BLACKSBURG — A spirited group of hundreds of Virginia Tech students walked out of class and marched across campus to express their frustrations with the university’s Title IX office Tuesday afternoon.
The crowd demanded reform in that office and for the school to increase its efforts to stop sexual assault, which Title IX covers. They ended their march at the North End Center, where Tech’s Title IX office is based.
They handed their demands over to Kelly Oaks, Tech’s assistant vice president for Equity and Accessibility, who was flanked by police officers. Then more than a dozen speakers shared their stories of being sexually assaulted, the stories of their friends and what people can do to combat the problem to a crowd of about 500. Over the course of the march, the size of the group fluctuated to almost 1,000 people.
Local activist Phyllis Albritton, who has participated in Blacksburg protest movements since the 1970s, said it was one of the largest student action protests she’s seen at Tech.
The walkout was organized by Tech students Sabrina Ahmad and Juan Pacheco.
They said they were drawn to action by fellow student Rachel Bailey who last week tweeted “shoutout to Virginia Tech for finding my rapist not guilty and for putting ME on deferred suspension for SELF DEFENSE. I’ve never been more disappointed to be a Hokie.”
Bailey said she was frustrated with her Title IX case that began in December and was ongoing until this month. She said a fellow student assaulted her and he accused her of being verbally abusive to him, which landed her on deferred suspension. He was, though, suspended because of an unrelated drug arrest and has been banned from campus, she said.
The stress from the hearings was too much, she said. She’s had difficulty getting out of bed and to classes this semester as her Title IX investigation played out, she said.
University spokesman Mark Owczarski declined to comment on the specifics of Bailey's case.
Tuesday’s event invigorated her, she said, because to get so much support was “inspiring.” That was a sentiment reflected by many of the sexual assault victims who also spoke.
The group called for reform. As the gathered students marched to the Title IX office to present a list of eight demands, they also posted printed out emails of crime alerts from Virginia Tech Police to raise awareness of the assaults because those emails might "be the only justice victims receive," Pacheco said.
"We're standing in solidarity to make our institution better,” Ahmad said.
“This can be a home for everyone,” Pacheco said. “We just have to fight for it.”
Tech President Tim Sands released an open letter to the university community Tuesday about sexual assault.
"No one should have to live in fear of sexual assault on a college campus," Sands wrote. "As survivors know all too well, such an experience will alter one’s life forever. For students, the trauma can significantly affect their ability to focus on learning and be an engaged member of the campus community.
"We must do everything in our power to end this threat and fundamentally change the aspects of our culture that promote sexual assault and downplay the severity of its impact. It will take all of us working together, including our campus community, parents, teachers, administrators, law enforcement, and lawmakers, to make this happen."
According to Virginia Tech’s Title IX annual report, during the 2017-18 academic year the university received 214 reports of gender based violence and harassment involving students, including 88 reports of sexual assault. The report said Title IX investigators referred 37 cases to the office for student conduct for adjudication and 19 students were found responsible for conduct violations, 16 were found not responsible and four are still pending.
The report said “In most instances, students reporting gender based violence or harassment declined to move forward with, or participate in, formal investigations. Nonetheless, many students received support and resources from the university outside of a formal investigation, including no contact orders, housing assistance, academic assistance, and referrals to counseling services.”
Tech has seen a rise in the number of gender-based violence reports. The university received 30 reports in the 2012-13 school year compared to the 214 in the last school year.
Reports, though, Sands noted don't tell the whole story, as only some are reported.
"While we are making progress in some areas, we continue to be concerned that only a small fraction of sexual assault cases are reported, and the maze of regulations and legal restrictions is becoming more complicated and difficult for survivors to navigate," he wrote.
Oaks, the Tech administrator who oversees Title IX, and Virginia Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust declined to be interviewed Tuesday, deferring comment to the Tech spokesman Owczarski.
Tthe university appreciated and supported the students and their right to march and call for reform on campus, Owczarski said.
"We encourage people's voices to be heard and when they do have concerns to express them," he said.
The university has already responded to many of the students' demands, he said. The school conducts Title IX training at new student orientation and has offered training for all new faculty and staff hires as well as for current faculty and staff, he said.
He said he hopes to continue "an ongoing dialogue" with concerned students about Title IX reform and sexual assault issues.
Ahmad said the walkout event won’t solve every problem with sexual assault on Tech’s campus and beyond. However, she hopes it starts a dialogue among students to rise together and use their voices for activism.
Tech’s semester ends in a couple weeks, and she hopes momentum from the walkout continues moving forward as students come together asking for more transparency and input into the Title IX process. Next fall, students will come back ready to have their voices heard, she said.
"I want to keep this rolling,” she said. “This is not the end and we have each other to make this change.”