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September 23, 2023

Federal bill would allow sexual violence survivors to temporarily defer student loan payments

Introduced by Sen. John Fetterman and Rep. Madeleine Dean, the proposed legislation aims to provide victims with the opportunity to receive treatment and focus on their well-being

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U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and House Rep. Madeleine Dean have introduced a federal bill that would defer student loan payments for survivors of sexual violence who withdraw from college to seek treatment.

Two federal lawmakers from Pennsylvania have introduced a bill that would defer student loan payments for survivors of sexual violence who withdraw from college, allowing them to focus on their well-being.

The bill, introduced on Wednesday by U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and House Rep. Madeleine Dean, would allow survivors of sexual violence to temporarily suspend their student loan payments if they withdraw from a college or university to seek treatment and focus on their mental and physical recovery. The bill would allow students who have passed the six-month student loan deferment period to extend it for up to three years.

The bill would broaden the definition of sexual violence to include "sex-based harassment." It would also widen reporting requirements to allow students to report their harassment to their health care provider or school's Title IX representative, since there is no reporting standard. Under the proposal, the Department of Education would be required to conduct an oversight report five years after the law is enacted.

"After going through the trauma of sex-based harassment 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," Dean said. "As a former professor, I know that the care of every student on campus is paramount. And this deferment with help survivors focus on what's important: their mental and physical well-being." 

Fetterman referenced his own treatment for depression, which resulted in a six-week stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center earlier this year, as his reason for backing the legislation. Fetterman, who told Time Magazine that he'd been battling depression for months before seeking inpatient treatment, said during a news conference that getting help "allowed me to be the father and husband I want to be, and the Senator that Pennsylvania deserves." 

The Title IX law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, also protects against discrimination based on sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, rape and stalking. When a student reports sex-based harassment to their college, the Department of Education often requires that the school offset the financial burden on the harassed person, said Brett A. Sokolow, chair of the Association of Title IX Administrators. 

For students with federal student loans, the Department of Education does not provide an additional student loan deferment option for those who take an extended leave of absence after experiencing sex-based violence. Some students are able to extend their six-month grace period for other reasons, though there are strict requirements

According to RAINN, about 13% of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault, often leaving them with anxiety and trauma. Members of marginalized communities, like LGBTQ+ students, people of color and students with disabilities face a disproportionate risk of being sexually assaulted on campuses. 

"Sex-based harassment is a pervasive issue in colleges and universities that has long-lasting impacts on student survivors," said Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors at the National Women's Law Center. "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." 

The bill is supported by more than a dozen advocacy groups, including WOAR, the Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, though it's unclear whether the bill has enough bipartisan support to pass. The bill is being co-sponsored by four U.S. Senators and 10 members of the House of Representatives, all of whom are Democrats.