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Title Mine: How Washington University Woke Up to the Issue of Sexual Assault on Campus

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Title Mine organizers had a loose structure, but a well-organized game plan. - ANNA WILSON
  • ANNA WILSON
  • Title Mine organizers had a loose structure, but a well-organized game plan.

At 3:45 p.m. on April 26, ten days after the publication of "Not a Threat," cries of "WHOSE SCHOOL? OUR SCHOOL" broke out in the student-center courtyard.

"The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of people at the rally, including faculty members and administrators," Cai says.

Organizers distributed flyers with chants on them as well as a final list of demands. One leader read a short statement by Nat, who'd chosen to maintain her anonymity. She was among the crowd that day.

"I didn't feel the need to take up space at the rally when there were more than enough other voices to fill in," she says. "So I just wrote a little bit of an introduction, because I thought it would be weird if I didn't have any presence."

Organizers then turned over the mic. Student after student after professor stood up to share their experiences. Others submitted anonymously through a Google form and had their stories read by Title Mine members. The rally continued for more than two hours.

Cai broke down in tears at its conclusion, overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotion. For Rachel, the rally was an opportunity to deliver an impassioned address. For Yaggi, the rally was a final push to write her story down. And for Hannah, still struggling to determine if she had experienced a "real assault," the rally provided something she'd been searching for all along. She realized, she says, that even if she can understand the gray areas, "I am still validated in feeling like something happened that was wrong. And at the end of the day he did do something wrong and it wasn't my fault. It was really emotional."

Chancellor Mark Wrighton, Webb and Kennedy were among the administrators present.

"It was very hard to listen to the students talk about their experiences and how it has affected them in negative ways, and not just their experiences here, but their experiences growing up," Kennedy says. "But I was really glad they had the forum in which to say what they did."

The next day, the entire student body received an email from Wrighton.

"It was a heart-wrenching two hours. Hearing the personal stories and knowing that we have fallen short in effectively supporting victims of life-shattering sexual assaults is very difficult," he wrote in the email. "I am deeply troubled that even one of our students would be assaulted by another student. It was extremely important to me to hear firsthand from you, and I appreciated the opportunity to be present."

Wrighton made four commitments to be acted upon by the start of the fall semester: develop a plan to streamline the Title IX process, invest more in survivor resources and mental health services, create a peer-advocacy program to assist those going through the Title IX process and create accountability measures. White, he wrote, would supervise this work.

The week after the rally, six Title Mine organizers sat down with White and Webb.

"You hear such amazing things about both women on campus, but just getting to sit down with both of them and have what I felt was a very open dialogue where I was able to feel comfortable specifically speaking to how students on our campus deserve to be better accommodated," says Candace Hayes, one of the student organizers.

Cai says that White seemed open to the suggestions the organizers made. Hayes recalls White taking detailed notes.

"We were all a little bit apprehensive and we didn't really know what to expect because we had been taking this antagonistic destructive stance against the administration, but they were extending good will toward us," Cai says. "So on one hand, I felt like we wanted to grab the opportunity and be able to work with the administration, but we didn't want to betray the original destructive angry message the movement was meant to send."

In the fall 2017 semester, university administrators had co-hosted three Title IX listening sessions. The administrators say they found them helpful in understanding students' perspective.

"I think one of the other things we discovered in the listening sessions is, we have to think about better ways to help students understand the process," White says. Often, she says, it's not until students file a report that they learn about the process. "And in the midst of a traumatic experience, that's really overwhelming."

Today, both the student organizers and the administrators emphasize the importance of collaboration.

In addition to working with the administration on its five core demands, Title Mine has worked to keep the momentum going. They hope to make better training mandatory for student groups that host large social events. They are negotiating a relationship with local nonprofit Safe Connections to ensure training and therapy. They also plan to provide a platform where students can select training options that fit their organization's needs.

Perhaps the most visual manifestation of the group's continuing efforts was its Red Tape Initiative. As commencement approached, Title Mine set up shop outside the bookstore where seniors pick up their caps and gowns. There, members distributed strips of red tape for seniors to place on their graduation caps, either as a strip or in the shape of "IX."

The idea, says Cai, was to let graduates "show their solidarity with survivors of sexual assault."

Cai adds, "And we thought it was particularly important to show the privilege that certain perpetrators at Wash U have been given by being allowed to graduate and the burden being placed upon survivors to have to graduate with their perpetrators and see their perpetrators at graduation and commencement."

As her case is still pending, Nat cannot say whether her assailant was among the sea of green-and-black robes May 20. What she does say, with slow, careful words and a tight voice, is this: "If there is a case currently pending against someone, they don't graduate."

At her academic division recognition ceremony, Nat displayed red tape. But when it came time for the university-wide commencement ceremony, she was running late. Plus, it was raining. She never put on her tape. And so, in her commencement photos, Nat looks like any other student: no red tape. And in a lot of ways, she feels like one too.

"As life-encompassing as this was, the big part of the story is the last three weeks of my senior year..." she says. "But I don't think it was by any means a bad four years. I have made some of the best friends that I have ever had. I have had some of the greatest memories ever."

And when it was time to move out of that sterile temporary dorm, she threw away the newspapers she'd painstakingly collected.

"I felt like I needed to move to different things," Nat says. "I said, 'OK, I had this space and I focused on this. And this was like my project, this was my life while I was here.' But I still have a life outside of this. And I need to be part of that."

Alison Gold is a junior at Washington University studying psychology, writing and design. She is the director of online content at Student Life. This summer, she interned at Riverfront Times.

** Names of some students have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Editor's note: The version of this story published in print contains a mistake due to an editing error. Nat's friend overheard her ex plotting her own murder, not the murder of Nat. We regret the error.