For two nights this week, hundreds of outraged students showed up at a University of Kansas fraternity house, demanding answers.
With signs reading “no mercy for rapists” and “hold frats accountable,” the students crowded the fraternity’s lawn and chanted from its steps, protesting an alleged sexual assault at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on Sept. 11.
Their message was clear: The fraternity must be removed from campus and such behavior no longer tolerated.
The scene, filled with palpable anger and frustration, demonstrated a shift in how students think about and respond to sexual violence that organizers say was a long time in the making. For many students, that meant zero tolerance for the accused or his fraternity brothers, or anyone else on campus who commits sexual assault.
“If this doesn’t make you leave (the fraternity), then you’re standing with him,” said Gretchen, a 21-year-old student who asked to be identified only by her first name because of the sensitive nature of the protests.
Organizers and experts said many long-simmering issues, such as institutional distrust of universities and Greek life, the growing power of the Me Too Movement, and social movements like Black Lives Matter, have created a new generation of activists who feel a need to protest and have a framework for doing so effectively. Despite steps KU has taken in recent years to update its sexual assault policies, these students want more transparency and accountability from the university.
The university says it is investigating the alleged assault and the fraternity has been cooperative.
For Grace Reading, a recent graduate from Kansas City, Missouri, the protests were a welcome change.
Reading is a part of Strip Your Letters, a leaderless organization that calls out systemic issues such as sexual violence, racism and homophobia in KU’s Greek Life. Strip Your Letters heard about the protest through a flyer circulating on social media and broadcast it from its Instagram account, which was one of the ways it went viral on campus.
Reading said the protest was organized by anonymous students close to the survivor, who are staying under the radar to protect the survivor’s identity. Strip Your Letters has been working with those organizers to amplify events and messages.
Reading said the lack of information about this incident allows more students to relate to the woman’s story. Additionally, she said, no one is seeking out details like what she was wearing or how much she had to drink, which are common ways assault survivors have been discredited in the past.
Reading was in a sorority at KU, and she said the way the system is designed creates power imbalances that make it more likely that women in Greek Life will be assaulted. She said there’s a gap between assaults reported through formal channels and make it to KU’s Clery Reports, versus the lived experience of sorority women.
“If you go into these sorority houses and talk to them, a lot of them will say, ‘I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced it.’ … These women know that they’re in this high-risk situation,” she said.
Social unrest leads to change
Laura Palumbo, communications director for National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said the situation at KU echoes national trends in how college students think about sexual violence. Protests and outrage about how colleges handle on-campus sexual assault is nothing new, and it’s also not a problem exclusive to KU.
Palumbo said a similar case at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where a 17-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln student reported being sexually assaulted at Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, has galvanized other protests.
Both Palumbo and Reading said the Me Too Movement and the Black Lives Matter protests have contributed to a culture where students understand more about protesting and social unrest. Seeing protests from other social justice causes and knowing there’s a more accepting environment for these grievances has given protesters a framework.
Reading specifically cited Black women leadership on campus, and KU student body president Niya McAdoo, for pushing for a more equitable campus culture.
McAdoo said inaction by KU administration is part of the reason the protests resonated with so many students. She would like to see the fraternity suspended until the investigation is complete.
“At the end of the day, (the administration) is here to serve students, and students are showing up and protesting and saying this is not OK,” she said.
Palumbo said more students are noticing the power structures within Greek Life that allow increased rates of sexual assault. Since fraternities host parties and are allowed to have alcohol, there is a power imbalance that leaves fraternity men in control, she said. Because of fraternities’ outsized influence on campuses, it can leave students with the impression they won’t face consequences.
Fraternity housing is not owned or controlled by KU, according to the Interfraternity Council. Because the fraternities are affiliated with the university, any crimes that happen at fraternities are reported through the KU Clery Report. a report on campus crimes required by federal law.
“These protests are a way of students holding their peers accountable because they believe that the institution is failing to do so,” she said.
History and changes
The University of Kansas has a recent public history with how it handles sexual violence.
Public scrutiny of how KU handles punishments for sexual assault offenders started in 2014, when the Huffington Post published an article detailing one student’s complaints about the university’s process. In that case, the accused student allegedly admitted to the sexual assault but was not punished harshly. The article said administrators decided not to require the accused student to do community service because it was “too punitive.” Another student survivor spoke out about her disappointment with how the university handed her case.
Since that time, the university has faced two Title IX lawsuits filed by two rowers who said the university retaliated after they were sexually assaulted by a football player and reported it. Both lawsuits were settled in 2017 for nearly $400,000. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education.
The University of Kansas was unable to make administrators available for an interview to discuss how both policies and culture at the institution have changed since the initial wave of Title IX lawsuits hit the school in 2014 and 2015.
KU created a task force on sexual assault and is in the process of implementing various reforms. The university also created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, and has annual mandatory sexual harassment training for all students. KU revised definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault to bring them in line with Title IX regulations.
The university does not discuss any individual sexual assault cases, said Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, KU’s director for news and media relations. She wouldn’t say whether there were any other ongoing investigations of sexual assault at other fraternities on campus. In statements earlier this week, both Chancellor Doug Girod and the Lawrence Police Department acknowledged the alleged assault but didn’t give details.
KU tries to finish formal sexual assault investigations within 60 days, but it can take months to make a determination and then additional time for administrators to hand down a punishment if the allegation is found credible. Because of that, it will likely be months before this case has any sort of resolution.
Students at the protest and involved with the affiliated Instagram accounts want to see a full criminal investigation, arrest and conviction in the Phi Kappa Psi case. They also called for KU to remove the fraternity from campus. Reading wants to see the survivor get the healing and support she needs.
On an institutional level, she and Strip Your Letters want to see improved policies at KU, and for KU’s Panhellenic organization, which oversees many sororities on campus, disaffiliate and denounce KU’s Interfraternity Council. That would limit exposure of sorority members to date parties, philanthropies and events until sexual violence is taken seriously.
Palumbo said, across universities, these protests won’t disappear. That’s partly because the private investigation processes can lead to increased student action, because they see a need to hold other students accountable if they feel their university isn’t doing so.
“Students’ perception really plays into culture, and whether students have any trust in the system,” she said. “In the absence of information and transparency, it can seem like action is not being taken — and that can contribute to the impression that there is not an effective response.”
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