How Colleges Are Supporting Students Leaving Abusive Relationships

Students walking to class on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Berkeley offers support for students experiencing intimate-partner violence. Photo by Kirkikis/iStock.

Relationship violence threatens not only students’ physical safety and emotional well-being, but also their academic prospects. Some campuses are finding solutions to help keep survivors in school.

Ana Blanco looked up from her hospital bed at the police officer. Her legs were bandaged, and stung with pain.  She tried to focus on what he was saying.  Did she want to file a restraining order against her husband?

Blanco had just told the officer how, on the way home from her college psychology class, her husband had ordered her out of the truck and then begun driving away as she tried to remove her school bag. She had been dragged about 20 feet, broken her toe and torn the skin from her legs.

“You could have died,” Blanco remembers the officer saying. 

Blanco recovered from her injuries and left her husband, but a lack of protections and allowances from her college for students experiencing domestic violence meant her ex was able to take something even more lasting from her: Her ability to graduate. 

She had been three months away from graduating from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

Nearly half of college women in intimate relationships report experiencing violent and abusive behaviors from their partners, according to information compiled by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In fact, college and high-school age women and girls are almost three times more likely than other age groups and genders to experience violence at the hands of a current or former partner, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse, statistics show. However, anyone can be a victim of relationship abuse, including men and those in LGBTQ relationships. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced sexual or physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people experience interpartner violence for the first time before the age of 25.

Yet, even when they report violence to authorities or school officials, many California students who are victims of violence aren’t given the support or resources they need to continue their educations. Brenda Adams, a senior staff attorney with the San Francisco-based gender justice organization Equal Rights Advocates, said her office regularly hears from students—particularly students of color and those at community colleges—who complain schools didn’t take their cases seriously or provide adequate support.

“There’s just a fundamental lack of understanding” among school officials, Adams says. “[It] results in a poor response that harms these victims even further, pushes them out of school, actively silences them, and ultimately denies them their rights to equal access to education.”

Federal law requires schools and universities that receive government funding to prevent gender-based violence and harassment, and address the needs of survivors so they can continue their education. Survivors have the right to file complaints with the school against their abusers, receive counseling and tutoring, and get special accommodations such as extra time to complete their school work. 

Financial fallout

Blanco desperately wanted to finish her degree. She was so close. For four years, she’d worked hard, earned high grades, and taken out thousands of dollars in student loans with hope that having a bachelor’s degree would get her a better job. But after the car incident, Blanco’s concentration and grades dropped. She was anxious and in pain. Her husband continued to threaten her, even after she left with their 4-year-old child to live with her parents. She repeatedly had to miss classes to attend court proceedings as she sought a restraining order and pressed charges. 

“It was intense,” says Blanco. “I couldn’t even think.

Blanco reported her troubles to the university’s victim advocate, but says she received little help. At first, she was given extra time to complete work for her classes, but when she couldn’t finish the semester’s work Blanco says she was told she’d have to pay thousands of dollars more in tuition to retake the classes and finish her degree. She says the university also did nothing to protect her when her ex-husband harassed her on campus.

Ana Blanco, center, with her family at her graduation from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. After escaping a violent relationship, Blanco had to stop attending classes because of a lack of support from the college, she said. She finally graduated in May 2017 and has worked as an advocate for other survivors.

According to a written statement provided by the university, students, faculty or staff members can report abuse to the university Title IX Coordinator, and are urged to call 911, university public safety or a Pacific Victim Advocate.”University of the Pacific is committed to preventing domestic violence and encourages students to report all incidents,” the statement reads. “Pacific is focused on creating and maintaining a safe, supportive, and responsive environment for all members of the campus community.” Because the university does not discuss individual student cases due to privacy laws, according to spokesperson Liam Connolly, he did not provide comment. 

Relationship violence threatens not only students’ physical safety and emotional wellbeing, but also their academic prospects. Students who experience abuse may be so distraught or distracted that they struggle to complete assignments, sit through exams and attend classes, survivors and experts said. Some may decide to delay their studies or even drop out of school, upending their career dreams and chances for economic success. Many also face financial consequences because sinking grades or dropped classes can lead to the loss of scholarships or financial aid, or forfeited tuition payments, advocates said.

“I’ve had students and survivors say to me they have a very difficult time even being on campus,” said Mari Knuth-Bouracee, director of the PATH to Care Center at U.C. Berkeley, which provides assistance to survivors of interpartner violence. “For some students it may be difficulty concentrating. For others it may be fear of seeing or running into the person that caused them harm or violence. All of those situations are ones that create obstacles and barriers.”

Some Campuses Find Solutions

Recent changes to federal guidelines under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have clarified that dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking are a form of sexual misconduct under Title IX, the almost 50-year-old law that prohibits sex discrimination in programs that receive federal funding.  However, the new rules also reduce the obligation of colleges to investigate complaints, and require trial-like investigation proceedings in which victims are cross-examined. Advocates for survivors fear this will further deter victims from seeking helpDeVos has said the rules aim to restore balance to the investigation process, and protect the rights of the accused as well as the accuser.

Equal Rights Advocates is among several organizations suing the Trump administration over the new rules. 

“The Department of Education has made it clear that its primary goal is to save money, not to help students,” Adams said in a statement. “Rather than addressing the problem of rampant sexual violence in our schools, Sec. DeVos instead chose to ‘solve’ the problem by restricting the number of complaints that can be filed and investigated.”

While many of California’s community colleges and smaller universities do not provide enough help to violence victims, advocates said, several larger universities have improved support for survivors in recent years. The University of California launched Campus Assault Resources and Education, or CARE, offices across all of its campuses in 2015. Advocates in these offices provide emotional support to students, walk them through legal reporting processes, link them to medical and other resources, and help them secure academic accommodations.

Students struggling with their coursework can request extra time, switch to taking classes online instead of in-person, and ask to drop or retake classes,  Knuth-Bouracee says. Her 12-person team at U.C. Berkeley also works to help students avoid economic costs if they need to take a leave of absence. 

California State University, Northridge, has a similar but smaller advocacy program. Jennifer Pemberton, who oversees it, said she has two advocates able to help about 60 survivors a year. Given statistics on the prevalence of trauma and partner violence, there are likely many more students who could benefit, she says.

“CSUN has close to 40,000 students,” notes Pemberton. “So we’re just really being able to help a handful.” 

Marcella Maggio, a sexual assault survivor who speaks regularly at high schools and colleges about violence prevention, agrees many campuses must do more. Maggio was drugged and raped as a high school student in the 1990s, which devastated her self-esteem and derailed her ambitions to go to college and law school. She received almost no support from her school, she said, a situation she still sees playing out with student survivors today.

Grade school and university educators need to be more attuned to behavioral changes in students that can signal they’ve been victimized, Maggio says. And officials should make sure every campus has a safe space and trusted adult that students can turn to. Additionally, all students should be required to take classes about healthy relationships and preventing interpartner violence, Maggio adds.

“In my experience of talking to so many youth and young people over the last 10 years, that’s what I keep hearing,” she says. “Why didn’t I have these classes? Why didn’t I know about this? I thought this school was supposed to be safe.”

Cynthia Garcia Villalta, a junior at U.C. Berkeley who chairs the student-led Intimate Partner Violence Commission, says the resources at her campus are good, but many students dealing with dating and domestic violence don’t realize help is available to them. Her group has been working on getting the word out to students prior to the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of awareness now on campus about sexual violence and harassment,” she says. “But when it comes to interpartner violence, they’re unsure if those same resources can be used. It’s kind of like a gray area.”

Increased Violence During the Pandemic

Reports of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking on college campuses are up across the country, including in California. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, colleges in California reported 1,392 such offenses, up from 1,223 in 2017, and 788 in 2014. College officials attribute at least part of the increase to a greater willingness among students to report these incidents.

Amid the pandemic, reports of domestic and interpartner violence have increased across the nation. Adams says her organization continues to receive reports from students who experienced sexual violence and discrimination before schools went remote, and those who are experiencing harassment even after their university classes went online. Some students have complained that their schools are unnecessarily delaying investigations, and have had their cases postponed until after the summer, she says. 

And some survivors want their adjudications postponed but have been forced to move forward, she said. These survivors may not feel safe because they’re at home with parents who don’t know about the assault, or are sheltering in place with their abuser, Adams explains. Others simply lack internet access and can’t download case documents. 

At the state level, some efforts are underway to increase education and support for students around interpartner violence. Last July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 381, which mandates that college campuses specifically address interpartner and dating violence—including warning signs and where to go for help—during student orientation.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) has introduced legislation aimed at strengthening college procedures for responding to reports of sexual harassment and assault. And the California Department of Education agreed include information about domestic violence and healthy relationships in its health education guidelines for kindergarten through 12th grade students, said Krista Niemczyk, policy manager at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The guidelines were revised in 2019 to include this new information, and should be available later this year. 

So far, it appears little has been done at a policy level to help students cope with financial repercussions from delaying or dropping out of school because of abuse.

For Blanco, who went to a small college in the Central Valley, the fallout from her abusive relationship added about $11,000 to the cost of her degree, because she had to drop and then retake her remaining classes, she says. She’s still paying off the loan. 

It took six years, but eventually Blanco went back to college. She  always had every intention of finishing. Sometimes, though, she thinks, What if I would have had support to finish then? Where would I be now? 

That’s why, Blanco says, she wants to share her story: In the hopes that she can encourage schools and lawmakers to do more to help students in violent relationships. Universities should reach out to experts on interpartner violence for information about how to better support survivors. And more money should be dedicated to teaching young people about healthy relationships, she says. 

“I don’t want anyone else to experience what I experienced,” she says.

In May 2017, Blanco graduated from the University of the Pacific with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She worked for several years as an advocate for survivors of sexual and interpartner violence and human trafficking, and is now an analyst for the California Department of Health Care Services. 

“Talk about feeling like a fighter,” Blanco says.

This story was produced in partnership with YES! Media, a national nonprofit, independent publisher of solutions journalism that analyzes societal problems and what’s being done about them.

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