Lawmaker: Let students stop paying student loans if they claim sexual harassment

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Students should get a reprieve from paying off their student loans if they claim to have suffered sexual harassment or assault, a Democratic congresswoman argued.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Rep. Jackie Speier of California says victims of assault or harassment should qualify for a “poor health and other acceptable reasons” exemption that allows them to halt repayment of federal student loans. Under the status quo, she says, the need to pay back student loans is causing the federal government to add a financial dimension to their victimization.

“Over and over, I have heard from survivors who were forced to withdraw from courses or, in the worst cases, drop out of school completely due to an appalling lack of academic support or accommodation,” Speier says. “Some [students] have been forced to take out additional loans for mental health services and tutoring, which are supposed to be provided by schools free of charge.”

Under current policies, individuals must start paying back student loans once their enrollment falls below half-time. Speier says this requirement also hurts sex crime victims, since they may drop out of school briefly due to their assault and end up on the hook for paying back loans earlier than expected.

Speier’s remedy is to have the Department of Education allow those who claim assault or harassment to qualify for forbearance, under which student loan payments are reduced or entirely eliminated for a period of up to one year.

Speier wants the department to be generous in granting forbearance under this standard, and wants them to avoid “burdensome requirements” such as actually filing a police report. Instead, she says a claim should be valid if a “mental health professional” endorses an alleged victim’s claims.

Speier says such mental health professionals should include not just licensed psychiatrists or psychologists, but also social workers, marriage counselors, and even those offering counseling via telephone. In order to reject those who claim assault or harassment, she says the department should have to provide clear and convincing evidence an alleged victim was not victimized.

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