‘Our safety hangs in the balance’: Students demand WU take action to prevent sexual violence and support survivors
In a protest titled “Wash. U. Has a Problem,” which was organized by the group in charge of the Instagram account @metoo_washu, students gathered in small groups across campus to demand that Washington University take action to prevent sexual violence and support survivors, Feb. 7.
The protest was part of a nationwide event on college campuses around the world, which was planned by the University Survivors Movement, an international organization with the goal of ending sexual violence at colleges and universities.
In order to follow COVID-19 guidelines, organizers divided protesters into small groups to chalk messages and post flyers across campus and outside administrative offices.
In addition to hanging flyers that listed demands for the University and resources for survivors, protesters spread awareness about sexual violence on campus with flyers that read “Wash. U. has a consent problem,” “Wash. U. has a sexual violence problem” and “Wash. U. has a rape problem.” Chalked messages included phrases such as “I believe you even if Title IX doesn’t” and quotes from Tarana Burke, the creator of the #MeToo movement.
Online, the account @metoo_washu encouraged students who were unable to participate in the in-person event to protest virtually on Feb. 8 by changing their Zoom backgrounds and posting photos on social media with the hashtag #WashUHasAProblem.
“Although the survivors in our community have different visions for justice and accountability, we stand united in our refusal to accept administrative failure regarding sexual violence prevention,” the president of @metoo_washu wrote in a statement to Student Life.
The president of @metoo_washu cited the 2019 AAU Campus Climate Survey, which found that 42.5% of female-identifying students experienced sexual violence during their time at Washington University. This is three points higher than the national average.
Leading up to the protest, @metoo_washu posted about the role of Greek Life in the perpetuation of sexual violence and demanded that the University abolish Greek Life. According to Washington University’s 2019 AAU Campus Climate Survey, 15.7% of sexual assaults involving physical force or incapacitation occured in fraternity houses. Additionally, an SU Senate survey from this summer found that 65.13% of students favored the abolition of Greek Life.
@metoo_washu demanded that the University modify the Student Gender Equity Grievance Process (SGEGP) to prohibit questions regarding a survivor’s sexual history with the perpetrator and to shorten the investigation timeline to 60 days.
In addition, the account advocates for the establishment of a transformative justice process, creation of mandatory prevention programming that addresses the intersection of systems of oppression and sexual violence, creation of affinity-based survivor support groups at the Washington University Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP) and expansion of mental health services that include more counselors with marginalized identities.
Graduate student Laura McDermott, who is concentrating in Violence and Trauma in Communities at the Brown School of Social Work, attended the protest and said that she wants the University to implement policies that are trauma-informed and center on survivors.
“A lot of the past has been like ‘survivors meet with your abusers or meet with people who have perpetrated violence and like unity and hold hands and hug’ and that’s nonsense,” McDermott said.
McDermott added that she wants professors to be more lenient with students actively experiencing trauma, including allowing flexible attendance and deadlines.
“There’s such a big push for academia and rigor and that’s not always trauma informed and that doesn’t always benefit anybody but the University,” McDermott said. “I just would like people to be able to be here studying and educating safely and having their health and well-being prioritized more than status and clout and grades and GPA and all those things that don’t really matter at the end of the day.”
Junior James Cevasco, who also attended the protest, emphasized that he thinks sexual violence has become too normalized at Washington Unviersity.
“We all see the statistics and the graphics and stuff like that and we just kind of all act like that’s just part of college,” Cevasco said. “But the fact that every single individual person can be affected by this hugely is not something that people should just push aside.”
Although @metoo_washu began as an account run by one person in June, it now has more than 3,000 followers and a team of members who have anonymously shared the stories of 117 Washington University survivors.
Similar Instagram accounts have been created at many universities across the world, and the @metoo_washu protest was coordinated with a broader, international coalition: the University Survivors Movement (USM). According to Grace Verbrugge, a junior at Gettysburg College and Public Relations Co-Chair, USM now includes 50-60 Instagram accounts across the United States and in countries such as the United Kingdom, Scotland and Ireland.
Verbrugge said that as an international coalition, USM serves as a collective community to connect organizations with each other and create organized events, such as protests, vicarious trauma trainings and social media outreach trainings.
“We need to make sure that we’re not only providing survivors on our campuses with the resources they need to heal and feel safe, but we’re also providing organizers with methods for advocating for those survivors and advocating for educational change,” Verbrugge said.
Verbrugge spoke to the mental health impact of running these Instagram accounts, explaining that many organizers experienced burnout by the end of September.
“I think one thing that students don’t really understand is that it’s more than just collecting and sharing stories,” Verbrugge said. “It’s about looking at the trends and the stories and saying what this is telling us about how our school operates and what we are going to do about it. It can be very emotionally draining, especially because most of the people running these accounts are survivors themselves.”
Acknowledging this, Verbrugge added that she is inspired by survivors who are unable to speak out about the sexual violence they have faced.
“What inspires us is the people who want to be fighting this fight and can’t because they’re in a position where they are too vulnerable and fear retaliation,” Vebrugge said. “We provide them with a voice.”
Both Verbrugge and the President of @metoo_washu said that they hope to spread awareness about the administrative failures to provide adequate sexual violence prevention and support for survivors on college campuses.
“By doing this, we hope that we will not only get attention on the issue, but that students will be made aware of administrative negligence because a lot of them often don’t realize how administrations continue to fail survivors,” Verbrugge said. “A lot of schools are actively gutting resources, they are shaming survivors into silence or they’re further re-traumatizing them until they give up on the process.”