As Title IX turns 50, sexual assault survivors say law is crucial but offers little help for victims | #Education



Warning: This article contains a description of sexual assault. The Chronicle only identifies victims with their consent.

Megan Hilliard suffered multiple panic attacks a day when she filed her Title IX complaint in August 2019.

Friends were siding with the fraternity member she accused of raping her after a party a year earlier; they said she was lying. Her physical and mental health started to fail. Taking a difficult leap, Hilliard brought a sexual violence claim to the Equal Opportunity Services office at the University of Houston in hopes of finding support and recourse.

“I was like, ‘Somebody has to believe me,’” she said of the September 2018 assault. “‘Somebody has to.’”

But her Title IX coordinator determined in March 2020 that there wasn’t enough proof that her assailant violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. The protection intended to ensure equal access to education became a painful precursor to Hilliard’s decision to drop out of UH, even as she still encourages other women to report their assaults.

The 22-year-old is in the camp of survivors who believe that the 50-year-old federal Title IX law that provides a framework for gender equity in education, is behind the times — incredibly necessary but lacking in its implementation.

While Title IX is best known for advancing women’s equity in collegiate athletics, a 1980 court ruling determined that sexual violence is also a form of discrimination that can prohibit educational access. In a 2011 letter, the U.S. Department of Education took a more definitive stance and affirmed that it could impose fines and deny future access to federal funds for schools that violate the law.

Each university or organization largely take it upon themselves to determine how they enforce Title IX, experts said. The sexual violence reporting process usually puts the onus on the victim to prove their case, revictimizing or sometimes resulting in their own punishment. Success is also relative. Even if they “win,” the assailant might remain on campus in some proximity to the survivor, or the victim may have already graduated or left the school.

“The process, as a whole, is difficult,” Hilliard said. “You should have more of a say in what happens.”

Hilliard said the process didn’t work for her. But filing the report helped her find her voice, and she’s continuing to use it – something Title IX helped made possible for her and millions of American women.

“At the end of the day, with all its flaws, we need a law like Title IX. It needs to exist, it needs to constantly be revisited for the way our understanding of sex and sexuality are shifting,” said Karma Chávez, a University of Texas professor who has aided several students through the reporting process. “But the devil is in the details.”

‘Impact’ of Title IX

At the University of Houston, only a tiny percentage of reports make it to the formal investigation process.

Between January 2020 and June 2021, the school received 407 sexual violence reports and conducted seven formal Title IX investigations, according to university data. Three resulted in student disciplinary sanctions, one resulted in employee sanctions and three cases were pending at the time of the university’s reporting.

The hundreds of other reports went through a preliminary investigation, the data shows. Most of them involved an unidentified assailant or complainant. For some, the university cited insufficient information to investigate or the complainant’s request that no formal investigation take place.

The University of Houston declined to comment on Hilliard’s case, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The university commended the milestone of Title IX, adding that it takes all sexual misconduct reports seriously, as well as its obligation to ensure due process for all parties. It provides each side advisers, resources, counseling and accommodations. It also conducts a thourough investigation and has an independent hearing panel.

“We recognize the process is not easy on any person involved, and we provide supportive resources throughout. Clearly, there are competing perspectives in these types of matters and the parties are often left feeling disenfranchised and frustrated because of the particularly sensitive and personal nature of the matters involved,” according to a statement from the university. “Ultimately, we are incredibly mindful of the impact that the Title IX process can have on the UH community and work to ensure that we comply with the law while also maintaining a culture of care and safety in our community members’ living, learning and working environment.”

Several scholars who study Title IX said that universities generally shape their investigation practices to protect themselves. R. Shep Melnick, a professor of American politics at Boston College, said that the 37-word law leaves room for universities to implement them how they choose. Many times, they don’t take a harder line for fear of lawsuits, he said.

“They face a danger of litigation on both sides, and they face the problem of adverse public opinion on both sides,” said Melnick, who wrote the book “The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in Education.”

Megan Hilliard, 22, sits for a portrait at her home in Houston, Thursday, June 2, 2022. Hilliard is a former University of Houston student who filed a Title IX complaint about an alleged sexual assault after a party her freshman year. The trauma affected her health, and she dropped out in spring 2020. She lost her Title IX case.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

“They’re squeezed,” he said.

Ann Olivarius, one of the plaintiffs whose 1977 lawsuit against Yale University led to the inclusion of sexual violence as a violation of Title IX, said she has time and time again seen universities make the problem go away to the detriment of the victim. Current regulations prioritize the due process of the accused over the experience of the survivor, she said.

“The problem, I think, fundamentally, is the educational institution’s interests have got to be aligned with the victims’ interests,” said Olivarius, now a lawyer representing victims in their own Title IX cases. “Right now, they’re not.”

‘I felt unsafe’

A new college freshman, Hilliard showed up to a fraternity party on Sept. 20, 2018, where she noticed people making out on the dance floor and young men chugging liter-sized beers.

The fraternities felt like royalty, she said. Before speaking to a girl, pledges had to bow and kiss their hands. It was flattering.

Like many people there, Hilliard said she was drunk by the end of the night. She said goodbye to her sorority friends and went home with an older pledge, feeling dazed in the Uber and later in an unfamiliar apartment. They began to kiss, but when Hilliard asked him to use a condom, he got angry and said they were for “nasty people,” she remembers.

Hilliard said she tried to sleep, but suddenly felt the pledge straddling her, his legs on her arms and forcing oral sex. Drowsy and terrified, she said she didn’t have the physical strength to fight him. He also forced vaginal sex, she said.

On two other occasions that fall, Hilliard said the same man assaulted her – once by exposing himself at another party and a second time groping her at a football tailgate.

A month after the first assault, she told her roommate about what occurred, she said. She struggled mentally, and her longtime doctor expressed concern when they saw her in summer 2019, Hilliard said.

She began telling more people about the rape. When Hilliard filed the Title IX complaint, her assailants’ fraternity brothers and her own sorority sisters began intimidating her, she said, urging her not to come forward or accusing her of lying.

Hilliard said her Title IX coordinator only granted no-contact orders against two of those fraternity brothers when they requested protection themselves, despite her asking for one previously. That felt like a backwards, cruel punishment, she said. She meanwhile found a little support through the women’s center at UH, but barely through her friends or anyone else.

“It didn’t ever feel like (the coordinator) was on my side,” Hilliard said. “I felt unsafe through the entire process.”

Megan Hilliard, 22, embraces her cat Cartier at her home in Houston, Thursday, June 2, 2022. Hilliard is a former University of Houston student who filed a Title IX complaint about an alleged sexual assault after a party her freshman year. The trauma affected her health, and she dropped out in spring 2020. She lost her Title IX case.
Megan Hilliard, 22, embraces her cat Cartier at her home in Houston, Thursday, June 2, 2022. Hilliard is a former University of Houston student who filed a Title IX complaint about an alleged sexual assault after a party her freshman year. The trauma affected her health, and she dropped out in spring 2020. She lost her Title IX case.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

She navigated the system mostly by herself, and eventually EOS returned its findings: It couldn’t determine by a preponderance of the evidence that the fraternity brother subjected her to sexual assault, sexual intimidation, or non-consensual sexual contact.

Hilliard received copies of EOS’ collected evidence and saw her witness’ comments. The accused student flatly denied ever assaulting her. (His attorney declined to comment for this article.) Hilliard’s roommate said that her friend told her about the condom incident but said she “engaged in sexual intercourse anyway.” Two other witnesses she told about the rape said she never described coercive conduct or force.

The accounts were too conflicting for Hilliard’s case to be successful, according to the Title IX office.



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