Sexual assault cases spur protests on campuses across US
Topeka, Kan. — Reported sexual assaults have sparked large protests on college campuses in at least seven states just weeks into the new school year, which advocates say reflects both a greater vulnerability among students who spent last school year learning remotely and a greater ability among young people to make themselves heard on the issue.
Such protests aren't new, but there seems to have been an unusually large number already this semester, with demonstrations over the past month at schools in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Alabama, Michigan, Massachusetts and Missouri. Protesters have accused their schools of doing too little to protect students and being too lenient with on the accused.
Those pushing for tougher measures against sexual violence also say the protests are being led by students familiar with the #MeToo movement and cases like that of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby. And they say a protest on one campus inspires them on others.
“It is this national push that we’re starting to see for accountability of colleges,” said Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, a nonprofit focused on building a movement to combat sexual violence on campuses.
More than half of sexual assaults against students occur between the start of fall classes and the Thanksgiving break, and generally freshmen and transfer students are the most vulnerable to sexual assault because they aren't familiar with the campuses and haven't solidified their social networks. Victims' advocates call the period “the red zone.”
“We’re in a period of a double red zone,” said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, who also directs its efforts to provide justice for assault survivors. “We have the first-year students and the second-year students who are now being on campus for the first time.”
The wave of protests started after a student reported being sexually assaulted at a University Nebraska-Lincoln fraternity house just before midnight on Aug. 24. Police received a separate report about a “wild party” there.
The following night, about 1,000 protesters surrounded the fraternity house. Police are investigating the assault report and the university temporarily suspended the fraternity’s operations as it reviews the group's conduct.
Protests at the University of Iowa began less than a week later against a chapter of the same fraternity over a year-old allegation of sexual assault that authorities are still investigating.
In Kansas, students protested at the University of Kansas,Wichita State University and Topeka West High School last week over various reported assaults, and students at Auburn University in Alabama and Eastern Michigan University also held demonstrations. Protests this week included one at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
At Central Methodist University, a small Missouri liberal arts school between Kansas City and St. Louis, about 50 students protested this week in support of Layla Beyer, a 19-year-old sophomore who said a fellow music student sexually assaulted her during the first semester of her freshman year.
The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify sexual assault victims, but Beyer allowed her name to be used.
The university said it can't comment about an individual student's case, but spokesperson Scott Queen said, "There will be ongoing discussions regarding the topics addressed at the protest.”
Beyer reported the assault and said she received a no-contact order against her assailant, who played the same instrument and was constantly around. But she said he repeatedly violated it without facing serious consequences.
“A lot of times, survivors don’t have anybody to stand up for them besides themselves,” Beyer said.
Administrators at other colleges have said they’re committed to helping victims and educating students about appropriate behavior.
University of Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green outlined plans that included expanding from two members to four a team that helps victims, and improving training and education about sexual assault.
Eastern Michigan’s new initiatives include annual training for students and separate training to encourage people to intervene if they see inappropriate behavior. It also is considering the future of a fraternity at the center of multiple sexual assault allegations.
“Students speak out, protest and take action because they want to see their institutions respond with the same level of anger, determination and commitment to keep their communities safe,” said Walter Kraft, Eastern Michigan’s vice president of communications.
Vitchers said helping survivors is no longer enough. She said universities must educate students to prevent assaults and punish the perpetrators and groups fostering an environment in which sexual violence is viewed as normal or no big deal.
Older advocates said current students have better access to social media and embrace activism more readily than their predecessors. Angela Esquivel Hawkins, a Stanford University administrator and CEO of a group that helps victims' friends and families, said students now are wiser about things such as choosing hashtags to make messages trend on Twitter.
“The more iterations of social media that come up in the future, the more that people are going to get more and more connected and more and more savvy about how to organize and be efficient in their efforts,” Hawkins said.
At the University of Iowa, 18-year-old freshman Amelia Keller and her friends turned to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to rally people to the recent protest at the school. Keller also has worked with a campus group advocating for rape victims.
“We want to be able to trust and depend upon those who claim to care about the protection of vulnerable students,” Keller said in texts to The Associated Press. “Right now, we cannot.”
At Eastern Michigan, 18-year-old freshman Abbie Francis helped organize last week's protest at that school and used an app to attract dozens of members within two hours to a new Sexual Assault and Rape Awareness group. Eastern Michigan students also held a protest in March.
“Everyone that I have talked to in the past few weeks has expressed that they feel extremely unsafe,” she said in an email to The Associated Press.
At Central Methodist, Beyer said she felt forced to choose between dropping out of band or having to face her assailant frequently despite repeatedly telling administrators that he should be the one to leave. She said the administrators “completely invalidated me.”
And Beyer said she lost her passion for music because of the assault and her subsequent treatment. She dropped her music education major and is now majoring in psychology instead.
“You get to the point where, no one’s hearing you and nobody’s doing anything for you," Beyer said. "Having students, especially ones that go to your school, to be by your side and stand up for you, it means a lot.”
Ballentine reported from Columbia, Missouri.