By IZZY BRIONES
On April 8, University of Mary Washington students received an email on the impending visit of government representatives from the U.S. Department of Education.
The reasoning for the email, as well as for the visit of the Office of Civil Rights representatives was said to be, “regarding institutional and community response to reported incidents of sexual harassment, including those incidents stemming from social media use during the 2014-15 academic year,” the email said.
In May of last year, a total of eight students including Julia Michels, Paige McKinsey, Kristine Harner, Jordan Williams and Alexis Lehman, filed a Title IX complaint against UMW.
The complaint filed last year was said in the Free Lance-Star to have stemmed from threats of rape and death, in addition to cyberstalking towards Feminists United that resulted from the club’s “speaking out against Greek life and an explicit chant by the UMW rugby club,” the Free Lance-Star reported. With the help of the law office of Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP their complaint resulted in visits from U.S. Department of Education’s OCR representatives.
On April 18 and 19 UMW hosted these representatives who met with students in student-only focus groups privately. The representatives of OCR also held “office hours” during which students could meet individually with them to share their perspectives on the important issues at hand.
An email was sent from the Office of the President regarding these visits stating the following:
“OCR has opened an investigation of [a] complaint filed against the University on May 7, 2015, alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and retaliation. The OCR has jurisdiction to enforce Title IX, federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity receiving federal funds. The University intends to cooperate fully with the OCR in its investigation of the complaint.”
Another email from the university stated that students would not need to provide their names to the visitors, and that OCR would not share the names of participating students with the university to maintain privacy.
“The complaint [alleged] that UMW condoned and ratified a sexually hostile environment by permitting the ongoing gender-based cyberstalking and cyber assaults [through the use of Yik Yak] of Feminists United members…Attorney Debra Katz said the messages numbered more than 700…The complaint claims that in failing to take any action, UMW violated its legal obligations under Title IX,” the Free Lance-Star reported.
Kelli Musick who graduated from UMW in 2015 and was a part of the Feminist United Club now works for Feminist Majority and was one student behind the complaint.
“When you’re a student, your university has a legal and moral obligation to protect you…when [the] environment becomes hostile, the administration is obliged to do something about it…Feminists United – as both a collective and individual members – were targeted last year with in-person and online harassment, as well as online threats of physical and sexual violence. The actions – and inaction – that allowed that to happen cannot go uncorrected,” Musick stated.
She hopes that OCR will listen to the university’s students and take into account those who were affected by last year’s events.
“I hope that OCR [recommends that the]… University addresses the patterns of harassment against women who speak out against gender-based violence…I hope the
Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will hold members of the administration accountable for their roles in permitting that harassment and provide a structure to prevent other students from facing what members of Feminists United had to endure last year.”
In addition, Musick criticized an open letter that President Hurley wrote to Feminists United President Ellie Smeal, in which Hurley stated that the complaint filed by Feminist Majority Foundation was “recklessly publicized” with “unsubstantiated claims and misinformation.”
This was due to the fact that the Feminist Majority Foundation had scheduled a press conference which Hurley said was to seek media attention when the university had scheduled a meeting to discuss the allegations beforehand. Hurley continued by discussing the complaint which stated that, “UMW ‘ignored’ students’ concerns regarding comments made on the social media app Yik Yak,” an allegation Hurley called, “demonstrably false.”
“UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws – not just Title IX. The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech, and banning Yik Yak is tantamount to a content-based prohibition on speech,” Hurley said.
Hurley continued by discussing the death of Grace Mann, who was a member of the Feminist United Club. He said it was irresponsible to claim that Mann’s murder was related to the rise in, “explicit and offensive comments on Yik Yak”
“Pursuing a media campaign based on speculation is likely to undermine FMF’s and UMW’s mutual goal of affecting positive change…UMW is committed to fostering a supportive, safe and positive environment for all of our students – men and women alike,” Hurley said.