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‘An ongoing effort’: looking into past, present, future of sexual assault activism at Brown

University offices, student organizations reflect on history of addressing sexual violence on campus

BWell Health Promotion and the Title IX and Gender Equity Office are among the resources available for sexual assault and case handing today.
BWell Health Promotion and the Title IX and Gender Equity Office are among the resources available for sexual assault and case handing today.

In November 1990, Brown’s “rape list” made national headlines, and women started a movement to redefine how the University handles sexual assault. 

In 2007, a protest by the student-run Sexual Assault Task Force called attention to the issue of sexual violence on campus after the University’s 2006 crime report documented zero instances of sexual assault the previous year.

Last August, four women filed a federal class action complaint against the University, claiming it neglected to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual abuse and  “actively prevented the reporting of such harm.” 

There is a long history of sexual assault and sexual violence on campus, and student activists today are still fighting for resources and University accountability. 

How the University currently responds to sexual assault on campus

In 2015, the University began implementing recommendations from the final report of its own Sexual Assault Task Force, including implementing a unified policy on sexual and gender-based violence, creating a Title IX Office and establishing additional policies for training and handling cases. These efforts have evolved into University resources available for survivors of sexual assault today, such as BWell Health Promotion and the Title IX and Gender Equity Office. 

BWell oversees the University’s 24/7 Sexual Assault Response Line, Sexual Harm Acute Response and Empowerment advocates and five peer education programs, including the Sexual Assault Peer Education Program.

“As a department, BWell does work at several levels of the social-ecological model to prevent sexual violence in its many forms,” including improving “systems and processes, educational community interventions and confidential individual and community support,” wrote BWell Director Tanya Purdy in an email to The Herald. 

Through a Culture of Consent and Community Care program offered to students during orientation, all undergraduates also receive “foundational education in consent practices, bystander intervention and supporting survivors,” Purdy wrote. 

SAPE “has its roots in student activism and traces its beginning back to 32 years ago when Health Education, now BWell Health Promotion, first partnered with student activists and educators,” Naomi Ninneman, BWell associate director for empowerment and prevention services, wrote in an email to The Herald. Through its many iterations, the program “has consistently centered around sexual violence prevention and survivor support” through student-staff collaborations, she added. 

According to Ninnenman, 618 students from 26 student groups participated in one of the two-hour SAPE workshops during the 2021-22 year.

Similarly, the creation of the SHARE advocate position began with student activism. The first version of the role was created by the University in 2008 partly in response to the student-run Sexual Assault Task Force, according to an email to The Herald from BWell Associate Director for Response Services Alana Sacks.

Sacks explained that the expanded SHARE advocate role was developed in 2014 per the recommendations of the University’s Sexual Assault Task Force. Following a period of high demand on the original role and “another round of national attention and scrutiny” surrounding sexual assault, “substantial resources and policies were then dedicated to the issue of sexual violence,” she wrote. 

“In the time since, the SHARE advocates have become a trusted resource to many student survivors and … community members supporting survivors,” Sacks wrote. A second full-time SHARE advocate was also added to BWell’s staff to further support the office, she added, but this position is currently vacant until a hiring search commences in the spring.

“Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum,” Purdy added, which has led BWell to work with several campus partners to create a more expansive approach to sexual assault awareness and prevention.

The University’s Title IX Office “provides support measures as well as a process that deals with sexual harassment,” which is the umbrella term for sexual assault, stalking, dating violence and domestic violence, said Title IX Coordinator Ebony Manning. The office offers formal and informal processes for cases, along with support measures such as no-contact orders and academic modifications.

“This is a personal decision for someone to go through the process,” Manning said. “Knowing that they have (support and resources) available to them, … I think that helps individuals make informed decisions on how they want to handle their situation.” 

The office also offers ongoing education programs, including group-specific trainings and compliance team trainings for the campus community, Manning said. “We’re always out there trying to educate folks on what we do and what our process looks like.”

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Manning’s team is currently preparing for the release of new federal government Title IX regulations in 2023. Each presidential administration typically releases new guidance, and policies and regulations may change to be in compliance with federal guidelines, Manning said. 

In a post-#MeToo era, Manning has noticed an uptick in cases disclosed anonymously or through social media during periods of increased public attention on high-profile cases of sexual assault. While the office cannot formally respond to these forms of reporting, “the process that we conduct hasn’t changed … (for) anyone who comes forward and says, ‘Something happened to me, and I want the institution to look into it,’” she said.

“I just want people to know that there is an office that is there to support them, and if we’re not the office to support them in that moment, we then connect (them) to student support services … so that they do not feel alone,” Manning said.

Manning has been with the University for seven months and also serves on the Office of Institutional Equity & Diversity’s compliance team. While her caseload so far “has been manageable,” she added that “sometimes it can be overwhelming.”

“I think that’s just the nature of the business,” she said. “It’s difficult work, someone has to do it and it should be done right.”

Student activism surrounding sexual assault on campus

In the University’s 2015 campus climate survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct, 25% of undergraduate women and 25.7% of students identifying as TGQN — transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, questioning or non-listed — reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact since arriving at the University. 

By 2019, these metrics had minimally changed, with 24.5% of undergraduate women and 30.2% of TGQN students reporting having experienced non-consensual sexual contact. 

The 2019 report also discussed progress after implementing recommendations from the University’s Sexual Assault Task Force in 2015. The percentage of students who believe that it is “very or extremely likely” that campus officials would fairly investigate a report of non-consensual contact and take the report seriously almost doubled from 2015 to 2019, though women were less likely than men to hold these beliefs. 

In April 2021, the Week of Protest led by End Sexual Violence @ Brown, a coalition of student organizations, demanded that the University do more to address sexual violence on campus.

Following the protests, the organizers were invited to speak with University administrators about their demands, co-organizer Carter Woodruff ’21.5 wrote in an email to The Herald. “I was not present at the meeting and cannot speak to its content, but from what I gathered, there was not a willingness from the University to enact substantive change anywhere near the degree to which we called for it.”

“The purpose of our movement was to shed light on the ways in which the culture, institutions and norms at Brown reinforce administrative complacency and general impunity with regard to sexual violence on campus,” Woodruff wrote.

Through her time organizing both ESV and Voices of Brown — a platform where students can anonymously share stories of their experiences with sexual violence — Woodruff was in contact with several alums who had previously organized on campus.

“They seemed alarmed but not surprised at the similarities between the issues they faced and those we face today,” she wrote. “As we spoke about how to fortify the current movement, we discussed the need for longevity, consistency and steering clear of capitalizing upon any individual story.”

“There was not a specific incident that started ESV, and we were very intentional with this,” wrote co-organizer Ha-Jung Kim ’23 in an email to The Herald. “We wanted there to be an ongoing effort to end sexual violence, and using one incident to kickstart an organization often leads to a significant uptick in mobilization that fizzles out.”

Later in 2021, students and alums filed a federal class action lawsuit against the University, and the University filed a motion to dismiss the case in March 2022. An Oct. 18 order ruled that the lawsuit can partially move ahead. Much of the University’s motion to dismiss was granted, but the possibility of an injunction remains, which may require the University to change its policies surrounding sexual assault.

“Generally speaking, the University appears to have continued on with its prior efforts” to confront sexual violence, including “expanding the resources available through BWell, launching an online reporting platform through Title IX and engaging in the Culture of Respect Program,” Woodruff wrote.

“Though I applaud these efforts, they are not enough. It is not a fluke that the student body protested en-masse without a specific inflammatory incident one year ago,” she added. “We are tired of sexual violence being the status-quo on campus.”

The future of sexual assault activism at the University

The new leadership of ESV has worked to restructure the group. Originally a coalition which student groups signed onto, the group is now split into two parts: policy and survivor support, said Chloe Chen ’24, an ESV survivor support coordinator. 

The survivor support team aims to create a peer-to-peer program that matches people one-on-one, “especially for survivors who don’t want to go straight to administration,” Chen said. 

The team has recently started recruiting members and matching peers based on identities and relevant background, said Sophia Block ’24, another ESV survivor support coordinator. Mentors will “serve as a liason connecting survivors to campus resources” and will be trained in resources at Brown and beyond,” she said, with the hopes of creating a “safe space for a survivor of sexual assault.” ESV is also developing diversity and inclusion and finance teams. 

The survivor support branch is University affiliated, while the policy team is not, which eliminates administrative barriers, said Michelle Ding ’25, an ESV policy coordinator. The policy branch is more similar to what ESV used to do, forming this semester to create community within the team and look “critically at Brown’s policies,” including for Counseling and Psychological Services and international student support.

“It’s already hard enough to look at how Title IX laws apply for domestic students,” she added. “For international students who just came to Brown, it might be their first time in the U.S.,” and they may not know what to do after experiencing sexual assault.

At the time ESV formed, there was only one person in the Title IX office and two SHARE advocates for the entire school population, Chen said. The University had a huge response to COVID-19 that was integrated between departments, she recalled, but “we wanted that same response to sexual violence as an epidemic at this school.” 

“A lot of the departments on campus that are focusing on this issue are ultimately looking out for the school,” Chen said. The Title IX Office is mandated to support both the survivor and perpetrator, while ESV is explicitly focused on survivor needs, so it is “important to have a group that’s separate from the University,” she added. 

But there is still a long way to go for both University policy and the general culture around sexual violence. “A big part of our mission is ending the bigger system of oppressions that is the root cause of sexual violence,” including racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, Ding said. The general public opinion of students is an extremely important factor in putting pressure on administration, she added. 

Ding also pointed to ESV’s growing presence on campus: Hundreds of students participated in the Week of Protest, over 2,240 follow the organization on social media and 40 student organizations helped raise more than $3,000 for local abortion funds in a summer mutual aid campaign that ESV organized, she said.

The 2021 protests included reading a list of demands for University administration, but Kim, Chen and Block do not think that any have been met. Among these demands are more campus resources for survivors, including increased funding for the Title IX Office, BWell, SHARE and CAPS, along with more employees for these offices and programs. 

“Sexual violence is a serious issue nationally, not only at colleges and universities across the U.S., but beyond campuses in society more broadly,” wrote University Spokesperson Brian Clark in an email to The Herald. “For that reason, we don’t expect the work of preventing and responding to incidents to ever be done, even as we work collectively on campus to build on significant progress in recent years” through “a sustained effort by campus leaders, students, staff and faculty.”

Regarding criticisms surrounding the extent of resources for sexual assault survivors on campus, Clark pointed to ongoing projects such as “new education and prevention efforts, the creation from the ground up and then expansion of Brown’s Title IX Office and its resolution policies and procedures (and) the continuing full-scale transformation of CAPS to best meet student needs.”

“Brown has been and remains fundamentally committed to preventing and responding to sexual violence, and we’ll continue to identify new ways over time to build on what’s working and identify new ways to provide support in areas where we have more progress to make as a campus,” Clark wrote.

The previous two SHARE advocates were “absolutely amazing people” who worked closely with ESV on developing their programs, Chen said, but both have moved to different positions. Even with their roles filled, the extent of professional support for student sexual assault and mental health concerns would be too low, she added.

Though no longer a leader of ESV, Woodruff has “confidence that ESV will continue to be a strong force for change at Brown into the foreseeable future,” she wrote. “Sexual violence has been endemic at Brown throughout its history, and battling it will require a sustained effort.”



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