Students walk out to protest University’s response to sexual violence
‘AU is not in the business for caring for its students. AU is in the business for caring for its reputation’
Editor’s note: This story contains references to sexual assault. Please see the bottom of this story for additional resources.
Hundreds of American University students participated in a campus-wide walkout on the quad on Thursday to demand changes and administrative action to the Title IX policy.
In response to recent incidents of sexual assault on campus, School of Public Affairs seniors Emily Minster and Lillian Frame, along with AU’s chapter of the nationwide organization It’s On Us, which focuses on sexual assault prevention and education, organized the walkout. The aim, Minster said in a press release, was to raise awareness on University inaction against sexual violence, advocate for new Title IX proceedings and make administrators listen to the grievances of students.
“We're here today because our school does not respect survivors,” Minster said. “It does not employ survivors and oftentimes it does not even believe survivors.”
Over 1,000 students signed onto a list of demands that will be sent to President Sylvia Burwell, Provost Peter Starr, Equity & Title IX Coordinator Leslie Annexstein and other administrators on Monday, according to Frame. The demands called for a Survivor’s Bill of Rights similar to the one University of Massachusetts Amherst has.
Students also signed on to urge the University to require live, annual sexual violence prevention and response training for all employees and students. The training will be trauma-informed, centered around survivors and led by outside facilitators from organizations such as ItsOnUs, Know Your IX, End Rape on Campus or DC Rape Crisis Center, which advocates want AU to sign three-year contracts with.
The demands also called for a trauma-informed counselor who specializes in sexual violence response and PTSD treatment. Lastly, students want AU’s Title IX website to be updated at least once a month, and provide resource guides to help students understand the Title IX process.
“If any one of them, if one singular person in that crowd felt more supported leaving than they did when they went into it, that to me is a change and that to me is enough,” Frame later told The Eagle.
Student voices at the protest
The protest follows alleged sexual assault on the eighth floor of freshman dorm Leonard Hall on Oct. 31. Students from the all-girls floor spoke at the protest, including SPA freshman Amna Asad who described the incident as “a violation of every single woman that night.”
“I want to make it clear that this is not a one-time incident,” Asad said during the protest. “This is a recurring problem at AU.”
“It was a scary situation, but the fact that we saw so many people here to support us, I’m sure almost everyone on Leonard felt very safe and supported,” she told The Eagle after the walkout.
Leonard resident and Kogod School of Business freshman Mahita Desaraju spoke about changes students on her floor want to see so they can be better protected. She said many students on her floor opted for all-women housing in the first place because they “wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable” with men in their living space.
“We are an all-women’s floor, we know we were targeted because of that. Men should not be able to get up there without our permission,” she later told The Eagle.
To increase safety measures, Desaraju wants the University to install locking shower stalls doors in the communal bathrooms, which other dorms at AU already have. She said residents on the eighth floor have begun showering in pairs for fear of their safety, and that some have started bringing scissors with them as a means of self-defense in case of an intruder.
Desaraju also wants more restricted access on the all-women floor to prevent other students or guests from accessing the floor without being accompanied by an eighth-floor resident. Lastly, she said installing cameras in stairwells and elevators to better understand who comes in and out of the building “would basically prevent all the incidents.”
AU’s response to situations of sexual violence
Faith Ferber, an AU alumna and trauma-informed therapist, spoke at the protest about her experience as a survivor of sexual violence in 2015.
“AU is not in the business of caring for its students,” she said at the event. “AU is in the business for caring for its reputation.”
Ferber said the University will “talk the talk” when discussing incidents of sexual violence with the AU community. She referenced Sylvia Burwell’s announcement of a new working group on campus that will work to address sexual violence.
“Creating a working group that just adds more red tape to get through, more hoops to launch yourself through as AU purposefully runs down the clock until you graduate,” Ferber said.
On Wednesday, Burwell announced the Community Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment and Violence in an email to the AU community. According to the email, the group will find the best practices for educating the AU community on sexual harassment and violence and review polices, trainings, support services and other areas of AU’s current response to sexual harassment and violence.
The group will include community members, who can fill out an interest form, and expertise from Title IX and wellness resources, according to Burwell’s email.
“Coming together in dialogue, identifying challenges, listening to multiple perspectives, considering solutions, and creating a shared plan of action will be our focus,” Burwell said in the email.
Minster said she hears announcements about the creations of various working groups on campus, but does not hear much about the action the groups take.
“It’s a good thought, but if it materializes into action is the question,” she told The Eagle on the quad. “I’m hoping it does, but wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t.”
Frame echoed this sentiment, expressing that the University’s response did not surprise her.
“I think ultimately, we've told them what we want. We give them a list of demands that are extremely easy to accomplish,” Frame said. “I think that you know, it's what AU typically does, which is a lot of words that don't mean anything but not a ton of action.”
Katherine Winter, a junior in the School of International Studies, attended the protest and spoke to The Eagle about the soon to be established Community Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment and Violence.
“I don’t understand why [the community working groups] are happening when very clear, easy, implementable solutions have been put forward by the organizers … the solutions are there,” Winter said.
Matthew Bennett, the University’s vice president and chief communications officer, told The Eagle at the walkout that the working group is meant to be an opportunity for administrators to “ask the right questions, get the information and come to a consensus idea of what should be done so that the community is like, ‘Yes, this is what we want.’”
Apart from the working group, Bennett said there is “work being done every day in every office” at the University to address concerns regarding sexual violence.
“Every day, the work happens to address these kinds of concerns, whether that be the Title IX office processing complaints, whether that be the Center for Well-Being programs and psychological services providing support, whether that be the various different offices coordinating with the schools on academic support for students who might need it.” Bennett said.
The working group, he said, is intended to “look at the larger systemic issues” relevant to sexual violence on campus.
Students dissatisfied with administration’s response
AU has sent various emails to update the community regarding the situation that occurred in Leonard Hall, which included hosting a meeting for Leonard residents with the Office of Equity and Title IX and Center for Well-Being and Psychological Services on Monday. Both offices went over their protocols and resources, followed by a Q&A for the students in attendance.
The presenters emphasized the questions were meant to be more general and not specific to the incident in Leonard. Students in attendance raised concerns during the Q&A portion about the Office of Equity and Title IX only having six employees, as well as the Center for Well-Being and Psychological Services having only one survivor advocate.
Julia Olson, a junior in SPA and protest attendee, shared these concerns and doesn’t think that AU’s Title IX office has enough resources to operate efficiently. “There just simply are not enough people helping students … so many students have faced this problem.”
Other concerns that were present involved the role of the American University Police Department in Title IX. Frame, who briefly spoke with AUPD, made it clear that their goals for reform do not involve increased policing.
“Police do not help survivors,” she said. “They just don't, and that's an issue with the larger policing in general. And I think especially when we look at intersections of violence, police do not help survivors.”
During the protest, other student speakers expressed that they did not want increased policing, and would rather receive more support from the University and Title IX reform than from AUPD.
“We have no interest in working with the police at this time,” Frame said.
Community apprehension towards the University
Jen Curley, a parent who stumbled upon the walkout with her daughters while her son participated in a campus tour, said she feels “reluctant” to enroll any of her children in the University after hearing the concerns voiced by students.
“After seeing this, there’s definitely some discord with the students and the administration and the way the administration’s handling safety, safety being paramount to me as a parent,” Curley said. “You know, I’m sitting here with my two daughters, young daughters, 13 and 14, and it puts a bad taste in your mouth on where you want to send your kids.”
Nidhi Kallur, a freshman in SPA, said these recent events have shaken her faith in the school and made her question what the rest of college will be like.
“There is this underlying feeling that I just will not be safe here for the rest of my four years and that is scary,” Kallur said. “I was really excited to come to American and I still have faith that we can change, but I feel myself losing that faith every day that nothing is happening.”
Ferber, who filed a Title IX report when she was an AU student in 2015, said this loss of faith is a result of AU’s ongoing failure to meet the needs of its students.
“This is American University. A community where you all have to fight for the same demands that my friends and I already fought for back in 2015, demands that classes before me had fought for long before I ever arrived at AU,” she said. “Over and over again, it is the same fight with different administrators.”
Desaraju, who spoke at the walkout agreed, saying that how AU responds to this crisis will reflect its values as an institution.
“If adequate changes are not made, the University is ultimately failing at its number one job; To keep its students safe,” she said.
“Stop assuming the school will do the right thing. Stop assuming the administration shares your goal of creating and maintaining a safe campus,” Ferber said during the event. “Ruin their reputation, make a scene, be annoying, be loud and hold these motherf*****s accountable.”
Students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment can seek support through confidential resources such as University’s Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services, the Student Health Center, the Kay Spiritual Life Center or the following hotlines:
- Collegiate Assistance Program: 1-855-678-8679
- Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network (RAINN) anonymous chat
- RAINN hotline: 1-800-656-4673
- DC Rape Crisis Center: 202-333-7273