When my attorney cross examined him, she asked first if he considered himself the victim. He answered yes with conviction. The judge ruled that he was a danger and ruled in favor of the FRO. I left triumphant, but also infuriated. I was a victim, and a survivor. The court gave me the proper channels to seek justice, and rewarded me for my participation.
I have never filed a Title IX case against my rapist at AU. I am rightfully disillusioned by the Title IX Office. They do not seek justice; they do not protect victims; they resolve the cases with the lowest possible sanctions to protect the university from legal ramifications from either party.
But who protects the victims? American University’s Student Conduct Code has added policies that actively harm victims. The Student Conduct Code is revised annually, and this year the following clause has been added:
“Recognized student organizations, including but not limited to fraternities, sororities, and club sports, are prohibited from investigating or taking any disciplinary action related to alleged violations of the Student Conduct Code, Title IX Sexual Harassment Policy, and/or the Discrimination and Non-Sexual Misconduct Policy.”
The implications of this clause is that no organization is allowed to independently expel or punish a member who they suspect has raped, assaulted, stalked, or otherwise violated a peer at American University, even if the victim is also in that organization. It is reasonable for American University students to ask their school to protect their mental and bodily integrity, especially on campus.
I am tired. I am 19 and I know that I am supposed to be the world's next change maker, radiating potential and drive. But I am too young, much too young, to be carrying all this burden. To try to heal myself from my own trauma, and simultaneously try to figure out how to reform the system to help other victims. How to reform policy that is touted as a protection, but that I have never felt protected by.
American University claims to be trauma-informed, but American University’s Title IX Office actively works against victims. The administration needs to analyze with scrutiny the Title IX policies and how they are implemented at AU and make the necessary changes to improve conditions for victims. As it stands, American University is complicit in the cycle of violence and erasure that sexual assault victims experience. Without avenues of actual justice, the experience is all-consuming. The feelings of rage, guilt, and betrayal are debilitating, without any form of genuine recourse. Victims deserve a process that works for and with them, and AU has an obligation to provide that.
Kimberly Kraska is second-year CLEG major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a Deputy Editor for the American Agora.
Image courtesy Caroline Riedel, with permission.