Anonymous Op-Ed by Sexual Assault Survivor Sparks Student Movement

Nearly a month ago, an anonymous op-ed accused Georgetown University of failing to adequately support survivors of sexual assault on its campus. Now, the university is hosting open, public sessions to allow the community to voice their concerns with the new Title IX rules proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on November 16.

On November 8, the Hoya published an anonymous op-ed, titled “‘I Couldn’t Take Disappointment’: How Georgetown Fails Survivors,” which described a female student’s experience attempting to report her sexual assault to Georgetown University’s Title IX office. Emma Oechsner (COL ’21), who assisted in writing the piece, spoke with the Caravel about her involvement.

“As a survivor myself—who never took the steps to pursue a case or even report—I was enraged,” Oechsner described her disappointment with the university’s handling of her anonymous friend’s Title IX case. “So I took a lead in crafting the piece for the Hoya and worked with my two friends, and we produced a piece that conveyed their pain and highlighted that the issue is historical, pervasive, and institutionally encoded.”

In conjunction with the article’s publication, GU Survivors—a newly formed student group—chalked Red Square on the night of November 8 with messages like “#MeToo” and “We Have the Right to be Heard.” According to the GU Survivors’ Facebook page, the university used golf carts and other vehicles “to discourage [the chalked messages] from being seen or recorded” and subsequently washed all chalk from the walls.

“It is hard for the authors of the story not to take these actions personally,” Oechsner, who responded to the Caravel’s questions via email in consultation with the op-ed’s anonymous author, said. “This is their home. Right now the response, or lack thereof, from the university doesn't make it feel like home.”

Asked to comment on the op-ed’s criticism of the university’s reporting process, Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Rosemary Kilkenny reaffirmed the university’s “longstanding commitment to preventing and addressing sexual assault and misconduct through comprehensive trainings, programs, and engagement with the campus community.” Kilkenny emphasized the university’s plan to launch a second sexual misconduct climate survey in early 2019 and its continuing search for a well-qualified Title IX coordinator. Although she did not provide a timeline for appointing the new coordinator, she said that Georgetown invited “a number of candidates to campus in recent weeks who have met with key campus partners and student leaders.”

The publication of the op-ed prompted a number of responses on campus. GU Survivors received many anonymous accounts from both current and former students sharing their own experiences, as well as messages of support from parents and individuals unaffiliated with the university. Students Taking Action against Interpersonal Violence (STAIV), a student group, was also formed (it is independent of GU Survivors). According to their mission statement, the group’s aim is to “hold the university accountable to its legal and ethical obligations of protection and care for all students.”

STAIV delivered a letter to the office of President John DiGioia concerning the changes to Title IX proposed by DeVos on November 16. DeVos’ new rules have received significant pushback from activists, media outlets, and student organizations that believe these new provisions would make it easier for perpetrators on college campuses to get away with their actions. In their letter, STAIV pointed specifically to DeVos’ redefinition of sexual harassment, which limits the scope of what universities must investigate; her proposal to allow cross-examination of survivors by their perpetrators, which they said could retraumatize victims; and her removal of university responsibility to investigate off-campus assault.

In addition, the letter demanded that the university publicly explain to the student body how the proposed Title IX changes would affect Georgetown and whether they would be supported and adopted by the university as they are. On November 28, the Office of the President sent an email to the student body announcing that Title IX “listening sessions” would take place the week of December 3 to allow the community to express their concerns with DeVos’ new rules. Whether the listening sessions were scheduled in response to STAIV’s demands is unclear; the email does state, however, that the university “recognize[s] that members of our community may have a wide range of views on the proposed regulations.”

Oechsner and the anonymous op-ed author hope that STAIV and other individuals and organizations will continue to fight for improving the campus climate and culture and holding the university administration accountable for its practices. To sustain the momentum, GU Survivors—which Oechsner and the anonymous op-ed author helped to found—built an active social media presence on Facebook and Instagram, where it shares the stories of other survivors.

“We hope to give voices of survivors a platform and create a general community of survivors and supporters on campus,” Oechsner said. “There has been a culture of silence, but we hope to create a community where people feel safe and empowered to share their stories.”