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A spirit that is not afraid

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | The town hall on sexual assault proved our worst fears

A poster from the protest against sexual assault, on Tuesday, Sept. 14
A poster from the protest against sexual assault, on Tuesday, Sept. 14

Two weeks ago, hundreds of students gathered at Toomer’s Corner in protest after three students reported incidents of sexual assault on campus in a single week. The University announced it would hold a town hall to address concerns regarding sexual violence on campus as the first protest was underway. 

After sitting through the two-hour town hall last Wednesday, I can say that if addressing students’ concerns was the goal, the panelists did anything but.

The town hall’s panel consisted of Clarence Stewart, Assistant Chief of Auburn Police; Susan McCallister, Director of Campus Safety and Compliance; Katherine Weathers, Senior Deputy Title IX Coordinator; Joleen Cooper-Bhatia, Associate Director of Student Counseling and Psychological Services; Bridget Nelson, graduate assistant at the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness Services, Judith White, Prevention and Survivor Advocacy; and Grace Cox, President of It's On Us. 

The first hour of the meeting was dedicated to prepared questions submitted by the Student Government Association. This section was a rundown of Auburn’s existing programs and policies regarding sexual violence on campus.  For the second half of the meeting, the panel opened the floor to students for questions and comments. I highly recommend you watch the whole town hall if you were unable to attend.

Both sections of the town hall were problematic. While answering the prepared questions from the SGA, many of the panelists misrepresented, dodged or completely ignored the concerns that students have been bringing up since the first protest. Here are some of the highlights:  

“I would like folks to know that Auburn goes above and beyond what is required compliance wise.” – Katherine Weathers, Senior Deputy Title IX Coordinator.

“Generally, there is not a lot of value in sharing that information [regarding people and organizations involved in sex crimes] because of the nature of the reports that we receive and the limited amount of information. There’s not enough to say that, that person is specifically a threat that needs to be disclosed.” – Susan McAllister, Director of Campus Safety and Compliance.

“Auburn University is a safe campus.” – Kelvin King, Executive Director of Campus Safety and Security. 

These three examples may not seem like such a big deal, but the language used throughout the meeting was emotionally devastating for survivors of sexual violence, and the dismissive and uninterested tone was disturbing to everyone in the audience.  Senior Deputy Coordinator Weathers implied because Auburn does more than it is legally required to, we have no right to complain. Director McAllister completely misrepresented the demands of students, who have asked not for the perpetrators' names to be disclosed, certainly not before a thorough investigation.  

Instead, students have asked organizations involved to be named once the investigation has been completed. Finally, Executive Director King’s placating comment dismissed the concerns of students entirely. It was clear to everyone in attendance, both in person and on Zoom, that the panel was not taking students’ concerns seriously. More importantly, it was clear the administration has no intention to make any changes to its sexual violence policies.

 And something must change. In the U.S., 13% of all undergraduate students experience sexual violence before they graduate, 26% of female students, and 7% of male students.  That’s 1 in 4 women and 1 in 20 men on any given campus. These are national statistics, but we are not exempt from this phenomenon.  

Auburn prides itself as a safe campus, just like Executive Director King said at the town hall.  For the most part, it is, with one major exception: sex crimes. The lack of crime can be attributed to the Auburn Police Department and the campus’s abundant social equity programs. It can also be attributed to the fact Auburn students live and work so close together, it is almost impossible not to hold our fellow students accountable.  

Most students feel comfortable leaving their bags unattended on campus, and very few worry about violent crime. However, the sad truth is female students are twice as likely to be raped than robbed on a college campus. Perhaps this trend is because sexual assault is a crime we do not want to hold each other accountable for.

Like on all college campuses, the root of the problem lies not with law enforcement, but in the culture. There is a culture on Auburn’s campus that encourages abuses of power. This culture stems from the idea using your power over others to embarrass, harass or abuse them is not only normal, but it is your right. This ideology encourages all the most toxic behavior on our campus, including but not limited to sexual violence.  

The university allows this ideology to flourish in many of its institutions, but most of all in its fraternities. It is normalized that sex crimes will occur in frat houses. The list of fraternities that are infamous for being unsafe is passed down by students in an attempt to protect each other. 

The university is aware of the reputation of the fraternities it hosts, but accepts this violence as a fact of life, as an acceptable price for having fraternities on campus. Also, because it is unwilling to confront or combat rape culture in Greek life, Auburn University has followed in the tradition of placing the burden on women to prevent their own assaults.

Women on college campuses are 12% less likely to report their assault than non-student women in the same age range. This can be largely explained by how schools talk about sexual violence prevention. Because universities always place the onus on women to prevent being assaulted, female students are more likely to feel like their assault is somehow their fault.

The panel spent a significant portion of the town hall talking about sexual violence prevention. No one offered any information on how the university was working to prevent potential perpetrators from sexually assaulting other students. Instead, we heard a lot of different resources to help Auburn women protect themselves, either through self-defense or avoiding potentially high-risk situations. This language reinforces the idea that sex crimes are inevitable on college campuses, and if you become a victim, it is because you did not do enough to protect yourself.  

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This messaging is also harmful in how it is directed specifically at female students, making male students feel as if they do not need to protect themselves from this form of violence.  This makes men more vulnerable to sexual violence and even less likely to report abuse when it occurs. This cultural problem is the first thing Auburn University should address to prevent sexual violence on our campus.

I spoke at length about all the concerns above, and many others, at the end of the question-and-answer portion of the town hall. I never received a response. The host of the event quickly thanked the panelists and ended the event before any of them could respond to my questions, accusations, or suggestions. For the entirety of the town hall, the panelists towed the company line.  

None offered even the slightest reassurance that the University was looking to change its policies. In fact, the only person who managed to give a helpful answer regarding constructive change was Grace Cox, president of the student organization It’s On Us, who explained how the organization was planning to improve its Greek Engagement Program. Most of the other panelists dodged students’ concerns and suggestions throughout the meeting, culminating in their deafening silence when I turned away from the microphone.  

It is truly disheartening to see those who are supposed to protect us take so little interest in our concerns about our safety and health. The insensitivity of some of the panelists, especially those not representing Auburn’s survivor support resources, exemplified the belief shared by many survivors that the school has no interest in protecting them or helping them recover. 

Many of the university’s representatives did not even have the decency to use the appropriate, sensitive language surrounding sexual violence. This terminology is taught in all sexual assault training to ensure that survivors are not retraumatized. The fact that many of the panelists either have not received this training or are not actively applying it is further proof of the school’s lack of consideration for survivors.

Last week’s town hall was supposed to pacify students who were angry and afraid so that the administration could return to the status quo without much resistance. It could have worked, but the disrespect, disregard and apathy showed to Auburn students, survivors or not, have renewed the resolve of those who demand that the university do better.  

The men and women who stood up to protest Auburn’s abysmal response to the epidemic of sexual violence on its campus will continue to speak up, and they will continue to grow until their shouts echo throughout the entire city. 

We will not be dismissed. 

We will not be silenced.  

We will not be belittled, and we will not return to the status quo.

Joelle Woggerman is a junior in biochemistry, and the Vice President of the Auburn University College Democrats. 

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