Students Demand Sexual Misconduct Prevention at Trustee Meeting
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Editors note: this article was updated on May 5 to reflect developments since last Friday’s interruption. Please see the concluding section to read about these developments.
“Your silence is violence. End rape now,” activists chanted as they walked up the stairs of Memorial, wearing black and holding banners calling attention to Whitman’s sexual assault statistics.
A group of 19 students protested last Friday’s meeting of the Whitman College Board of Trustees, calling for increased attention and institutional measures that address sexual assault on campus.
The group called on Board members to take action to address a significant increase in reported Title IX cases this year. As of this March, 37 Title IX cases were on file with the college for the 2015-2016 academic year, compared to 32 from the entire 2014-2015 year. Activists cited this increase in cases, as well as the recent announcement made by Phi Delta Theta and representatives from the Sexual Misconduct Prevention (SVP) student group that the fraternity would suspend social functions indefinitely due to sexual misconduct reports.
Senior Katy Wills spearheaded the protest. She opened the intervention with a personal story of her family’s history with Whitman and its Greek system, and her own experience of sexual assault.
“We need you to show us that you care, because we’re angry, and we demand acknowledgement and action,” said Wills to the trustees. “You have been placing too much responsibility on students to handle these cases. There’s an epidemic of sexual violence on this campus.”
After their chants, activists read and distributed three demands targeted to Board members: separating the position of sexual assault victim’s advocate from that of the Greek Life advisor; hiring a Gender and Sexuality Advisor; and canceling all Greek social functions for the remainder of the semester, and fraternity off-campus trips indefinitely.
Activists “came up with the demands collaboratively,” according to junior Ione Fullerton, former president of Feminists Advocating for Social Change (FACE).
If their demands are not met by the end of the semester, activists said they plan to reach out to donors and prospective students to let them know of Whitman’s record on sexual assault. The college is currently under investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights for alleged violations of Title IX, the law which requires colleges to address sexual assault on campus.
Students sought immediate attention and action from Trustees. Fullerton and sophomore Kyla Rapp, president of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action Club, called on Board members to stand if they supported ending sexual violence on campus. Though each meeting attendee stood, when asked to continue standing to show support for the demands, all returned to their seats.
President Kathy Murray and Board Chair Brad McMurchie told activists that they wanted to address these issues, but that the meeting was not the appropriate setting. Murray and McMurchie told students in attendance that they would meet with them later in the afternoon, after their regular agenda was complete.
However, students in attendance resisted any pressure to back down.
When Board members called the demonstration “dramatic,” and asked what measures activists had already taken to address issues of sexual assault, junior activist Maia Watkins cited existing student movements.
“We have been working within the system for so long, believe us. And that is why we’re here today.”
Watkins, a survivor of sexual assault, encouraged specific action by calling for a meeting between activists, Board members and administrators. She also encouraged trustees to contact national fraternity boards to encourage suspension of the fraternity trips, all of which are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.
“That is the concrete action that we are asking you to take, and the other actions must continue as well,” she said. “But we would like this to be the most immediate action, because if those are not canceled, there could be more rapes.”
Though students did leave the meeting after over 30 minutes of discussion, Rapp and other activists said they saw their action as a success.
“This activity is unprecedented. It’s not calm chanting. It’s anger, and it’s ferocity,” said Rapp. “We weren’t necessarily there to talk to them respectfully.”
Wills emphasized that they thought their time in the meeting accomplished significant goals.
“If we had stayed longer it would have taken away from the impact of our statement. We think it went well, and I’m looking forward to meeting with President Murray and Brad McMurchie this afternoon.”
Wills said that activists sought this kind of direct intervention to address a history of inaction, as well as the need for a visible and direct interruption.
“Action at Whitman college is too respectful and respectable,” she said. “We have power as students, and we need to harness that in an audible, visible, and actionable way.”
Since the meeting on Friday, activists have made significant gains in their original three demands. According to activists, President Murray and other administrators told them that they had been planning split the position of Sexual Assault Victim’s Advocate to that of the Greek Advisor before last week’s interruption.
Watkins said that a working group is being created with students, faculty, and administrators to allow the process of hiring a Sexual Assault Victim’s Advocate to be a quick and efficient one.
“By the end of the summer, they will have hired someone,” said Watkins.
In an email to The Pioneer, President Murray confirmed that the administration planned to separate the position, but that administrators “do not yet have a timeline.”
The group said that administrators were receptive to the second demand, creating a new position of Gender and Sexuality Advisor. Watkins and sophomore Kyla Rapp, another leader in the group, said that administrators had asked the group to put together a vision for both this position, and thoughts on gender and sexuality resources the college currently lacks.
“We’re reaching out to other student groups to compiling a list of needs the campus has in terms of resources and institutionalized support so that we can figure out where that person would fit in and interact and what their duties would be,” said Rapp. Groups involved in this process currently include Feminists Advocating for Social Change, (FACE), All Students for Consent (ASC), and GLBTQ.
Progress has also been made in the third demand: the cancellation of the end of the year fraternity weekend trips. Over the weekend, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Phi Delta Theta announced that they were canceling their planned trips voluntarily. President Murray and Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland are planning to meet with fraternity leadership on Friday to discuss next steps.
Activists are encouraged by the progress on the three demands initially posed at the Board of Trustee’s meeting, and the response from the campus community.
“I’m feeling really proud of the work that we’ve done, and I’m also feeling really encouraged by the support that I’ve gotten from students and alumni who have reached out,” said Wills.
Members of the original group also say that there’s much more work to be done.
“We’re not simply here to make our voices heard,” said Rapp. “We’re here to put pressure, we’re here to keep people accountable. And that can only happen sometimes through making people uncomfortable.”