CMU must make Title IX resources more accessible

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In March 2016, I found myself moving out of my first-year dorm, against my desires, because I believed it was the only thing I could do to feel safe again. It has taken me three years since then to fully understand the complicated layers of the events that led me to move out. I believe that Carnegie Mellon could have done a lot more to help me understand how I had been victimized and abused.

As it turns out, I was involved in a case of domestic violence and stalking my first year that I would only begin to understand much later, when my abuser reentered my life. Back then, I knew that I was scared, but I did not understand that I was being abused. Abuse comes in many forms, and it can sometimes be much harder to recognize when you are being manipulated. My perceptions also depended so much on how others reacted to my situation. When my roommate and I told our housefellow that we felt unsafe around my abuser — he continued to show up wherever we were — our housefellow told us that he could not make him move but that we could move if we needed to. This response twisted my own understanding of the situation, and I blamed myself for everything. We loved our first-year floor, and the individuals who had been our very first and closest college friends. We reluctantly packed up our suitcases in the middle of the semester and trudged across campus into an enormous building of over 600 upperclassmen residents.

It is important to understand that the situation I was involved in is not unique. In March 2018, the findings from Carnegie Mellon’s second “Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Study” (SARV) were released to the community, the second study of its kind here. Focusing on undergraduates, the response rate of this study was 29.5 percent. In this sample, 25.8 percent of women, 7.9 percent of men, and 22.9 percent of non-binary students reported experiencing completed sexual assault. Additionally, the same study found that 21.7 percent of women, 18.7 percent of men, and 17.1 percent of non-binary students reported experiences indicative of relationship violence. These results are not significantly different from the results of the 2015 version of the same study, so it is clear sexual assault and relationship violence at Carnegie Mellon are not becoming any less of a problem.

As time passed, I buried my experiences deep and never really stopped to think much about them. In fact, it was too painful for me to think about. Over the coming months, I was supported by a therapist in Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS), my housefellow, and my friends, and I began to feel safe again. I worked as an RA and received some training on mandatory reporting with cases of sexual assault and relationship violence. I learned how to refer other students to Title IX. However, I still could not understand my own situation as abuse, and what I learned was not enough to help me deal with my own very real situation. I forgot about my abuser entirely, and I really never saw him around campus again until the fall semester of my senior year.

When my abuser began to show up at a regular event I was running, I expressed my feelings of discomfort to my advisors. I was told yet again that there was nothing they could do to make him leave the groups, but that I could take a backseat on the event I had created and stop attending. This response further altered my understanding of the situation, but two-and-a-half years later, I finally recognized that something was not right. This was the second time I was being forced to accommodate my abuser. I spent many months trying to understand this, and I had many conversations with faculty and staff that never led to any results. Finally, when unexpectedly telling my story to another housefellow this year, he suggested that I go to the Title IX office. This was the first time in two-and-a-half years that I recognized myself as a victim. This was the first time I understood that it was not my fault and that Title IX could be a resource for the things that were happening to me.

For a long time, I thought that maybe my story had changed over the years as I told it, and that was why other faculty and staff had failed to refer me to Title IX for so long. I thought that I had failed to make it clear to others that I had been abused since I, for so long, could not fully articulate it myself. But when I look back now, I know that is not true. My story was always the same. The stalking and the violence were right on the surface. The fact that my voice was not being heard was further reinforcing my own beliefs that it was all my fault. When I look back at all the people who failed to support me, I feel deeply saddened. There is no anger, no desire for condemnation or consequences; only sadness. Sadness for these faculty and staff who I know to be deeply good people, but who are still failing to support victims on our campus. Sadness for the students whose voices I fear are not being heard.

The 2017 SARV study additionally reports that between 38.1 percent to 49 percent of students do not tell anyone at Carnegie Mellon about their assault experiences. 14 to 23 percent did not report because they did not know how, but between 8 to 18 percent did not report because they thought they would not be believed, and between 3 to 20 percent did not report because it was too traumatic to talk about. It is clear that our students need support, now more than ever.

I want to protect my fellow students. I want you to feel comfortable reporting situations of abuse right away, and I want you to be heard the first time you tell your story. I believe our faculty and staff have an obligation to us. I believe they should have the training and knowledge to recognize abuse and refer victims to the right resources. Both students and faculty are failing to recognize abusive situations because they are not well educated on the reality of these situations. The bottom line is that peers and faculty/staff need to become better at recognizing abuse.

I believe I was lucky. Despite a long, emotional process, I ultimately received the support I needed through our Title IX office. I also believe that they are trying to improve. In fact, Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Week is currently underway, and Title IX is partnering with many organizations across campus to educate students and raise awareness on these issues.

However, I also see a lot of holes in my education. I believe Title IX has many other great resources in place that are being under-advertised, under-taught, and consequently under-utilized. Unfortunately, most of the Title IX education during orientation involves consent. While this is extremely important, it is a small fraction of the education young 17-year-olds should be receiving when entering college for the first time. I believe we need to make enormous improvements in how we educate students during orientation and throughout their first year. Students need to learn from the moment they arrive on campus about what abusive situations look like, using scenarios and behavioral signs, and the specific resources Title IX provides. They should be told up front, before the abuse ever happens, what it looks like to place themselves in such a vulnerable scenario as reporting. Just as importantly, our campus faculty and administrators need to become more comfortable learning and talking about these issues, so that they can properly recognize situations and support students. It is even more important as we move forward that our faculty support our victims, as the reforms in the U.S. Department of Education Title IX become our new reality.

These reforms reverse the progress our government had made under the Obama administration in supporting victims, as they loosen the university’s requirements to respond to sexual assault and relationship violence. While the university used to be in violation of Title IX when they did not respond to situations they should have reasonably known about, soon they will only be required to respond when multiple reports of the same person are made to our campus Title IX office. These reforms only further silence the voices of our victims. We need our faculty and staff to stand up for us now.

As for that housefellow who first directed me to Title IX, I will forever be grateful for how he empowered me and helped me find my voice. I hope that the students that come after me can more easily find the validation and support that he gave me.