In 2011, under the Obama administration, the Department of Education issued a "Dear Colleague" letter that stated, in plain language, that students had a right to an education free of sexual violence under Title IX — the law that protects students from discrimination based on gender in any federally funded education program. The guidance also outlined schools' responsibilities to prevent and address gender-based violence on campus. Later that same year, I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman. It didn't take long for me to realize that the university did not seem to take seriously some of those obligations.
At orientation, the only presentation that new students received on sexual violence — titled "Sexcapades" — was billed as a comedy show. The rape whistles we were later handed were useless in nearly any scenario but were especially inadequate to someone who was incapacitated, the most common context in which Johns Hopkins students experience sexual violence.
The institution's lackluster prevention tactics were no better than its response to actual allegations of sexual violence. In 2013, a gang rape was reported inside a fraternity house. The student body remained oblivious to the report — despite campus officials' legal obligations to disclose it — and hundreds continued to attend the fraternity's parties in the year that followed. More generally, the university also underreported incidents of sexual violence committed by students, which created a false sense of safety on campus for some. For others, it provided more proof that Johns Hopkins did not take seriously — and preferred to cover up — the reality of campus rape. In short, the legal right to an education free of sexual violence had gone unfulfilled for too many Johns Hopkins students.
For years, I worked with other students to encourage the administration to address this issue. But by early 2014, it had reneged on most of its promises. I was left with no choice but to help file a Title IX complaint against Johns Hopkins in order to prompt the Department of Education to investigate possible violations of the law. It was only after our complaint generated negative publicity that the university really began to correct how it dealt with sexual violence on campus. But today, the Trump administration's secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has threatened to weaken the very mechanisms that made those improvements a reality.
The Department of Education under Ms. DeVos has signaled plans to discontinue an Obama administration practice of publishing a list of institutions under investigation for potential violations of Title IX. Our complaint prompted the administration to investigate Johns Hopkins and include it on the list updated in August of 2014. It was in part because of that policy of transparency — which went into effect just weeks before we went public with our complaint — that Johns Hopkins had to take full responsibility for, and begin to correct, its own failures. Once its name appeared on the list, administrators could no longer ignore the problem.
Secretary DeVos might also rescind the Dear Colleague letter guidance that made students across the country aware of our civil right to learn in an environment free of sexual violence. The guidance made clear that institutions like Johns Hopkins were required to provide the accommodations survivors needed to remain on campus, to ensure fair processes for both parties and to adjudicate cases in a timely manner. Before the Dear Colleague letter was issued, survivors didn't know that they had those rights or were entitled to those resources, and so institutions routinely refused to provide them. The result, in many cases, was that students were left with no option but to drop out to avoid further harm.
Because of this guidance and our complaint, Johns Hopkins University now has a far more robust education program around sexual violence than it had when I started. It has centralized all of its resources for survivors, conducted a campus-wide climate survey, unveiled a new sexual misconduct policy and launched an advisory committee. To be sure, sexual violence still occurs at the university. But now, the campus is considerably more equitable and safe than it was just a few years ago.
We filed our complaint because we needed the Department of Education to enforce Title IX, not undermine it. But as we await its resolution, Secretary DeVos has made it clear she intends to weaken federal enforcement of protections for survivors. This would be an injustice to the students she's been entrusted to serve.
Eliza Schultz is a 2015 graduate of Johns Hopkins University; Twitter: @eliza_i_schultz.