Sexual assault claims at 9 universities during ‘Red Zone’ spark protests

Fraternities again are at the center of allegations of violence, backlash across several campuses.
By: | September 21, 2021
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Tracey Vitchers, the executive director of the national It’s On Us campaign against violence, took aim at higher education leaders on social media last week amid the scores of sexual assault allegations that been levied since the fall semester began:

“College Admins: Stop using the excuse ‘Sexual assault prevention education should start before college’ to avoid responsibility for campus rape culture,” Vitchers wrote. “No one is saying it doesn’t need to. It should. You also have a legal and moral responsibility to invest in prevention.”

The recent claims of sexual assaults have sparked protests across the nation, especially from women who feel unsafe or unprotected in those communities. Auburn University, the University of Kansas, the University of Iowa, Wichita State University, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Nebraska have all been swept up in accusations that crimes may have occurred on campuses—in residence halls, at football games, at fraternity houses and even in libraries.

The ominous specter of threats led one governor to double down Monday on his mission to try to stop rapes and assaults from happening at postsecondary institutions. Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has made $1 million in grants available from his state’s It’s On Us campaign to institutions. Now, he says, it’s time for them to step up.

“Pennsylvania’s college and university campuses must be safe places for all students,” Wolf said. “Sexual assault cannot be tolerated, and we all have a responsibility to promote healthy relationships.”

More than 75 institutions in that state, including many two-year colleges, have received $5 million since 2016 to help forge awareness and prevention strategies. Portions of those grants also go toward opening access for students to report sexual assaults and misconduct. In 2019, Wolf signed into law a bill that requires colleges to offer students anonymous online reporting of sexual assaults. But the Association of American Universities notes that while students are aware of what constitutes sexual assault and how to report it, the majority still don’t feel comfortable coming forward, in part because they fear repercussions. In fact, 90% of all undergraduate women who are subjected to sexual assaults never report it. Beyond the physical violence, victims experience emotional trauma, a third drop out of postsecondary pursuits and 40% say they feel betrayed by their colleges and universities.

“Institutions within AAU and other colleges and universities must continue to educate students about how to report sexual assault and misconduct,” Mary Sue Coleman, former AAU president and former president at the University of Michigan, wrote after the study’s release. “As a result of our surveys, we now know that schools should continue to concentrate their educational efforts and resources on incoming first-year undergraduate students, since they are clearly more vulnerable to sexual assault and misconduct than their older classmates.”

Where it is occurring

Even where resources abound and awareness is heightened, assaults or harassment are happening, especially during a period known as the “Red Zone”—the six-week time frame at the start of the semester when most incidents occur. According to Clery Act Timely Warnings noted by Penn State University Police and Public Safety, there have been 11 “forcible sex offenses” reported this fall on campus, the majority at residence halls plus two during a football game.

At Auburn University, there have been three sexual assault claims levied by victims over the past week. That not only sparked a protest on campus from students but has led administrators to offer a Town Hall tomorrow. In advance of that meeting and in response to the community, Auburn responded to those incidents with this statement:

“The three cases reported this week —one in a residence hall, one on a campus sidewalk and one in a fraternity house —have only intensified our commitment. Auburn prohibits sexual harassment and power-based personal violence. We take action to prevent it through a variety of sexual assault awareness and bystander intervention programming, as well as safety programs and resources. When a crime is officially reported by a member of our campus community, the University is able to take even more aggressive steps to help crime victims and hold those responsible accountable. In the current situation, the victims of the three recent incidents chose not to file police reports or formal complaints with the University or local police, and we support their right to do so.”

Eastern Michigan University President James Smith this week said the institution was beginning to review a long list of reports of sexual assaults that involve two fraternities—Delta Tau Delta and Alpha Sigma Phi. EMU is also trying to fend off lawsuits filed in May by plaintiffs that allege the university’s Title IX officers were negligent in protecting them. There also have been three claims of sexual assaults that occurred in late August and early September in residence halls or parking lots.

“The university is keenly aware of the recent concerns expressed by some students and others regarding their safety and the university’s handling of cases of sexual assault,” Smith said in a statement. “I take those concerns with the utmost seriousness because any failure to ensure that our students feel safe is inconsistent with our institutional values. No student can learn in an environment where they are unsafe.”

Fighting back

Students are becoming more vocal and more demanding in their protests and using social media as the avenue to get the word out.

After a sexual assault claim was made public against a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Kansas, students lined the steps leading up to its house last week to loudly chant “Kick Him Out” and “We Believe Her.” Two and a half hours south at Wichita State University, students protested the allegation of a sexual assault at one of the dorms last week.

Some of the protests, such as those that took place at Loyola University Chicago and the University of Iowa where incidents have been reported, have taken aim at Title IX policies and police over what students say is a lack of prompt responses, even when there is overwhelming evidence in pursuing potential perpetrators. Iowa protestors left classes and had a sit-in on the lawn of the president’s residence. Property was also vandalized around the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity—FIJI, for short—where protestors demonstrated after a claim of a sexual assault on Sept. 5. That same fraternity was suspended three weeks ago at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after a minor reported she was raped during a party at its house off-campus. More than a dozen women have come forward since, saying they also were sexually assaulted at the fraternity house. Student protesters held a candlelight vigil for the victims and others who have experienced sexual violence.

And at the University of Massachusetts, hundreds of protestors have called for the suspension or ban of fraternity Theta Chi over claims of multiple sexual assaults by its members. A Change.org petition already has more than 20,000 signatures, but UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement, “At this point, no survivor or witness has come forward to file a complaint or a report substantiating the claims that have been made on various social media platforms.”

Colleges and universities have tried to stem the trend of fall misconduct and crimes for decades, but the problem persists. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center notes that more than 50% of the incidents that happen on campuses take place from August through November.

Here are some of the other statistics from the Center, which also offers a huge database of resources for those interested in trying to stop sexual violence:

  • In 2018, more than 725,000 people were raped (including threatened, attempted and completed rape) in the U.S.
  • More than 90% of female victims say they were raped by an intimate partner or an acquaintance
  • Nearly one-quarter of all women report being sexually assaulted at one of 33 major universities
  • About 16% of women and 10% of men report being coerced into having sex at some point in their lifetime
  • The prevalence of false reporting for those crimes is between 2% and 10%, the same as other crimes