University of Mary Washington student Julia Michels says she became so fearful during the semester that ended last week that she began carrying her keys between her knuckles and a rape whistle to make the 30-foot walk between her apartment and car.
Michels is one of eight complainants in a Title IX complaint against UMW who spoke at the university Thursday morning about anonymous threats against her and her friends during the academic year.
“I wish I could say this is the first time my beloved school’s administration has thrown me and my friends under the bus, and ignored our concerns,” she said. “I wish I could say that, but I can’t.”
The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday and alleges that members of the Feminists United club on campus were threatened with rape and death, as well as being cyberstalked, after speaking out against Greek life and an explicit chant by the UMW rugby club.
The club, the national Feminist Majority Foundation and individual students, including former Feminists United president Paige McKinsey, Kristine Harner, Jordan Williams, Alexis Lehman and Michels, filed a Title IX complaint against the school Thursday through the law office of Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP. The other complainant’s name was redacted from the filing because she is a sexual assault victim.
The complaint alleges that UMW condoned and ratified a sexually hostile environment by permitting the ongoing gender-based cyberstalking and cyberassaults of Feminists United members.
Members of the club say they were repeatedly harassed through the anonymous social media application Yik Yak. Attorney Debra Katz said the messages numbered more than 700.
Examples include: “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and [rape] them . . . ,” “Dandy’s about to kill a b---- or two, ” and “Can we euthanize whoever cause this bull----?”
The complaint says the club reported the messages to the university during meetings and in email correspondence with President Rick Hurley and members of the administration, including the Title IX coordinator.
Responses included in the complaint show the former female-only school was reluctant to ban the application from campus computer networks because of First Amendment concerns. The complaint claims that in failing to take any action, UMW violated its legal obligations under Title IX.
UMW released a statement Thursday after the news conference, stating that the administration has been actively engaged with members of Feminists United and other students to address issues of safety and campus culture.
“While we disagree with many of the details and content in this morning’s press conference, we do share the ultimate goal of maintaining a safe environment in collaboration with campus partners,” the statement said. “Any allegation of gender-based violence is taken very seriously.”
UMW said it will cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights regarding the concerns put forward in the Title IX complaint.
“Creating a safe learning and living environment is our first and foremost concern,” Hurley said. He noted that the school had received via email and Facebook an “outpouring of student support . . . about how safe they feel on campus.”
Four sexual assaults have been reported at the roughly 5,200-student school this year, the same number as last year.
The complaint says the threatening messages began when Feminists United increased efforts to educate the campus about sexual assault by handing out pamphlets at the beginning of the school year. The messages continued after the club opposed requests to sanction fraternities on campus and increased when a recording of the UMW rugby club chanting a sexually explicit chant about rape, murder and necrophilia at a party came to light.
Some believed the club, which released a transcript of the chant to the public, was responsible for UMW suspending the team indefinitely.
At the media event Thursday, UMW graduating senior and student activist Zakaria Kronemer said he was the one who recorded the chant. He said that after confronting the rugby players who participated, he was taunted and physically pushed from the party.
“Rape culture became real to me in a way it never had before,” he said.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said Feminists United and its leaders repeatedly told school administrators that they had been threatened and were afraid because “there was a rape culture that was allowed to prevail.”
“I am appalled that administrators repeatedly did nothing to stop threats against and to alleviate the experienced-based fears of [Feminists United] and its members.”
She called the complaint “historic in dealing with a sexually hostile environment.”
The complaint also alleges that Grace Mann, the UMW student and member of Feminists United who was killed three weeks ago, was scared to be on campus. Attorney Katz said the complaint does not allege that the university caused Mann’s death, but that it “failed to act in the face of vicious abuse and ridicule” Mann suffered.
The complaint includes multiple Yik Yak posts in which Mann was called out.
UMW student Steven Vander Briel, 30, has been charged with first-degree murder and abduction in Mann’s death. Briel, 30, shared an off-campus house with Mann and two other female students. Police have not disclosed a possible motive for the slaying.
“We do believe that the sexually hostile climate that has been allowed to fester at this institution has created an unsafe situation for women,” Katz said.
Michels said she hopes the threats did not have anything to do with Mann’s death. But she said when she heard the news about her friend’s death, her thoughts immediately went to the threats.
“I know she had been mentioned by name on Yik Yak, and I know she was scared, as I am,” Michels said. “I know she was angry, as I am. Most of all, I know she was disappointed in her school for failing to protect her, just as I am disappointed at UMW for failing me.”
The group wanted UMW to contact Yik Yak directly about the threats and have the app disabled on campus, ban it from UMW’s Wi-Fi and require mandatory sexual assault and cyber bullying training for all students.
The complaint will be investigated by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which handles Title IX investigations. Legal counsel said results of the investigation could be expected by the beginning of the next school year.