In the first weeks of the fall semester at KU, an upperclassman began hearing that a fraternity member had drugged and raped a student at a party earlier that weekend.
A sexual assault survivor themselves, they were understandably upset.
Then a friend texted.
“Are you ready for a protest?”
By the time hundreds of KU students arrived outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on Sept. 13 with signs that read “no means no” and “Greek life supports rape culture” a movement had already begun.
As colleges returned for their first fully in-person semesters since the start of the pandemic, allegations of assault sparked protests at universities across the Midwest.
Sexual assault is hardly a new issue on campuses — 1-in-4 KU undergraduate women reported in a 2019 survey that they had been sexually assaulted. But this fall’s angry mobilization could be higher education’s #MeToo moment, fueled by social media, a year’s isolation that saw nationwide protests for racial justice and common threads between survivor accounts.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln shut down the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity in August after sexual assault allegations and days of student protest. Demonstrations followed at the University of Iowa, Auburn University, The University of Massachusetts and Syracuse.
In Kansas, after three demonstrations in the span of a week, student protests popped up at Wichita State University and Topeka West High School.
On Tuesday Strip Your Letters, an organization that promoted the demonstrations on KU’s campus, is calling for a nationwide protest at 7 p.m. to advocate for “rape free college campuses.”
The KU organizer, who agreed to speak with The Star anonymously to protect the identity of the survivor, said they were certain the crowd at KU’s first protest was driven by the outpouring in Nebraska.
“That was so cool to see that you don’t need to know who they are. They were mad because it’s an innocent girl,” they said.
An incident report obtained by The Star confirmed Lawrence Police had received reports of an alleged rape at the fraternity house shortly after 1 a.m. on September 12.
September 13th protest was followed by a second, smaller, demonstration the next night and a sit-in at the Chancellor’s office on Sept. 17. By the end of the week the student, who started an Instagram page to spread news and advocate change, had heard from students at Wichita State, Auburn University and Stanford University asking for advice
“I told them, you spread the word and the protest will happen,” they said. “I’m very appreciative that the Instagram page can be a resource now for those who are wanting to do the same thing.”
At Wichita State University, students marched from Shocker Hall, a dorm, to the campus police station on Sept. 17 after the student newspaper reported that police were investigating a rape in the dorm.
University officials had not provided any notice of the situation to students.
Lillie Turner, a freshman, spoke at the protest and then took over social media accounts promoting the movement.
“A lot of us were angry because it’s surprising that we have to find out through the news,” Turner said. “We were told he is not a threat to our campus when he literally raped a girl.”
Higher Ed’s ‘Me Too Moment’
Jennifer Brockman, who directs KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, drew connections between student protests over sexual assault policies in 2014, the #MeToo movement and student protests for racial equity.
“Our students have continued to make demands for the betterment of campus even if the single line narrative does not appear to be sexual violence,” Brockman said in an interview last week. “The work our students have been doing has not stopped. It’s been ongoing.”
Kelsey Saragnese, coordinator of prevention at the Metro Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA), said this moment strikes her as groundbreaking.
She said protests cropping up at schools across Kansas and the country indicated higher education was experiencing its own #MeToo moment.
Similar to the phenomenon in 2017 when survivors came forward in droves to hold powerful men accountable for sexual assault and harassment, Saragnese said the bravery of survivors coming forward on high school and college campuses now empowers others to do the same.
“Every time a survivor or a survivor’s ally uses their voice to speak up, they open the door for somebody else to do the same thing,” Saragnese said.
Video of hundreds of students chanting “we believe her,” Saragnese said, is a powerful message that can cut through some of the fear and shame that keeps survivors from coming forward, creating a domino effect.
The protests, Saragnese said, hold extra power because in most cases students are rallying around a nameless, faceless survivor. Sexual assault cases and trauma are complicated, she said, so that when details are publicized it is often easier for those opposed to change to look for holes in a story or question the motives of the survivor. But many can relate to the story of a young woman drugged and raped at a fraternity party.
“We know that there are huge numbers of college students who experience sexual violence,” she said. “There are a lot of students who are seeing themselves reflected in that person’s story even though they don’t have a lot of the details.”
‘Not going to stop’
Students at KU and Wichita State hope to leverage their new momentum to push for change at their institutions and provide a sustained stream of support and resources to survivors.
The movements are driven by survivors who know all too well how needed those resources are.
“I think students are tired of sexual assaults just being brushed under the rug, acting like it’s nothing when really it changes a person’s life, it destroys them,” Turner said. “I want people to be aware of the statistics. I want people to be safe. I just want a better outcome than what is happening now.”
Aspen Crist, a KU sophomore who attended the protests, said she believed the action at KU specifically tied to the Phi Psi allegations had likely ended but hoped students would continue to rally around survivors.
On Thursday, KU police made an arrest in an alleged rape in a campus dorm.
Though Crist said she hoped for institutional change at KU she said she wasn’t optimistic administrators would budge, and her bigger goal was to see university protests prompt a reckoning around sexual violence globally.
“Women everywhere are dealing with this and dealing with the fear of going out,” Crist said. “Around the world we can’t figure out how to teach men to respect women’s bodies.”
After the Sept. 17 sit-in, KU organizers were promised a meeting with Chancellor Douglas Girod. They’re working to nail down a time and date.
Though they fully expect the meeting to be a collaborative conversation, the organizer said they would arrive with a series of asks ranging from better lighting and more emergency phones on campus to the revocation of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity’s charter and the expulsion of the alleged perpetrator.
“The impact of these protests and these sit-ins was to get our meeting with the chancellor,” they said.
When the KU organizer was assaulted years earlier in their time at the university they never reported. They felt their assault existed in a gray area and didn’t know at the time they could do anything about it.
Now, they want to advocate for others and provide as many resources as they can as fast as they can.
“This has helped me cope and helped me know that I’m doing something for other survivors because I couldn’t do something at the time of my incident. I decided not to stand up when I should have,” they said.
“I’m worried that the activism fire will die down … But that’s not going to stop me and that’s not going to stop a lot of us.”
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence these are nationwide and local resources.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.4673.
The University of Kansas CARE Coordinator: 785.864.9255.
The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center: 785.843.8985.
Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault :(816) 531-0233 and (913) 642-0233.