As the California legislature reconvened this week, Assembly member Mike Gatto introduced AB 1433, which would amend the state education code to require that colleges report certain violent crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on or near campus to local law enforcement agencies.
As the California legislature reconvened this week, Assembly member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) introduced AB 1433, which would amend the state education code to require that colleges report certain violent crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on or near campus to local law enforcement agencies.
The bill includes an exemption for survivors who do not wish their assault to be reported to law enforcement and who wish to remain anonymous.
The legislation comes as sexual assault survivors on college campuses across the country have become increasingly vocal about the lack of support they have received from their institutions. As Rewire previously reported, the mishandling of sexual assaults is happening at large public universities and small private colleges alike, and victims are facing similar barriers to the legal system and to health-care and counseling services. Meanwhile, their assailants are facing few to no ramifications for their crimes.
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In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice, whose statistics show that one in four women attending college will be the victim of sexual assault before graduation, launched an initiative to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual assault on college campuses.
And in 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) published a letter stating that “sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination.” The letter goes on to note that if schools do not comply with laws regarding the reporting of “criminal conduct,” including sexual violence, that constitutes a violation of a student’s civil rights under Title IX.
Survivors and their advocates have also taken action. In early 2013, students at several colleges—including the University of Southern California, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, and the University of California, Berkeley—filed civil rights complaints with the Department of Education against their respective colleges for failure to properly respond to allegations of sexual assault.
Gatto told Rewire that he and his staff have been reading about high-profile incidents in which colleges did not act promptly or sweot the problem of sexual assault on campus under the rug. “I was horrified when I read these stories,” said Gatto.
One such story is that of Sofie Karasek, a junior at UC Berkeley, who told Rewire that in February 2012 she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. She later found out he had assaulted other students as well. In April of that year, four survivors, including Karasek, reported the incidents to the school’s administration. “They seemed concerned at first,” said Karasek. “But they didn’t seem like they had authority to hold him accountable.”
Karasek said that after reporting her incident she didn’t hear anything back from the administration until she reached out to them again in November, at which point she learned that the administration had found the student in violation of the school’s Code of Student Conduct, though he was still allowed to graduate early. She says she is jaded about how the university handled her sexual assault case. Furthermore, “I wanted to the university to be held accountable,” she said.
Karasek and the other survivors from her school were part of the group to file claims about civil rights violations with the Department of Education—claims that are still working their way through the system. In the meantime, Karasek says someone from Assembly member Gatto’s office contacted her to get her input on the new legislation.
“We gathered different public accounts, we talked with victims of these types of crimes, we talked with law enforcement, and we looked at existing law,” said Gatto. He found that the only legislation that regulates how colleges deal with violent crime on campus is the Clery Act, which requires schools to give statistics of crime on campus in a yearly report. “Reporting a statistic does nothing to solve a crime. Some schools were manipulating the statistics. We felt that involving professional law enforcement would probably be the best way to solve the problem,” he said.
Gatto said that based on Karasek’s feedback, he included the exemption for survivors who don’t want their stories reported to law enforcement. “There are times when someone might not trust police, someone might not want to undergo that ordeal, and many other reasons why someone wouldn’t want to involved law enforcement,” he said. “Listening to victims’ rights advocates made the law better.”
Karasek said the bill is just one step toward helping victims of sexual assault on campus. “Myself and other survivors are currently reaching out to compile a list of the best recommendations to address the needs of our community,” she said. Among those recommendations: more Title IX coordinators, more counselors, longer hours for health-care centers on college campuses, and rape kits provided by universities.
Karasek says she hopes AB 1433 will start a nationwide trend of similar legislation. With state laws, “we will be able to see what the best practices are,” said Karasek.”If there were federal legislation I hope that it would build upon work that has been done by each of the states, and be driven by survivor action to be able to fix this in the best possible way.”
#JustSaySorry is calling on current and prospective students as well as alumni to post on social media that they will withhold donations until those institutions do the bare minimum: “Issue an acknowledgment and apology to students who feel or have felt less valued and less safe because of the way they’ve responded to campus sexual assault.”
A survivor-led and -centered anti-sexual violence campaign kicks off Monday as the organizers and participants ask college and university administrations to #JustSaySorry for failing to protect their students.
Kamilah Willingham and Wagatwe Wanjuki, co-founders of Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture (SERC), launched #JustSaySorry as a way to call out administrations that often technically have policies in place to address sexual assault, but in reality hinder survivors’ healing by never fully (or even partially) accepting blame for their part. Survivors often receive a monthly reminder of that betrayal in the mail or via email, in the form of a student loan bill or school donation request. (Full disclosure: I recently launched a project on which Wanjuki is participating, unrelated to this campaign.)
According to the campaign press release, #JustSaySorry is calling on current and prospective students as well as alumni to post on social media that they will withhold donations until those institutions do the bare minimum: “Issue an acknowledgment and apology to students who feel or have felt less valued and less safe because of the way they’ve responded to campus sexual assault.”
“We want to educate the world about the power of apology and just how deep institutional betrayal hurts us,” Wanjuki told Rewire. “It will also show the true motivations of schools—do they care that survivors are carrying the weight of the harm they caused? Or were we just a number to them, despite what they claim in brochures attracting new students, wooing parents, and soliciting donations? No matter the outcome of the campaign, the true colors of schools will be revealed.”
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The campaign ignited with a Facebook livestream of Wanjuki setting literal fire to an item from Tufts University—the school that used a sudden drop in her GPA due to the trauma she experienced following her assault to expel her rather than support her after she reported her rapist. Six years after her Title IX complaint was filed, Tufts was found in violation of the federal gender parity in education statute for its mishandling of her case. Yet, the university continues to be silent on culpability, fueling ongoing trauma for Wanjuki. She’s set to burn as much Tufts gear as necessary to get its attention and solicit at least an apology.
“Schools have so much power over the course of our lives. When they refuse to support the most vulnerable in our society, they are not being the beacons of knowledge and nurturing that they claim to be. They are merely reinforcing the harms and inequalities that plague our communities,” Wanjuki told Rewire.
Willingham’s story was one of those chronicled in the powerful documentary The Hunting Ground. Still, Harvard’s administration continues to add insult to injury, so she has publicly called it out by name.
“Harvard Law already knew they were violating Title IX when I filed a complaint against them. And when they were eventually found in violation, they were forced to change the procedures through which they readmitted my assailant,” said Willingham.
For her, #JustSaySorry is a “common sense” campaign born out of the repeated disappointments that she and Wanjuki have experienced.
“My rapist just graduated while 19 of my former professors very publicly retaliated against me for speaking out,” she explained.
Willingham acknowledges that there’s no “easy fix” for that trauma, but every healing process needs a first step. She says the campaign will give survivors and allies a way to express their expectations while impressing upon administrations how hurt survivors are when their schools don’t respond appropriately or supportively.
While she concedes it’s possible that administrations who think they’re just protecting their schools might not realize they’ve done anything wrong, Willingham isn’t absolving them.
“Maybe there simply hasn’t been enough incentive for them to apologize,” Willingham said. “They don’t apologize for or acknowledge past failures, but we’re supposed to trust that they’re devoted to changing the administrative culture that has failed and hurt students survivors for so long? Nah. Sounds like institutional gaslighting to me. And gaslighting is an effective way to maintain control over the status quo in unbalanced relationships—which makes me think that schools won’t apologize as long as they think they can get away with it.”
Anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate using the hashtag, watch for on-fire livestreams, pledge a university-related item burning, publicly tell your school that you are diverting donations to #JustSaySorry until they apologize, and stay connected with the campaign for other actions and survivor stories. Survivors and allies will be encouraged to share their stories and create calls to action as the campaign evolves and picks up steam.
“I want to highlight and center the stories of the people who are largely overlooked by the media and society as a whole: the survivors of color, gender-nonconforming survivors, poor survivors, immigrant survivors, the ones who had to drop out of school, and the ones who have a low GPA,” Wanjuki told Rewire.
Both women know from their work on campuses nationwide that apologies have power. So many survivors fall through the cracks, so few administrations do the simplest thing to temper their trauma: apologize.
“I know it would mean the world to me if Tufts just acknowledged that I—someone they were supposed to have nurtured academically—felt discarded and betrayed,” said Wanjuki.
Willingham said she reported her assault because she had faith in the administration at Harvard—that with her assailant’s partial confession in writing it would be a straightforward process resulting in justice.
“Wagatwe and I are both very hurt by and very angry at our alma maters—and still struggling to heal from the trauma of sexual assault that was compounded and extended by institutional betrayal,” she said. “There’s no easy fix for that, but an apology would feel so nice. An apology might help relieve me of the burden of wanting to set fire to every student loan bill or fundraising mailer I get from my school.”
The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.
Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.
Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.
Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.
“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”
“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.
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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.
But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.
“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.
The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.
“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.
Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms
Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.
Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.
“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.
Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.
“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”
Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.
Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.
State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.
So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.
This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.
“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”
“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”
Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.
“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”
Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.
“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”
For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.
These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.
“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.
By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.
“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”
By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.
States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.
A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.
As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”