I was retraumatized by my school after reporting sexual assault. ERA became my backbone.

September 25. 2020
By Isha Khanzode, ERA student client

Isha’s Story

Throughout the past year and a half, a blind search for justice after sexual assault has revealed itself to me as a Sisyphean process: a constant pushing of a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down when it reaches the top. At the very least, I’m lucky the boulder hasn’t crushed me on its multiple trips back down the hill like it has with other student survivors of sexual violence.

The forces that put me in that boulder-pushing place, however, have forever tainted my view of the “justice” system. I thought that after being the victim of a crime, there would be proper channels for justice and retribution for me, but I’ve learned that is often not the case when it comes to sexual assault. There are paths to justice, but they are often blocked by unnecessary barriers of resistance. A good path forward is hard to find, especially when so many are laden with institutional incompetence.

I found Equal Rights Advocates, who became my backbone throughout the rest of the first investigation and through all of the second investigation.

Going through a Title IX case at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) was not as restorative as I thought it would be. I had some trust in my art institute that it would support me and clearly see the wrongs that were committed against me, but I was also wary because I’d heard of how many Title IX cases are mishandled in general — my institution included. Keeping that in mind, I decided to take my chances, but right away those chances did not look good. The language the investigator used during my interviews about the sexual assault was heavily victim-blaming and not trauma-based. During a phone call interview, the investigator asked, “how come you didn’t act like a victim of sexual assault?” which made me question myself. In hindsight, I think that was the intent. Broad questions intended to make the survivor second-guess themselves are unfortunately commonplace in sexual assault investigations.

These interactions with the investigator ultimately slowed down my ability to heal and negatively impacted my mental health. While I sent some strongly worded emails to my school’s Title IX team about how I was treated, the general response was that what happened during the investigator’s interview was simply part of the procedure, and the institute could not control what the investigator asked. If the institute cannot control the language used during its own investigations, then what can it control? Their lack of control ends up becoming another guise for ignorance.

The same excuse of ignorance has been heavily employed in how the second investigation was conducted. Yes, there was another one. The second investigation started because of a complaint about an art show my friend and I created to document the healing process from our similar traumatic experiences. The person who sexually assaulted me made a complaint about the show, claiming it was retaliatory.

So now having to navigate a retaliation claim, I decided that I really needed to find pro-bono legal counsel, which was another feat in and of itself. After jumping through many hoops, I found Equal Rights Advocates, who became my backbone throughout the rest of the first investigation and through all of the second investigation. With their help, the first investigation was appealed and a new investigator was instated. The person who assaulted me chose to leave the school before the new investigation could start, but the retaliation investigation kept going for almost a year even while the assailant was not enrolled. So going through a second investigation just felt like another punishment from my school, especially as they backed the assailant’s complaint of retaliation while at the same time treating my initial sexual assault complaint with little regard.

Title IX is not perfect, especially when schools so badly botched the process like mine did. But hopefully one takeaway is clear: No one should ever have to go through a Title IX case as dehumanizing as mine. Instead, survivors should be given the help they need to push that unforgiving boulder into its place, permanently. Equal Rights Advocates can help make that happen.

Learn more about our free legal services available to student survivors of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender-based discrimination.

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