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 overseas.
Blalock, 20, a junior at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, will study 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 2018, 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 programs and activities regardless of gender, says that when a student returns from a study abroad program and begins the Title IX process, 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.
But 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, 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 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 creates a dangerous grey area for students 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 file sexual misconduct complaints may have to go through the process of proving that their college or university even has to take action, an action 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, 2019 and will review and consider them. The guidelines would not go into full effect until 2020, according to The Detroit Free Press.
“You should be protected just like if it occurred on campus”
Elena LeVan, 20, is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park. She said Title IX protections being limited to on-campus activities and housing could be “catastrophic.”
“To remove protections for all of those students for all of that time just because they’re abroad doesn’t make any sense,” LeVan said.
Nearly 333,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2016-2017 school year, the most up-to-date estimate according to the Institute of International Education.
LeVan said the experience of studying abroad can be intimidating enough.
“You’re going to be in new spaces. You’re going to be experiencing new things,” LeVan said. “It’s a scary enough experience as is.”
Nina Benites, 19, is a sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She said she is concerned that students who return from study abroad programs having experienced assault or harassment from a classmate might not get the accommodations they need to feel safe on campus.
“You should be protected just like if it occurred on campus,” Benites said. “If the school weren’t required to do anything when you’re coming back, that would be a really difficult educational experience.”
Neither Levan nor Benites have participated in a study abroad program, and they both said pursuing one under these guidelines would be a “more difficult” decision.
“I don’t know if I would feel as comfortable knowing that I don’t have the protections of the school,” LeVan said.
Grace Vedock, 20, a junior at Middlebury College, said the Title IX process can already be a challenge for students reporting sexual misconduct, and these guidelines could scare students from seeking help.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is the fact that lots of people already don’t trust the Title IX process. Plenty of victims of sexual assault don’t report for a variety of reasons — stigma, fear of reliving trauma or fear of their rapist being found not guilty by the school,” Vedock said. “The proposed reforms only intensify that distrust.”
Amanda Yannett, 21, a junior at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, also called on colleges and universities to take responsibility for the education and safety of their students on and off campus.
“The trauma of an assault does not disappear when a survivor returns to campus,” Yannett said.
What will students know before they go?
Benites said friends who have studied abroad told her they are concerned about what the rules mean for them, and she’s worried more students at Tufts and beyond will not understand what Title IX protections they can rely on in different programs.
“Many people have reached out to me with a lot of concern and confusion,” Benites said. “This would definitely affect so many people I know and care about.”
Ibrahim said this confusion – if the rules do go into effect – could make more American students and families wary of studying abroad.
“It just takes a few horrible stories about schools refusing to investigate sexual assaults that happened abroad for students to start choosing to stay home,” Ibrahim said.
Blalock learned about the guidelines shortly before leaving for Russia. She said she has started “building strong relationships” with fellow students and the coordinator of her program to create a support system , even though the guidelines are not expected to go into effect until next year.
“If Betsy DeVos will not hold my institution accountable to be that support system in the case of sexual violence, I will do my very best to ensure support for myself and my fellow students,” Blalock said.