By Hannah Baron
While some on campus were enjoying the Super Bowl festivities last week, roughly 600 students weathered falling snow and below-freezing temperatures between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. to speak out against BU’s handling of sexual assault on campus.
Organizers stationed at Agganis Arena, the GSU, Marsh Chapel, Questrom, and Residence Life in South Campus handed out chalk, posters and tape. The next morning, students and faculty found jarring messages saying things like “our university has a rape problem” plastered on poles, maps, benches, buildings and sidewalks all over campus. This design allowed for protesters to socially distance and be completely anonymous.
Many more students, alumni, and even faculty blasted the inboxes of President Brown, Provost Morrison, Dean Elmore, Dean Battaglino, and BU’s board of trustees with an email written by the organizers of the protest containing 5 demands: a public acknowledgement of sexual harassment at the school, the implementation of a zero tolerance policy for harassment for faculty, the implementation of a zero tolerance policy for student organizations, monitoring the anonymous reporting forum for sexual assault and the implementation of a strike system, and an expansion of the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center’s resources.
The event was part of a nationwide protest organized by the University Survivors Movement, which seeks to end sexual assault on college campuses. One leader of the protest on campus, junior Prisha Kumar, is an organizer with USM. After the popular community instagram page BU gigs was overwhelmed with submissions from survivors, she and two other students started the @campus.survivors Instagram page this past summer to share anonymous accounts of sexual assault at BU and provide resources for survivors.
By the night of the protest, the page had gathered 98 stories from students and alumni, and Kumar said dozens more were queued up. She has also posted two open letters criticizing the administration’s treatment of sexual assault.
Students on the street that night were eager to express their frustration with the administration. One CAS sophomore who asked not to be named said a pattern of negligence led students to take matters into their own hands.
“It’s been a problem, actually, and now everyone is furious and rightfully so,” she said. “BU should be doing something about it”
Gladys B. Vargas, one of the organizers of the protest, said the university’s handling of sexual assault cases sends a clear message to its students.
“I just want to see something being done,” She said. “But when BU doesn’t do anything it’s like they’re saying it’s OK to have that kind of behavior and they’re OK with their school being represented by that type of behavior as well.”
Another student organizer, MJ Atang, was most upset that BU did not implement any policy changes even after following the @campus.survivors page. Standing under the blue light of an emergency call box, she said she felt BU was breaking a promise it makes to its incoming students.
“I remember, coming into BU, one of the things they painted themselves as was a very safe campus,” she said. “They were talking about the blue lights and how our campus is so safe and blah blah blah, yet you see hundreds of these stories, all these people hurt, and then on top of that the administration does nothing to help them.”
Julie DeLange, a junior in Sargent College who was assaulted prior to coming to BU, felt the same way. She said the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention (SARP) program was a comfort to her coming into BU, but the @campus.survivors page changed her impression.
“I wanted to come to a school where I didn’t have to experience this shit again and no one would have to experience not being heard and people twisting your words,” she said.
The stories on the page rattled the student body. 105 student organizations signed their support for the cause, pledging to put pressure on the administration and fight sexual harassment internally.
COM senior Alex Tuchi came to the protest alone. He said finding the page was an eye-opening experience and a call to action.
“Reading a lot about what came to light on the @campus.survivors Instagram, honestly, is very moving to me,” he said. “I think it’s important to notice the frequency with which BU cases come up on that page. It’s really quite disturbing.”
Margo Cramer is one of the many students who shared her story on @campus.survivors. She sees a different value in the page.
“What’s lovely about the page is that it creates a space in which you can anonymously share and have other people for support,” she said. “As difficult as it is, it’s more comforting to know that you’re not alone. Though you never want to share this experience with anyone, being able to know that you are not alone and bring light to everything is super important.”
The protesters had differing hopes for the outcome of the protest.
The CAS sophomore who asked not to be named said she came to the protest after witnessing one of her friends deal with the aftermath of a sexual assault last year. She hoped that the protest would help other survivors feel less helpless and alone, like it did for Cramer.
“Once a woman, or a man maybe, goes through something traumatizing like that, the first thing they feel is shame,” she said. “And it’s hard to make someone feel like they shouldn’t be ashamed for it so I’ve been trying to write messages across campus telling them that they’re loved and it’s not their fault.”
Others hoped for systemic change from BU.
Many cited the demands in the email sent to the administration as their goals in coming out to protest. They placed emphasis on accountability for perpetrators, following through on promises made to survivors such as ensuring that they aren’t scheduled in the same class as their assaulters, and speeding up the judiciary process.
Several students said a big part of the solution is education. Tuchi had recently written a film about what he called the gray area of the issue, in which those in positions of power implicitly or inadvertently compel people to do things they aren’t comfortable with. He said he had seen that kind of thing happening on film sets in the college of communication.
“All I can say on my part is that it has been a learning experience and one that I had to be open to realizing no matter how woke I thought I was,” Tuchi said.
Tuchi said part of the problem is that perpetrators sometimes aren’t clear on what constitutes as sexual harassment and get defensive when they’re accused of something they had no intention of doing. He said he wishes he could impart what he learned working on his film onto others.
“When it comes to a he-said-she-said situation, we rely too much on intentions—‘It was never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable’ when we will never know if that’s true,” Tuchi said. “It’s important to not necessarily just look at intentions there but look at exactly how you made that victim feel, because while intentions aren’t necessarily tangible. Outcomes and actions are, and that’s all we have to rely on.”
Protester Matthew Walker compared the issue of sexual assault on campus to the COVID-19 pandemic and said BU should treat it with the same urgency and severity.
“If I’m not COVID-compliant, if I’m not getting tested, if I’m not doing my symptom attestation, I present a danger to my community,” he said. “And BU understands that and has very clear guidelines for what happens if you violate that. So why don’t we take those same rigid systems and apply that to sexual assault cases in terms of the expediency, the very clear delineation of consequences, and, ultimately, at—I think it’s strike two or three—removal from the school, at least for the remainder of the semester, barring from your education, until you’re able to receive a proper judiciary hearing.”
Like many other students, Walker was pessimistic about BU’s response to the protest. He said the university doesn’t have as much of an incentive to address sexual assault as it did the pandemic.
“Taking 30,000-plus students and being able to monitor exactly when a case pops up, that’s sexy to news media,” he said. “That draws attention. That makes BU a recognizable name. Sexual assault does not have that glitz and glam to it.”
Other protesters had lower expectations for the outcome of the protest. Vargas said that for this specific event, all they were looking for was a statement from the university acknowledging the problem.
Many students said they weren’t optimistic about getting a response from the school, be it with words or with actions, because admitting BU has a sexual assault problem reflects poorly on the institution. They also said that not responding would be even worse for BU’s image.
The university’s first response was to take down most of the posters that the protesters had put up BU spokesperson Colin Riley said the posters that were removed were placed outside of designated free-expression spaces. Kumar said the organizers of the protest were not told that there were areas they weren’t allowed to poster, though BU Police did approach some organizers on the night of to say that city convenience stores were off limits.
Removing the posters drew anger from the student body, especially because BU had not yet released an official statement at the time. It wasn’t until Tuesday that students began to receive replies to the emails they sent out.
Students who protested by email received a response from President Brown, which thanked students for bringing the @campus.survivors page to his attention, though BU’s official instagram has followed the account for some time. He also emphasized the measures the school currently takes against sexual assault, such as the existence of SARP and compliance with Title IX regulations, though he sent a letter to the Department of Education criticizing Title IX as too lenient last January.
Brown suggested that the leaders of the protest meet with administration officials to discuss the concerns and solutions in the email protesters sent out.
Dean Elmore responded to emails saying the administration is “working to create a learning environment where students can decide the ways that work for them to bring criminal charges; to report these incidents for investigation to the University; and for individual, confidential care.”
After the protest, the @campus.survivors page received some complaints in their direct messages. Some said covering the school in messages about sexual assault, particularly messages that emphasized that it is a problem on campus, created a triggering environment for some survivors and made them feel unsafe.
DeLange, who was assaulted by her teacher in high school, was greeted with a chalked message when she stepped off the BU bus on her way to class Monday morning. She said it was hard to walk through the doors of a building that has “our school has a rape problem” written on it.
“It just brought me back to that a little bit, like already feeling uncomfortable in school,” she said. “Then I went to class where I had a male teacher. I was fine it was just very shocking. If this had been three years ago, like if I saw this in my high school, I would have had to go home”
She also recognized that the shocking and disturbing nature of the messages was what gave the protest its power.
“In general though, I do think it was good because I feel like if I’m feeling that way, I’m sure other people are like ‘Holy shit, you can’t just ignore that.’”
The protest’s organizers currently do not have concrete plans for next steps. Some relayed plans for future events such as conversations, guest speakers and education efforts within their student organizations. All agreed that this protest was the beginning of a long-term effort, and there is much more to come.
CAS student government is holding a virtual town hall to discuss future plans to address sexual assault at BU. They invited Dean Elmore to attend, but he declined to come.
Walker said his objective was to render protests like this one obsolete.
“In a few years, I hope that we don’t have to see any of us walking the streets again, putting up signs and writing in chalk that BU has a problem,” he said. “That’s how you know it would have worked, is if all these people don’t have to shoulder a burden that the institution should be shouldering itself.”