By EMILY HOLLINGSWORTH
In a press conference outside of George Washington Hall at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, May Feminists United on Campus and the Feminist Majority Foundation, a national women’s rights organization that began working with FUC since their inception, announced and discussed a Title IX sex discrimination complaint filed concerning the University of Mary Washington’s administration and its response to instances of harassment through social media.
The decision to file the Title IX complaint to UMW was discussed by FUC in March and the final decision was made in the beginning of April, according to Gaylynn Burroughs, director of policy and research at the Feminist Majority Foundation. The death of Grace Mann, an executive board member of FUC, also motivated the group’s final decision.
According to Debra Katz, one of the attorneys representing FUC in their case, the complaint addresses the University’s failure to comply with Title IX rules in addressing cyber bullying and threats of violence against the group through Yik Yak, an anonymous social media application.
Eleanor Smeal, national women’s rights leader and president of Feminist Majority Foundation, Lisa Banks, attorney and lawyer of the firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, and Gaylynn Burroughs, director of policy and research at the Feminist Majority Foundation, all spoke at the conference on behalf of FUC.
In addition, UMW students who spoke at the press conference included Kristine Harner, sophomore and executive board member of Feminists United, Zakaria Kronemer, senior and co-founder of Divest UMW, and Julia Michels, rising senior and president of Feminist United, who also read a statement from an anonymous student.
The goals of the case include: banning access to Yik Yak from the university’s wireless network, contacting Yik Yak directly to disable the application for UMW and asking the administration to organize a mandatory assembly to explain rape culture and social media harassment.
Smeal, who spoke about cases regarding sexual assault nationwide, wanted to emphasize that the goal of the case is not limited to preventing social media-based and online harassment, but to also prevent harassment and sexual violence from happening in person stating that, “Sexual assault isn’t just something to speak about, this is a threat on this campus.”
According to the Free Lance-Star, the number of complaints regarding sexual violence filed to the Department of Education at colleges increased from nine in 2009 to 102 in 2014. In addition, the number of forcible sex offenses reported to the Department of Education nearly doubled from 3,264 in 2009 to 6,106 in 2014.
FUC’s complaint was sent to the U.S. Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights at the District of Columbia Office and requests that the Office for Civil Rights investigates the issue and secures assurance from the university that action will be taken for the issues presented.
During the press conference, Michels addressed the backlash FUC received from Yik Yak users after the administration’s decision to suspend the men’s rugby team following multiple team members’ participation in an explicit chant the previous semester in an off-campus house.
According to Michels, members of FUC spoke to the administration after they heard about the chant. However, the group was not involved in the administration’s decision regarding the men’s rugby team. Furthermore, the administration did not correct the rumors that FUC was involved in the decision, though Michels had asked the administration at least three times.
Michels believes if students were informed of the group’s lack of involvement in the decision, they would have received less backlash following the team’s suspension.
In response, President Hurley released a statement through email saying that the administration had received a media advisory on Wednesday detailing the press conference organized by Feminist Majority Foundation.
Further, Hurley described the administration’s goals in the matter, which include creating a safe environment for UMW students, though the administration disagreed with details given at the conference.
“While we disagree with many of the details and content in this morning’s press conference,” Hurley said, “we do share the ultimate goal of maintaining a safe environment for the entire campus community.”
Hurley also stated that the administration has actively worked with students to address issues of sexual violence and harassment and has prioritized safety for students.
“Let me make this clear,” Hurley said, “This University takes any allegation of gender-based violence very seriously. And, as some of you are aware, the administration has been actively engaged throughout the academic year with members of Feminists United and other students to address issues of safety and campus culture. Creating a safe learning and living environment is our first and foremost concern and I am pleased with the outpouring of students’ support shown today about how safe they feel on campus.”
Michels hopes that the investigation and the actions of the U.S. Board of Education, the Office of Civil Rights and the UMW administration will prevent other students from receiving harassment on or off social media.
“No one should walk around and wonder if the person next to them had threatened them,” Michels said following the press conference.