UMW Feminists United file Title IX complaint against university

On May 8, 2015, Attorney Debra Katz talks about a Title IX complaint she filed alleging that the University of Mary Washington failed to protectmembers of the Feminists United club on campus from cyberstalking and threats. She says the school allowed a ‘sexually hostile climate.’

Law firm Katz Marshall & Banks, which filed a Title IX complaint against the University of Mary Washington in May, has followed up the suit with a letter to the U.S. Department of Education urging federal guidelines for dealing with anonymous social media threats on campuses nationwide.

The letter, signed by 72 national and local women’s and civil rights groups, was sent to Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon on Wednesday.

Debra Katz, who said the Office of Civil Rights has accepted the May complaint and is investigating it, also sent a letter to Yik Yak’s founders, CEO Tyler Drill and Stephen Brooks Buffington, asking them to strengthen the application’s policies to prevent harassment.

“As organizations working to advance women’s equality and civil rights, we are writing to request that the OCR promptly issue guidance to universities and colleges,” the letter begins.

The letter references the UMW complaint, which 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 letter says that online harassment disproportionately affects women and people of color, making its use a Title IX and Title VI Civil Rights Act issue.

“The Office for Civil Rights must remind schools of their legal obligation to promptly investigate and address sex- and race-based harassment, including harassment that occurs online,” the letter said. “Academic institutions currently have no explicit guidance on how to respond to sex- and race-based harassment occurring through Yik Yak and other anonymous social media applications.”

The letter also includes examples of what those guidelines could be:

• Investigating all reports of online harassment, including those that are anonymous

• Initiating campus disciplinary proceedings against individuals engaging in online harassment

• Banning anonymous social media applications that are used to threaten, intimidate or harass students

• Barring the use of campus wi-fi to view or post to these applications

• Prompt reporting of anonymous online threats of physical and sexual violence to police and the social media application

• Providing counseling and appropriate accommodations for targets

• Conducting mandatory training or intervention programs for students, faculty, and staff.

In June, UMW president Rick Hurley fired back at the groups who filed the suit, particularly the Feminist Majority Foundation, saying they have been spreading misinformation by alleging that Grace Mann was threatened on social media and scared to walk alone on campus shortly before her death.

Feminist groups say the school could have done more to enforce Title IX and mitigate the threats.

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​Lindley Estes: 540.735-1976

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