Hundreds turn out for KU sexual assault forum; student group demands investigation

Lawrence resident Lisa Roberts, center, cries as she listens to an account of rape from a victim during a forum on sexual assault Tuesday at the Ecumenical Campus Ministries building. Students, community members and university faculty attended and listened as several people voiced their frustrations with what they called the university's mishandling of reported sexual assaults.

Frustration with the culture surrounding sexual violence and how it is investigated at Kansas University reached an even more vocal level Tuesday, with 200-plus people gathering at a public forum and a student group decrying the school as unsafe.

The day began with a video posted by student group the September Siblings that warned would-be KU enrollees against attending the school, saying it isn’t safe. The video included audio of anonymous victims describing their experiences with rape and failed investigations in its aftermath.

The September Siblings is also petitioning for an overhaul of the way the university investigates allegations of sexual assault.

“KU is not a safe place for students, and no high school seniors should enroll here until it is,” said the group, which has about 50 members.

Tuesday evening, more than 200 people packed into Ecumenical Christian Ministries, located just off campus, to speak out against sexual violence and the growing controversy at KU. More than a dozen people addressed the audience, which overflowed the forum’s available seating.

The activism stems from recent reports of a KU student who said she was raped in 2013 and whose assailant was given what the victim called a lenient punishment. KU has declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality required by federal law.

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said his office is reviewing the case. On Tuesday, Branson’s office announced there were “no updates we can provide at this time.”

The petition presses for KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s administration to investigate KU’s offices of Institutional Opportunity & Access and Student Affairs, or IOA, which handles allegations of sexual assault. It also demands mandatory sexual-assault training for all KU students and elimination of the term “non-consensual sex” in investigations. “It is rape,” the petition states.

Speakers at Tuesday night’s forum blasted the university’s current educational approach to sexual-assault awareness, saying it lacked rigor, sincerity and enforcement of participation.

“Clearly, this education is not enough,” said student Hobbes Entrikin.

The petition also calls for a reinvestigation of cases of professors, administrators and students who remain at KU after they were accused of sexual assault and harassment. The group makes several other demands and says in the video it cannot in good faith recommend students come to KU until its demands are met.

Gray-Little and Provost Jeff Vitter last week met with student leaders including Emma Halling, acting student body president; Tyler Childress, acting student body vice president; and Angela Murphy, Student Senate graduate affairs director. It was a productive meeting and the dialogue will continue, according to KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson.

Responding to critics, Gray-Little said the school was open to recommendations to make changes to make students feel safe. But she also argued students needed to look out for each other, words that sparked criticism for victim-blaming.

Speakers at Tuesday night’s forum attacked the general culture of alcohol as it relates to sexual-assault awareness among the KU community. Carol Elk, a KU employee, said she felt safer walking through parts of New York City than in areas of Lawrence where students dominate.

“The amount of alcohol that’s consumed, and the sort of behavior that these mostly fraternity guys think that they can get away with, and the amount of times I’ve been cat-called” drive her fears, she said.

Other speakers touched on personal experiences of rape, the misunderstandings of what is consensual sex and victim-blaming. Repeatedly, speakers implored KU and the community in general to better educate themselves on sexual assault and how to deal with its aftermath.

“Our silence leads us to perpetuate the myth that sexual violence is a small problem and the problem of an individual,” said Alesha Doan, the chair of KU’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “In reality, sexual violence is a societal problem, and it demands a solution that treats it as a collective problem that erodes communities.”

Three public universities in Kansas — KU, Kansas State University and Washburn University — are among 76 schools nationwide being investigated by the federal government for their handling of sexual-assault cases.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has listed the schools as part of a probe into sexual violence on campus. The list doesn’t include specific information about what case got a school included, and the universities in Kansas, including KU, have declined to provide details.

Halling, the acting student body president, was listed as a contact for the September Siblings group.

She said she agreed with the group’s message of warning people against coming to KU, saying she hoped the discussions going on now will lead to greater protections for students.

“KU has an opportunity to emerge as a national leader as to how we treat victims of sexual assault,” she said.