The scenes of hundreds of University of Kansas students rallying outside a campus fraternity, calling for an end to rape culture and for action from the university, proliferated across social media Monday and Tuesday.
They were notable protests, but not unfamiliar.
In September 2014 more than 200 KU students had gathered for a forum on the same cause.
They were concerned about the high rates of sexual assault on campus, and what they viewed as insufficient accountability for assailants.
Despite the creation of a new office and reform of sexual assault prevention and response policies that followed in 2015, the voices of the protesting students of today echo those of the students who spoke up in 2014: The university hasn’t done enough.
In the time since the university instituted its reforms, sexual assault has remained a pervasive issue on the campus. In a 2019 survey 24% of undergraduate women reported they had been sexually assaulted during their time in college. Rates of rapes reported to campus police have not budged with 18 reported in 2014 and 20 reported in 2019 according to data provided to The Star.
University officials credit persisting rape reports to increasing trust in institutions and say prevention of sexual violence requires a broad cultural changes that are slow to come.
Speaking to The Star Wednesday, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said the university had sufficient policies in place to address student concerns and that sexual assault was an ongoing university and cultural issue.
“Things don’t change overnight,” Girod said. “Regrettably it’s not confined to the Greek community by any stretch of the imagination, it’s still a challenge across our society. As we are a community of 40,000 people we reflect our society.”
But students say the university committed to change in image only, and that students who report rape continue to be dismissed while assailants are protected.
“To say that you care about sexual assault… and to know continually that this is not an isolated incident but to really institute no reform when that is your entire job, to say that you care about sexual assault is a joke,” said Faith Maddox, a KU senior and sexual assault survivor.
A faceless protest
Early this week, reports circled through social media that an unnamed woman had allegedly been drugged and raped by a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity over the weekend, prompting outcry across campus.
KU administrators said the university and law enforcement are aware of the allegations and that fraternity leaders were cooperative in an investigation.
Few details were immediately available about the alleged assault. Lawrence Police said in a statement that they were aware of “an incident involving a possible sexual assault,” but said they would not provide details to protect the privacy of the victim.
Protests held outside the fraternity house were promoted by Strip Your Letters, an organization that formed to advocate for social justice in the Greek community and has since expanded to advocate for survivors.
In July 2020, after witnessing many sororities’ underwhelming response to the Black Lives Matter protests unfolding around the country, two then-KU students took to social media to advocate for social justice within the Greek community, thus Strip Your Letters was born.
In addition to sharing protest details, the group is now encouraging sororities to disaffiliate from and denounce chapters of KU’s Interfraternity Council. Strip Your Letters co-founder Grace Reading said this can be done by refusing to promote a fraternity or participate in their events.
“We’re not going to give you that exposure that you all need to survive until you make some substantial change,” she said.
At the same time, Reading said, fraternities need to do better work rooting out possible perpetrators of sexual violence during recruitment. And once they have a new group of young men, there needs to be more intentional education around consent and toxic masculinity.
But change within the Interfraternity Council is an uphill battle, said Jason Frederick, a former director of conduct for KU’s IFC, who said he was disappointed, but not surprised to learn of the reported assault.
“The issue is the system itself is not designed for improvement,” he said, adding that any reforms are often erased within a few years as leadership and members turnover.
Frederick was among a group of students who a few years ago implemented a freeze, or moratorium, on all fraternity activities until reforms were made to address hazing and sexual assault.
A day after their decision, a push to spearhead change, they found themselves facing impeachment.
The “freeze” was revoked four days later.
Three years later, hundreds of people gathered on back to back evenings to support a women who was said to be drugged, then raped at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house party over the weekend. To most, she was nameless. Faceless. But that didn’t matter.
Reading said that’s part of why she thinks it’s so incredible hundreds of people staged themselves on the fraternity’s front lawn in response. (Reading said the protests were started by a group of women close to the survivor. They are all staying anonymous to protect the survivor’s identity.)
“This time we don’t need the details,” she said. “We can leave the details to the survivor and let her heal on her own, but we’re still going to mobilize.”
In a way, the protest gave validation to other survivors who didn’t get the support they needed in the moment, said Anissa Brantley, a co-founder of Strip Your Letters.
She recalled times when a student would report sexual violence to someone within their sorority only to have the sorority attend a party or mixer with the fraternity in question the next week.
The protest is a way for survivors to say: “Someone didn’t do this for me, so I’m going to do it for them,” Brantley said.
A spokesman for Phi Kappa Psi said in a statement on Tuesday that the organization “takes these allegations very seriously and will fully cooperate with law enforcement,” but that the fraternity wouldn’t comment further.
2014 protests bring some change
The early to mid 2010s brought protests at college campuses across the United States calling for changes to sexual assault policies on college campuses.
In 2011 then Vice President Joe Biden issued a letter directing colleges on their obligations to respond to reports of sexual harassment and assault to remain in compliance with Title IX.
The University of Kansas became the subject of a federal investigation into its handling of a 2013 sexual assault report in 2014.
Student protests at KU erupted after reports that the university declined to put a student accused of sexual assault on probation. A group of students released a video in September 2014 warning possible future students not to enroll because the Lawrence campus is unsafe.
“The message we were trying to send was that this is a cool school to be at, but we cannot, in good conscience, tell people to come here when the administration does not care about the students,” Jamie Godd-Nelson said at the time. Godd-Nelson was a member of the September Siblings, the 50-member student group that posted the video.
In response, former Chancellor Bernadette Grey-Little established a task force to analyze the university’s policies and procedures on the topic.
Following the completion of the task force’s work in 2015, the university launched the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center (SAPEC) and adjusted policy in accordance with some of the group’s recommendations.
The most notable change, the creation of SAPEC, has driven most of the university’s educational initiatives around sexual assault in the past several years.
Jen Brockman, Director of SAPEC, said she views the organization’s work as successful despite the persisting problem of rape on campus. More students now, Brockman said, understand what to do if they encounter sexual violence and are more likely to hold one another accountable then they were a decade ago.
“The shift to changing culture is the long shift,” Brockman said. “When we look to that idea of how do we address and eliminate sexual violence we are looking at multi-generational commitments.”
Though rape cases continue to be reported, she said, reports can be an indicator of how much survivors trust institutions because sexual assault is such an under-reported crime.
KU student Niya McAdoo said aside from SAPEC, the administration still fails to show up in full support of survivors.
“This is a culture of rape and sexual violence that has been kind of like a historical legacy on this campus,” said McAdoo, who also serves as student body president. “We wouldn’t have to show up on these lawns basically demanding justice for ourselves if the administration, who gets paid to advocate and serve students, were actually doing that. The silence is deafening. It’s been deafening.”
McAdoo spoke with the Star early Tuesday afternoon after attending the protest the night before. A few hours later, University officials announced they are investigating the alleged assault.
“We want to express our appreciation for all of you who are helping to address sexual assault in the community. This topic is deeply important to us, as it clearly is to so many of you,” the administrators said in a statement.
McAdoo, who is also a survivor, said accountability takes more than recognizing one incident. It’s also about recognizing abuse that wasn’t addressed appropriately in the past.
Students are justified in asking for more to be done, Brockman said.
“Anytime our students ask for better transparency, more robust education, more accountability, those are spaces we should consider and work to honor,” Brockman said. “We can also hold the truth that KU has made significant improvements in the last six years.”
Juliana Carlson, a KU social work professor who served on the taskforce, said the university has made strides dedicating resources to prevention but that societal forces make the work move slowly.
Broader societal forces that promote rape culture, Carlson said, mean the university has to change already established view points when students arrive on campus. Furthermore, she said, persisting problems in Greek life need to be solved in collaboration with those organizations.
“Yes the university could help to hold fraternities in this case accountable but equally it needs to come from within the organizations themselves,” Carlson said.
Barriers to change
Efforts to reform college investigation of sexual assault were, in part, stymied by the roll back of Obama era Title IX guidance by the Trump administration, said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Trump administration guidelines set a higher bar for when universities should investigate and take action on alleged sexual assault.
“Everybody can always do more but I do feel like the universities are now caught between what the rights used to say, what they say now, how the Biden administration has indicated they intend to change these regulations,” Grover said. “There’s this on again off again instructions for the universities.”
In the past several years KU students have often criticized the university’s Title IX office.
In a lawsuit filed against the university last year, a former KU law student said the university’s Title IX investigators doubled down on a flawed investigation conducted by the Lawrence Police Department that resulted in charges of false report being brought against the student. The charges were dropped months later.
Another former University of Kansas student said officials at the university failed to tell her when her alleged rapist re-enrolled in the university.
Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On US, said federal guidelines have made things more difficult but universities have not always taken the right approach to reform.
“Schools seeing this as this is something we have to do to mitigate our own risk of legal action,” Vitchers said. “Even if morally and ethically they should be doing more.”
Fraternities, she said, are a particularly risky area but colleges have little incentive to hold those groups accountable because they save the schools’ money by not occupying campus housing and then are a major driver of alumni donations.
“These schools are essentially sacrificing the physical safety of young women on their campus for the psychological safety of young men on their campus and for their own financial benefit by not removing Greek life programs that are clearly deeply problematic,” Vitchers said.