A year after protests, students want UVM to take additional steps to address sexual assault on campus
Last spring, chalk messages were scrawled across the sides of brick buildings at the University of Vermont. Students walked out of class by the hundreds, holding signs that read “UVM Blames Survivors” and “UVM Hides Assault.”
In one of the largest protests in campus history — about 2,000 students left class to demonstrate — the university came under fire for how it addressed sexual assault allegations on campus.
UVM is not alone in facing criticism like this. Universities across the country have been called on to step up when it comes to addressing assault on campus. A 2014 report by the White House states that one in five women are sexually assaulted in college. And in the past year, campuses have seen a spike in protests over how sexual assault in handled on campus.
According to Tracy Vitchers, the executive director of a national sexual violence prevention nonprofit It's On Us, a common criticism from students nationwide is that their universities have complicated and unsupportive reporting processes.
Nearly a year after the initial protests, UVM says it has reviewed its Title IX reporting process — a federal law that lays out how colleges should address allegations of sexual assault on campus.
The outside review suggested 14 changes including that the university develop a thorough and easily understood brochure to give to “parties involved” in an assault case, that the Title IX office develop a “scripted checklist” to go through at the end of an interview with a student, and that the office include more detail in written rationale for investigation outcomes.
UVM says all of the recommendations have been implemented, including the hiring of a new sexual violence prevention and education coordinator.
Despite the changes, some students say more can be done to support victims of sexual violence.
Where it began
The protests last spring were sparked by a social media post. On Instagram, UVM junior Athena Hendrick said she was raped at UVM and, when she tried to report the incident, she said she received little support from the university. The post was widely shared, and soon a deluge of other stories like it followed, shared to Instagram and Tik Tok.
One of those students who shared her story was UVM junior Syd Partin. Today, Partin still carries a cardboard sign with her everywhere on campus. In clear black ink it reads: “UVM Stop Hiding Rape.”
Partin says she was assaulted, and when she reported the incident to UVM, she didn’t get a response.
“I never heard from them at all, ever,” she said. “Not once until after I posted in April of 2021. It was over a year and a half after I reported it to someone.”
Shortly after those original posts were shared, a new Instagram account popped up dedicated to sharing anonymous sexual assault allegations at UVM. The account —called shareyourstoryuvm — has been posting regularly for nearly a year. Sometimes the stories include first and last names, specific locations on campus, or identifying details about attackers, and other times they are vague.
UVM graduate student Kendall Ware says she was raped by a men’s basketball player. She described going through a confusing and drawn-out reporting process.
In social media posts, other students described a similarly confusing reporting process. Student activists say the mishandling of these reports by the university is one factor that drove students from their classrooms and outside to protest last May.
For Ware, that reporting process began when she went to the Title IX office shortly after she said she was assaulted, looking for options. She says she didn't want to ruin her attacker's life, but she wanted him to be held accountable, and was looking for guidance on what would be the best course of action.
At UVM there are several reporting options for students who have been assaulted: a criminal investigation by UVM Police Services or the Burlington Police Department, an internal resolution through the Title IX office, both of those options, or neither.
A student who goes through the Title IX office can pursue a formal resolution, which can lead to a hearing and an alleged perpetrator potentially being expelled from UVM. There’s also an informal option, where both students work with a mediator to come up with a resolution.
Ware did not want to report to the police, so she went to the Title IX office. She says she was told there that a formal Title IX investigation was the only option. In a meeting shortly after she first reported, she says an administrator told her that actually an informal resolution was an option, but it would only mean mandatory counseling for her attacker and no other retribution. Ware decided to pursue the formal investigation.
Not long after she made that decision, she says she was told that in fact an informal resolution could result in more than just mandatory counseling, it could also mean she’d have a chance to read a victim impact statement, and that her attacker may be suspended from basketball games. At that point, Ware says she changed her mind and decided to pursue an informal investigation.
Ware and the Title IX office went back and forth for a while. The athletic department got involved. At one point, Ware said the Title IX office called her on the phone concerned that she didn't know what she wanted to do. She had long meetings with an outside mediator who told her he was confused as to why she wasn't pursuing a formal option. At one point Ware said someone in the Title IX office told her that the informal resolution she was pursuing could not result in game suspensions for her attacker because “it would impact other players and wouldn't be fair to them to have to play without him.”
“[That] was very difficult to hear,” Ware said.
In the end, Ware’s attacker was not allowed to attend the end-of-year athletic banquet — which was ultimately canceled because of the pandemic. He was also mandated to complete six counseling sessions and have Ware read her victim impact statement to him over Zoom.
Ware’s primary criticism of the reporting process is that she never felt clear on what each option would mean for her or for her attacker.
“It just was a very confusing process,” she said. “[I was] trying to navigate, like, the healing process of being assaulted and dealing with the Title IX process… I was traumatized from being raped, and then traumatized again by what the university put me through.”
Vitchers, with the national sexual violence prevention nonprofit It's On Us, said unfortunately, Ware’s experience isn't unusual.
While there are many factors that could contribute to a reporting process feeling confusing, Vitchers said one issue is that Title IX regulations have seen a decade of nearly constant changes.
“That has created a lot of chaos,” Vitchers said. “And has made it really difficult for even the most well-intentioned administrators to be able to wrap their arms around their responsibilities.”
What has changed?
In light of the protests, last summer, UVM decided to bring in an outside company to review their Title IX reporting process. The company, Grand River Solutions, spoke with students — including junior Syd Partin — and examined the university’s official reporting procedures.
The report was published in October and made 14 recommendations. They included putting together easy-to-follow pamphlets for students that would lay out reporting options, partnering with HOPE Works — a local nonprofit organization aiming to end sexual violence — to support students, and hiring a sexual violence education and prevention coordinator.
The university hired Elliot Ruggles for that role. He started in March. Ruggles, a survivor of childhood sexual violence himself, said he hopes to create a culture on campus in which those accused of sexual violence are held accountable, not just through the university’s formal channels, but also by the community at large.
“Sometimes I think we've forgotten that we all really want to work towards a common goal, which is less violence in our communities,” Ruggles said.
The report from Grand River Solutions primarily focused on improved communication between the university and the student body, according to Erica Caloiero, vice provost for student affairs at UVM.
“We’ve looked very carefully at the recommendations, and implemented the changes,” Caloiero said.
Syd Partin, who participated in the process, said the recommendations didn’t go far enough.
“That was kind of a slap in the face… to say that they were just not communicating very well,” she said. “The level of mishandling is more than just being a little unorganized or not communicating well.”
Both Partin and Ware are concerned that UVM’s actions do not address the root of the problems on campus. That concern was stoked by a post the university made on Instagram in February, when the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship.
Leading up the team’s win, the shareyourstoryuvm Instagram account had made several posts outlining sexual assault allegations against members of the team. When they won, comments flooded the team's Instagram page mentioning the assault allegations and imploring the university to do something.
Soon after, UVM made its own post on Instagram. The post simultaneously congratulated the basketball team on their victory and asked that anonymous accusations of sexual assault not be shared on social media. The post stated that such accusations “are not helpful to victims or to anyone impacted by sexual violence.”
Ruggles says he doesn't agree with the university on this.
“[The account is] allowing folks who might be vulnerable to experiencing these kinds of things information about how to potentially stay safe,” Ruggles said.
However he also doesn’t think anonymous accounts are the most impactful way to address sexual violence.
“That helps in the day-to-day … but ultimately, we really need to be talking about the people who are more likely to cause harm in these ways, which is often men," Ruggles said.
What is most effective, he argues, is creating a culture of accountability on campus, in which those accused of assault are held to account not only through a formal process but through community conversation. Ruggles says creating a culture like this takes time, and it starts with students and other community members regularly having difficult conversations about sexual violence.
After that Instagram post by the university, some students were left feeling disheartened, and like all the recent changes haven’t had much of an impact on the larger culture on campus.
Kendall Ware initially felt excited about Elliot Ruggles’ hiring, and she thought some of the steps laid out in the Grand River Solutions report might make a difference. But her perspective has changed.
“I think that that Instagram post… really illuminates what they value," Ware said. "And unfortunately, I don't think they value survivors’ voices here at UVM."
Partin is concerned that new brochures and even hiring new passionate people will not address the deeper issues at UVM, which she believes come from a culture in which some students are valued more than others.
“Colleges are businesses; they want money. And they’re… likely to do everything in their power to keep that money flow coming, [rather than] getting justice for the survivor coming forward,” she said.
When asked about Partin’s comment, Ruggles said he hopes some students are not valued over others, but he said it’s an important question to ask.
”Sometimes it does behoove us… to follow money. And think about where we, as a culture, put our resources and energy,” Ruggles said.
Partin said a change that would feel meaningful to her would be a staffing overhaul in the administration. She thinks there are too many administrators who have let down victims, and having them on campus makes it difficult to move forward.
“Once the damage is done, the damage is done,” Partin said.
What comes next?
At this stage, UVM says it has no further plans to change the Title IX reporting process.
Partin and Ware both said that even with the changes the university has made in the past year, they have little faith future UVM students will be safer on campus. However, Partin said there is one thing that does give her hope for the future, and that’s her fellow students.
“Regardless of what happens with the school we have each other, we have our community, and that can't be taken away from anyone,” she said.