restricted access Victims, Criminals, Classrooms
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Victims, Criminals, Classrooms

In response to sexual violence, colleges, universities, and legislatures have adopted a rhetoric of crime that maintains clear lines of demarcation between victims and perpetrators or criminals. While I think these categories provide important frameworks, I am concerned about how they are being deployed in the race to appear responsive to sexual violence on college campuses. Moreover, I am concerned about the effect of these categories in classrooms where victims, perpetrators, potential victims, and potential perpetrators interact. In this brief piece, I gesture toward how the perpetrator/victim binary shapes the classroom and how we teach in light of this binary.

In Governing through Crime, Jonathan Simon writes that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) pushed education not into a capitalist model but into a criminalization model. Simon states, “Rather than transform educational subjects like students and their parents into consumers, the Bush vision portrays them as ‘victims.’ Rather than transform school agents such as principals and teachers into entrepreneurs, the Bush proposal subtly suggests that at least those in persistently failing schools must be seen and treated as criminals, willful violators of vulnerable subjects, who should be punished and incapacitated.”5 In the vision of NCLB, which has continued post-Bush, students code as potential victims while administrators and teachers code as potential criminals.

In reading NCLB in a trajectory with the 1994 Safe Schools Act, Simon sets up the question of the future of this trajectory of treating students as potential victims and school agents as potential perpetrators. This trajectory has developed in relation to responses to sexual violence on college campuses through purification practices that make it possible to maintain the power to code students as victims and teachers/administrators as criminals. These purification practices occur, first, by purifying the category of victim-student and, second, by punishing and literally criminalizing faculty and administrative failures to protect students.

Purifying the category of victim-student requires excluding clear nonvictims. Purifying the category of victim also manifests in pressure on administration to expel perpetrators from the student population, whose presence in [End Page 172] the victim-student category threatens the purity of the category and, thus, of the victim. Moreover, administrators are compelled not only to expel perpetrators but also to hand perpetrators over to the criminal justice system (consider rhetoric such as “let the courts handle it”). Perpetrators, therefore, lose access to student identity and become criminals in the same moment. While this quick movement from student to criminal occurs easily for racial identities that already code as criminal, the failure to code white men as criminal complicates their quick movement from the category of student to criminal. White male rapists can be neither students (potential victims) nor criminals. Consider defenses of white men such as appeals to the good student or athlete or descriptions of the perpetrator as never having been part of the criminal justice system before. In this purification, victim-blaming becomes a mode of blaming an improper victim and excluding victims deemed improper from the category of victim. This exclusion maintains the purity of “proper” victims.

On the side of the administrator or faculty member, purifying the victim-student/criminal-employee binary works by punishing and literally criminalizing faculty and administrative failures to protect students. The punishment mechanism operates by threatening federal funding for colleges and universities. In some places, legislators have gone as far as to literally criminalize faculty and administrators who fail to protect students. Virginia’s SB 712/HB 1930, for example, requires any responsible employee to report information obtained during the course of employment about acts of sexual violence committed against students or on campus to a Title IX coordinator, who must then report the information to a committee including a member of law enforcement. This bill criminalizes “responsible employees,” a category many institutions have deemed includes faculty and administrators, for failing to protect students. This and similar movements maintain the binary of the student-victim and university employee-criminal.

Rather than continuing to purify the groups on each side of this divide, I suggest that we create institutional spaces to consider and respond to the ambiguities inherent within these categories. While...