US and Canadian students protest over sexual assaults

Anger growing amid greater awareness and sense of administration failures

October 13, 2021
Woman, many of them of South-Asian origin, demonstrate in Toronto, Ontario to illustrate US and Canadian students protest over sexual assaults
Source: Getty

North American students are protesting against campus sexual abuse with newfound ferocity this autumn, illustrating years of failures by universities to take the problem more seriously.

The actions include crowds numbering in the hundreds besieging fraternity houses at campuses that include the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

In Canada, more than 12,000 students walked out of classes at Western University after social media posts suggested that at least 30 students had been drugged and sexually assaulted in a dormitory.

Hundreds more students protested at Santa Clara University, in California, over reports of a similar number of drugging attacks this semester, largely connected to the fraternity system.

Other campuses with protests, aimed at both administrators and fraternities, include Northwestern University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the state universities of Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi and Utah.

“Student survivors are taking it upon themselves to organise campaigns and protests demanding that the institutions that are supposed to be protecting them put in place policies that actually support survivors and give them the protection they need,” said Emma Grasso Levine, a campus organiser with Know Your IX, an advocacy group named after the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education.

The uprisings, said one US lawyer who has spent years suing fraternities over such violence, demonstrated that universities have largely been insincere in their long-standing promises to take the problem more seriously.

The clearest evidence of that, said the attorney, Douglas Fierberg, appeared on university websites that describe fraternity and sorority options. Virtually all such institution-run sites, Mr Fierberg said, still tout Greek life with glossy images showing smiling students and stories of public service and lifelong career advancement, with no mention of the physical risks.

Fraternities have long been understood to enjoy powerful backers among donors and alumni, who have used lawsuits and other threats to preserve their existence.

Students, however, were increasingly learning the truth on their own about the high risk of fraternity-related assaults, and were fighting back, Mr Fierberg said.

“We’re seeing more students take matters into their own hands,” he said of the escalating protests, “because they’re getting access to information that they often haven’t had [before].”

They are also getting help from the families of survivors.

The state of New Jersey just enacted a new law, one of the strictest in the nation, that establishes anti-hazing policies and severe penalties for violations. That was done at the urging of the family of a Pennsylvania State University student who died in 2017 in a fraternity initiation ritual.

In another departure from general tendencies towards leniency, eight students associated with Bowling Green State University and 11 associated with Virginia Commonwealth University have been arrested just this year in connection with fraternity-related deaths.

Less noticed but critically important, Mr Fierberg said, is a state law in South Carolina – pushed by the parents of a Clemson University student who died in a pledging ritual in 2014 – that requires universities to publicly list all code of conduct violations by student organisations.

Advocates also saw signs that Trump administration revisions to the federal Title IX law that give alleged perpetrators greater legal protections might be further emboldening abusers as students return to in-person life after more than a year of Covid-based lockdowns.

The Biden administration has promised to rewrite those rules. Know Your IX and other advocates, however, are impatient for that, having just delivered a 55,000-signature petition asking the US Department of Education to speed the process and tell institutions to stop observing harmful provisions in the meantime.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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