Protest calls on the University to improve approach to sexual assault

Abigail Kirn/Daily
LSA sophomore Anna Kreiner and LSA freshman Darian Razder carry a mattress across the Diag to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses as part of the Carry That Weight campaign in solidarity with Columbia University junior Emma Sulcowicz. Buy this photo

By Emma Kerr, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 29, 2014

Early Wednesday morning, a list of seven demands covered the block ‘M’ on the Diag, calling on the administration to improve the University’s approach to sexual assault on campus.

The protest falls on the national “Carry That Weight” day of action, which aimed to raise awareness of sexual assault and abusive relationships by asking participants to carry a standard dorm room mattress with them throughout the day.

The demands were plastered in cut-and-paste style and surrounded by spray painted trigger warnings and calls to expel rapists — protesting the University’s perceived complacency in handling sexual misconduct on campus and advocating for student voices to be heard.

Beginning with a demand for further training and awareness, the list calls for a mandatory program that would educate new students on the meaning of consent, the specifics of the University’s sexual misconduct policies and information on gender-neutral language.

Currently, the University provides resources for students through the Office of Student Conflict Resolution and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. Existing programs like Relationship Remix, a workshop aimed toward educating first year students on relationships and sex, work to educate students about sexual assault and how to prevent it.

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the University offers a variety of effective programs and that it is continually looking for ways to improve how it responds to and prevents sexual assault.

“There are lots of programs, and in fact, the University of Michigan is often looked to as a leader in this area among other higher institutions,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the most effective thing we can do is to engage the students who are passionate about this topic, to engage in conversation and work through these issues.”

The anonymous list of demands presented on the Diag and published in The Michigan Daily may be in conjunction with the Carry That Weight day of action. Women carrying mattresses walked through campus, stopping in the Diag in front of the list of demands to display their mattresses, marked with the Twitter hashtag #carrythatweight. Other college campuses, including Stanford University and Harvard University, participated in similar protests and calls to action.

LSA junior Fabiana Diaz said she hopes to use her own experiences through this event to offer support to other survivors.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault, so this is very personal for me,” Diaz said. “This is a day to show solidarity and be symbolic of the weight that all women carry as a result of sexual assault. As a woman, even if you aren’t directly involved in sexual assault, you still carry that burden. Our goal really is to get even one person to just Google it.”

The Carry That Weight event at the University is officially sponsored by the Feminist Forum, but student volunteers at SAPAC actively participated and organized volunteers for the event.

“It’s not just SAPAC, but we did want to show our support for this event,” Gillies said. “It’s not just to raise awareness, but it’s to show support for survivors. There are a lot of survivors on campus and you can feel very alone, so this is our way of saying we support you.”

An analysis done by the Washington Post in July found that the University ranks second in number of reported instances of sexual assault. Though the director of SAPAC interpreted this data as showing their sexual assault awareness programs to be effective in encouraging individuals to report misconduct instances, the anonymous group making these demands believes SAPAC and its resources are not enough.

LSA freshman Kate Heinz, who noticed the installments while walking to class, said she knows sexual assault happens on campus, but that statistics of how often sexual assault occurs are still shocking.

“Everyone knows it’s a big thing on college campuses but it’s hard to really see,” Heinz said. “You would never know that the University is second in the nation for reported assaults. It’s hard to gauge, so it’s just a matter of understanding the scope of it and bridging the gap between reports and actual happenings. It’s a matter of communication between the administration and students.”

LSA junior Kathleen Abenes, a Resident Adviser, said existing initiatives are not sufficient for incoming students.

“I know we have the AlcoholEdu program but why don’t we have something just as serious for sexual assault? I know that there is Relationship Remix and the Change it Up initiative going on, and I know that they swipe MCards, but as an RA there is no way for me to make sure they go,” she said. “There are no consequences for not going to these workshops.”

The AlchoholEdu initiative, an online program that addresses the use of alcohol and other substances on campus and is required for all incoming students, discusses sexual assault in the context of a person’s ability to give consent and discusses the sexual assaults that occur while under the influence of alcohol. LSA senior Stephen Goldenthal said sexual assault isn’t just a result of alcohol consumption or attending Greek life events.

“You hear of things on campus, I know people who have been sexually assaulted, so it just really changes your perspective,” Goldenthal said. “I think that the people committing sexual assault might not even see their actions as being sexual assault. And it doesn’t just occur at parties or when you are under the influence, it’s an entire cultural issue.”

The second demand calls for all fraternity, sorority and cooperative houses to put up a sign defining consent in common areas, similar to signs prohibiting anyone under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol.

Furthermore, the list demands that athletes be held to the same sexual conduct standards as non-athletes. This demand appears to be related to the University’s handling of sexual assault allegations on campus following student and legal scrutiny surrounding the “permanent separation” of Brendan Gibbons, the Michigan football team’s former starting kicker, for violating the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy. His removal came nearly four years after the incident of assault, which is reported to have occurred Nov. 22, 2009, during Gibbons’ freshman year at the University.

One month after the incident was brought to light, Central Student Government formed an executive task force aimed at investigating Gibbons’ sexual misconduct case, ultimately finding the University’s administration and athletic department responsible for failing to investigate the Gibbons case in a timely, transparent manner.

Fitzgerald said the University’s policy already aligns with this demand and affirms the equal treatment of athletes and non-athletes.

“Athletes are treated exactly the same as every other student,” Fitzgerald said. “There is no separate process when it comes to sexual misconduct as the new policy makes clear.”

The fourth demand calls into question the education of University staff and DPS in issues of sexual assault response, stating that current training is surface level and insufficient.
The list of demands goes on to call for providing survivors of sexual violence the option to have the responsible party expelled from the University.

The demands also ask that support be increased for survivors of sexual violence beyond the resources offered through SAPAC. This would include an increase in widely-known, immediate counseling services and would require that the parties found responsible for an act of sexual assault be restrained from interacting with the survivor in his or her personal community.

LSA sophomore Meredith Gillies, a SAPAC student volunteer, said because of the broad issues SAPAC attempts to address, there is room for improvement within the organization.

“We do have a limited budget and limited resources, so we do the best with what we have,” Gillies said. “We still have a lot we could do in terms of name-recognition because there are still students who really don’t know what SAPAC is. When it comes to giving students a voice, we really need students to be educated and that takes time.”

The anonymous group’s final demand calls for the administration’s attention and respect for student opinions, asking the University to listen to the voices of students, survivors and experts and give all organizations and groups on campus an equal voice.