Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Fetterman, along with Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) in the House, this week introduced legislation to establish a student loan deferment option for survivors of sexual violence who temporarily withdraw from an institute of higher education to seek treatment and focus on their mental and physical health rehabilitation.
“In February, I spent six weeks at Walter Reed Medical Center being treated for depression. Getting help allowed me to be the father and husband I want to be, and the Senator that Pennsylvania deserves,” said Sen. Fetterman. “I strongly encourage anyone who is struggling or in crisis to get help and extending that opportunity to our students is absolutely the right thing to do. This bill will make it possible for students to focus on their mental health without the burden of student loan payments.”
“After going through horrific trauma like harassment, stalking, or assault, survivors deserve the time to heal — and if they’re in school and need to step away from their education to do that, they must be able to do so without the worry or financial burden of student loan repayments beginning,” said Rep. Dean. “As a former professor, I know that the care of every student on campus is paramount. And this deferment will help survivors focus on what’s most important: their mental and physical well-being.”
According to RAINN, 13 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault, often leaving them with anxiety and trauma, requiring time away from school to focus on themselves and their health. Marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ students, students of color, and students with disabilities, are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted on campus. Survivors are often forced to temporarily withdraw from school for more than 6 months to focus on their mental and emotional wellbeing. This 6-month absence triggers student loan payments. In such a difficult time, victims of sexual violence should be able to focus on their health, which includes reducing barriers that distract from that goal. This legislation would reduce the additional burden of student loan payments by allowing these students to pause their student loan payments and extend the timeline for that student to repay their loans from 6 months to 3 years.
The bill would additionally:
- Broaden the definition of sexual violence to include “sex-based harassment.”
- Widen reporting requirements to allow students to report to their health care provider or Title IX official, as there is no reporting standard.
- Direct the Department of Education to conduct an oversight report 5-year post enactment on effectiveness.
The legislation is endorsed by the American College Health Association (ACHA); American Association of University Women (AAUW); Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD); Cleveland Rape Crisis Center; Crime Victim Services; Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF); Higher Learning Advocates; National Education Association (NEA); National Women’s Law Center (NWLC); Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR); Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN); WOAR – Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence; Young Invincibles; and Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America (YWCA).
“When a student experiences sex-based harassment in a US school or college, the Department of Education often requires under Title IX that the school offset the financial burden on the harassed person. Yet, for students who have federal student loans, the Department is currently and unfortunately unable to delay the debt burdens for those who are harassed, who need to take time off from college as a result,” said Brett A. Sokolow, Chair of the Association of Title IX Administrators. “Loan deferment exceptions are controlled by Congress, and there is no current deferment permitted for survivors of sexualized harassment or violence. This bill aims to correct that by authorizing the Department to allow loan deferments for survivors. ATIXA is 100% supportive of that change and encourages members of Congress to support it.”
“Sex-based harassment is a pervasive issue in colleges and universities that has long-lasting impacts on student survivors. Survivors of harassment, including sexual assault, often require a leave of absence from their studies to focus on their physical and emotional well-being. The trauma from sex-based harassment can be severe enough to interfere with a student’s capacity to learn, engage in school activities, or achieve academic success. However, student survivors are still expected to make student loan payments during their time away from school despite the trauma they have faced,” said Shiwali Patel, Director of Justice for Student Survivors and senior Counsel at The National Women’s Law Center. “The National Women’s Law Center proudly supports this bill as it is a step in the right direction to address this issue. The bill would allow student survivors to defer their student loan payments while taking time off from school to focus on their recovery. It recognizes the gravity of sex-based harassment and prioritizes the well-being of survivors by reducing their financial burden during challenging times. It is time we realized that managing student loan repayments is the one of last things survivors should have to be worried about.”
“WOAR – Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence wholeheartedly supports this bill. In our work we encounter courageous survivors of sexual violence every day, and their stories teach us that the effects of this terrible violence can reverberate through their lives beyond physical and mental harm, impacting everything from educational progress, financial wellbeing, housing stability, and more. We stand in full support of efforts like this legislation that would allow survivors to focus on getting the critical support they need to process and heal from their trauma,” said LaQuisha Anthony of WOAR – Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence.
“Legislation of this nature allows for America to move further in the direction of addressing the severe yet broader impact of sexual assault upon survivors. As a survivor and the Advocacy coordinator at WOAR, I have experienced first-hand the crippling financial impact of fighting with student loan management after experiencing a sexual assault, resulting in the disruption of my schooling. A disruption that resulted in withdrawal from my PA state university where I was a star athlete, tending to a 12-year battle with suicide, severe depression, and financial instability. My story resembles countless other survivor some whom I have the privilege to support through my work at WOAR Philadelphia’s only rape crisis center. Providing survivors with one less burden to carrying while navigating the heart wrenching physical, mental, and emotional anguish from a sexual assault adds direct access to healing while tackling the 3.1 trillion-dollar financial cost of sexual assault in America. The financial burden of student loans should not add to the already heavy emotional and psychological toll that survivors bear.
“Deferments enable survivors to stay in school or return to their studies when they are ready, without the fear of financial repercussions or hurdles which have a direct impact on their level of economic contribution to the economy. Student loan deferments for sexual assault survivors are a crucial step towards ensuring that survivors can heal and rebuild our lives without the added stress of loan repayments.
“We must advocate for and push forward policies that allow survivors of sexual assault to easily access loan deferments without unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. We should encourage educational institutions and loan servicers to provide clear information and support to survivors. Extending student loan deferments to sexual assault survivors is not just an act of compassion; it’s a step towards justice, healing, and empowerment. Let us work together to ensure that survivors have the opportunity to thrive academically and personally, unburdened by the weight of student loans during their journey of recovery.”