Content warning: This article discusses details of on-campus sexual assault.
Around 50 students, staff, and faculty gathered on Feb. 22 to protest the American University administration’s insufficient action on addressing sexual assaults on the university’s campus, renewing the campuswide protests from last fall. Student survivors gathered outside the School of International Service to speak out on their personal experiences with sexual assault and the subsequent lack of institutional support they received.
The initial push for reform began after an unidentified individual sexually assaulted a student on the all-girls floor of Leonard Hall on Oct. 31. Ten days later, over 500 hundred students participated in a walkout organized by AU seniors Lillian Frame and Emily Minster and the university’s It’s On Us chapter.
“I know survivors who have been failed by the Title IX system again and again. I’ve been hearing stories of survivors who’ve been failed in ways that I don’t even think are legal by our Title IX and failed by admin,” Julia Comino, a sophomore, student activist, and survivor at the protest, said.
Following the initial walkout, student organizers created a list of demands to reform AU’s sexual assault policies, including implementing a Survivor’s Bill of Rights modeled after that of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and improving AU’s mandatory Title IX and consent training. The demands, which garnered over 1,400 signatures from students, alumni, staff, and faculty, were sent to administrators in November.
Nearly four months later, none of the five demands have been met, and the students are back to demand action.
At the February protest, students shared how the university handled Title IX cases, highlighting their slow responses. First-year student Mari Santos requested a room change after she was sexually harassed and stalked by a student living on her floor. Santos received limited communication about its status. The situation caused her to experience insomnia and anxiety.
“I met with my community director, Title IX, and the dean of students, where I had to repeat my story over and over again only to hear, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you, there are resources to help you, but we cannot [follow through] with a no-contact order because he has not physically assaulted you,’” Santos said.
Marissa Sasso, another protester, also experienced a lack of communication from the university. After being assaulted just 36 hours after arriving at AU as a freshman, Sasso says the administration did little to investigate the assault or to place a no-contact order. She described the entire process as “dehumanizing.”
“The no-contact order was never placed. I never received any paperwork,” Sasso said. “The coordinator told me that the investigation process would be finished before the semester was over since we were only about two weeks into the semester before I agreed to proceed with an investigation. That was a lie.” In the end, the administration concluded the investigation without bringing any consequences against Sasso’s assaulter.
Following the October assault in Leonard Hall and subsequent walkout, AU’s administration created the Community Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment and Violence to discuss changes to AU’s sexual assault prevention and response policies. They also responded by putting up resource stickers in a portion of bathroom stalls and beginning conversations among administrators.
“Coming together in dialogue, identifying challenges, listening to multiple perspectives, considering solutions, and creating a shared plan of action will be our focus,” AU President Sylvia Burwell said in a campuswide email in November, explaining the working group’s purpose.
So far, the working group has aimed to ensure that survivor resources from the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services are up-to-date and readily available to students, according to AU’s student newspaper, the Eagle. University administration has also sought advice from external sexual violence prevention organizations like It’s On Us. Solutions generated by the working group will eventually be submitted to the university’s board of trustees in April for approval.
But those at the protest say the university frequently substitutes meaningful action and student engagement with performative statements and ineffective working groups.
“We won’t accept just words when actions are necessary,” Shed Silman, a teaching and learning specialist at AU’s Center for Teaching, Research & Learning and on-campus staff union representative at the protest, said.
At a recent working group meeting, student organizers applied pressure on the administration. “We told them that we were sitting in a room of people who could take action,” Comino said. “We told them that we need action.”
Unsatisfied with the administration’s response to their demands, students have taken it upon themselves to pioneer change on campus. In addition to organizing protests, students have spent the last three months penning over 153 love letters to survivors, coordinating over 166 campus organizations to send a student-made resource guide detailing survivor support systems, and “hand-delivering” 17 survivor stories to administration, according to Comino.
Hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have turned out to help these efforts, but students are frustrated by the need for their involvement for meaningful change to occur at all. “I’m a student who’s juggling multiple jobs, classes, multiple organizations that I’m heavily involved in,” Comino said. “We don’t have the bandwidth, but we make room. Admin said that they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with this issue, [but] that’s wrong and negligent.”
“For every survivor there is a perpetrator and for every perpetrator, there are dozens of people covering for them. Change the culture, call them out, listen to survivors [and] don’t fail to be a support system,” Comino said. “Change can’t wait because we are the change.”
Georgetown and D.C. Confidential Resources:
Health Education Services (HES): email@example.com
Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS): (202) 687-6985; after hours, call (833) 960-3006 to reach Fonemed, a telehealth service; individuals may ask for the on-call CAPS clinician
Title IX Online Reporting Form: https://sexualassault.georgetown.edu/report/.
D.C. Rape Crisis Center: (202) 333-RAPE (24/7 Hotline)
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): 1-800-656-HOPE (24/7 hotline)