On Thursday morning, members of the University of Mary Washington campus group Feminists United—along with the Feminist Majority Foundation—filed a Title IX complaint charging university administrators with failing to protect students from a “sexually hostile school environment.” The students had endured months of sexual harassment in person and online through an anonymous social app called Yik Yak.
“Despite being put on notice that the students feared for their safety and were unable to concentrate on their school work or otherwise enjoy the benefits of the university’s educational programs, the administration took no action to protect them,” according to the Title IX complaint.
The complaint comes on the heels of the death of outspoken Feminists United member Grace Rebecca Mann, who was murdered in her apartment on April 17 after attending a day of silence event raising awareness about bullying of sexual minorities on campus. Mann, like other members of the group, had repeatedly voiced concern to school administrators, including UMW’s Title IX officer, about the threatening messages being posted on Yik Yak—for example, “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and grape them in the mouth” (using “grape” is presumably a way to get around the app’s filters, which block certain words including “rape”)—though the complaint does not blame the university for Mann’s death. The man charged in her murder, Steven Vander Briel, was a housemate of Mann’s and a former member of the school’s rugby club.
The university advised students to ask Yik Yak for help stopping the cyber-bullying—even though the app is hosted on the school’s web servers—and said that because of the Yik Yak users’ First Amendment rights to free speech there was nothing they could do to protect the Feminists United memebers from the threats. Administrators never reported the threats of violence to law enforcement.
Said Debra Katz, one of the lawyers for the students, “I’m a civil rights lawyer, I believe fervently in the rights of people to speak [under the First Amendment]. Universities are great institutions of debate. This is not [free] speech when it’s violent threats of assault and rape and murder.”
According to Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (and publisher of Ms.), this Title IX complaint is historic: it marks the first time a school has been taken to task for allowing a sexually hostile environment to flourish on campus. Previous complaints have focused primarily on individual students’ experiences with harassment, violence and sexual assault.
Said Smeal in a statement:
Here at the University of Mary Washington, Feminists United and its leaders repeatedly told administrators that they were afraid, threatened, that the climate was scary, and there was a ‘rape culture’ that was allowed to prevail. This complaint speaks for itself and shows the dedication, commitment and courage of students who worked diligently to stop sexual assault and to end the sexually hostile environment.
Title IX “prohibits discrimination and retaliation on the basis of sex in federally funded education activities. Sexual harassment, which includes the creation of a sexually hostile environment by fellow students whether in person or online, violates Title IX,” according to the complaint.
The university responded to the allegations in a statement, saying:
Throughout this academic year, the administration of the University of Mary Washington has been actively engaged with members of Feminists United and other students to address issues of safety and campus culture. While we disagree with many of the details and content in this morning’s press conference, we do share the ultimate goal of maintaining a safe environment in collaboration with campus partners. Any allegation of gender-based violence is taken very seriously. The university will cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights regarding the concerns put forward in the Title IX complaint announced today.
Feminists United members, including Mann, were targeted by name on Yik Yak after speaking out against incidences of sexual violence involving fraternities, and after word spread—incorrectly—that the group had called for the suspension of UMW’s men’s rugby team over sexually violent chants by some members.
According to the complaint, the university’s failure to act is part of a pattern of mishandling sexual harassment and assault reports:
[The university] has failed to handle past complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence appropriately and effectively, further contributing to the ‘rape culture’ that is promoted by the sexist Yik Yak posts and other forms of bullying that women at Mary Washington experience. For example, past sanctions issued by the university included, in at least one instance, a requirement to write an essay about the misconduct … that student went on to sexually assault a different victim at another university.
“Instead of taking action,” said Gaylynn Burroughs, director of policy and research at the Feminist Majority Foundation, “the university hid behind their lawyers and allowed these young women to be terrorized in their own community.”
Senior Mary Washington students will graduate tomorrow, but the campus climate remains the same—to date, more than 700 sexist Yik Yak postings targeting feminists and members of Feminists United have been published.
Photo of Debra Katz and Feminist Majority Foundation supporters courtesy of FMF.