Deconstructing the Disciplined Student Narrative and Its Impact on Campus Sexual Assault Policy

The national discourse about campus sexual assault is currently dominated by two powerful narratives: the student survivor narrative and the disciplined student narrative. These narratives continue to shape and inform the public’s understanding of campus sexual assault and the role of colleges and universities in preventing and responding to sexual assault. Unlike the student survivor narrative developed and shared directly by students, the disciplined student narrative is more layered and less explicit. This Article follows the development of the disciplined student narrative from lawsuits to editorials and scholarship to its successful impact on public policy as demonstrated by the 2018 proposed Title IX regulation.

The Narrative Policy Framework provides us with specific narrative elements that influence public policy. Through character development, the disciplined student narrative employs third-party narrators to introduce students disciplined for sexual assault as sympathetic protagonists cast in the role of victims in a story about campus sexual assault. The setting for the disciplined student narrative takes the form of a legal history constructed to support the proposed policy change. The main plot point is not the sexual misconduct, but rather the campus disciplinary process. The disciplined student narrative uses several rhetorical techniques by capitalizing on the confusion between the campus disciplinary system and the criminal justice system, claiming moral equivalency with student survivors, and employing disaster analogies through well-known false allegations stories. It exploits male privilege by using a cultural and legal history of discounting credibility of women reporting sexual assault, calling for extraordinary protections for male students, and erasing women of color from discussions about racism. The incorporation of references to meta-narratives about the Obama Administration’s overreach and concerns about campus culture wars further strengthen the disciplined student narrative’s salience with a broad audience. The 2018 proposed Title IX regulation demonstrates the disciplined student narrative’s success in transforming a civil rights law enacted to protect women from sex discrimination into a civil rights law directing schools to protect and privilege the rights of men accused of sexual misconduct.