When Darbi Goodwin reported her rape by a high school classmate in 2014, school officials told her: “There’s nothing we can do for you,” the 18-year-old recalled in an interview with the Guardian. Of her alleged rapist, she said they added: “We know him and he would never do something like that.”
If Trump’s education department follows through with its rollbacks of Obama-era sexual assault protections, more students may hear the same. The White House’s planned cuts will hamstring the monitoring and investigation of complaints such as Goodwin’s, as the capacity to coordinate across incidents “will be greatly diminished”, according to budget documents for fiscal year 2018.
A 2017 graduate of Pennridge high school in Pennsylvania, Goodwin is the plaintiff in a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by the National Women’s Law Center on her behalf. Goodwin alleges she was raped by a classmate in the parking lot of a local restaurant on 17 December 2014, when she was 15.
After she reported the incident, authorities did nothing to protect her from ongoing intimidation at school, according to the complaint the Law Center filed against the school district and two of her high school administrators in May.
“They don’t understand how to deal with it and they don’t want to deal with it,” Goodwin said of school authorities. “I was making everyone’s lives more difficult because I came forward and was talking about something so taboo.”
Conversations with her classmates went worse. “I was asked a lot if it was a rape or a ‘rape rape’,” she said. “I stopped talking to pretty much everyone.”
School superintendent Jacqueline A Rattigan declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Some see a pattern in administrators’ sweeping sexual harassment under the rug. Goodwin’s is not the first suit filed by the Law Center against the Pennridge school district this year – in January, Modupe Williams contended the school did nothing about an onslaught of racial and sexual slurs she reported to them.
Such recurrence underscores why systemic investigations are essential to understanding the full context of the campus sexual assault problem, according to Law Center attorney Alexandra Brodsky, who represents several women taking action against the district.
“We’ve heard from Pennridge alumni who graduated decades ago that the school treated them just like they treated Darbi and our other clients,” she said, adding that if the education department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigated students’ mistreatment as isolated incidents, the agency would miss the larger problem.
That, however, is precisely what Trump’s education department is poised to do, as part of an ongoing attack on protections for campus sexual assault survivors.
In department budget documents this spring, the administration acknowledged that newly proposed cuts to OCR would hamper the office, reducing staff there by more than 40 employees.
“OCR must make difficult choices,” the budget document says. “OCR’s enforcement staff will be limited in conducting onsite investigations and monitoring, and OCR’s ability to achieve greater coordination and communication regarding core activities will be greatly diminished.”
And last month, an internal memo obtained by ProPublica revealed plans to loosen existing requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints, including ones for campus sexual assault survivors.
Under Obama-era protections, such complaints would typically prompt broader questioning into whether the incidents fit a larger pattern of discrimination or mistreatment. Now the department will seek to determine patterns “only” if systemic concerns are clearly apparent or if it is called for explicitly by the investigative team. Specifically, civil rights investigators will no longer be asked to seek three years’ worth of complaint data from schools or school districts in question, as they had previously, to ascertain they are operating within civil rights law.
Federal officials cast the change as a move toward efficiency. The press secretary for the department, which was contacted for comment for this story, told ProPublica at the time the memo surfaced: “Enforcement instructions seek to clear out the backlog while giving every complaint the individualized and thorough consideration it deserves.”
But critics fear it will narrow the office’s mission and kick responsibility to regional offices.
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