Sexual violence survivors demand action from USF on their cases

After USF students and alumni who survived on-campus sexual violence came forward with their stories over the summer, the university said it would investigate the allegations, but survivors feel there remains a lack of initiative and tangible action from administration. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Over the summer, USF students and alumni came forward with personal stories of sexual violence while at its campuses. Even though the administration launched an inquiry July 1 regarding allegations made on various social media platforms around the same time, survivors believe not enough was done to achieve justice for their cases.

Now, survivors want to see more initiative on behalf of the university in terms of holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.

“They definitely need to, I don’t want to say, punish, but hold organizations responsible,” said sexual assault survivor and USF alumna Chelsea Engel. 

Besides demanding action from the university, survivors are also looking for more transparency and tangible action from USF in responding to the issue of sexual assault on its campuses.

“I would have responded more and remembered [the university statement] more if I thought they were actually going to take real action about it, because I feel like this happens all the time, where universities just say they’re going to do something or that they care, and then it just kind of gets swept under the rug once again,” said sexual assault survivor and USF alumna Elizabeth Stafford. “And that’s just kind of like how I felt like it was handled.”

Over the summer, the sexual violence allegations were brought to the attention of Dean of Students Danielle McDonald, who attempted to schedule meetings with students to hear their concerns. However, no meetings came to fruition.

“I always offer to meet and talk directly with students about their concerns as I believe that is more constructive,” said McDonald in an email to The Oracle. “It helps me clear up any matters and helps me see if there are ways we as a university can improve.

“Not everyone is satisfied with that conversation as sometimes I am limited in what I can share that would provide clarity, or I am limited in what I can do to resolve the concerns.”

With a portion of the sexual violence stories involving Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL), Engel said that survivors want to see immediate preventive action in that part of campus life. 

“It’s been a few months and absolutely nothing has happened, nothing has changed. They still did recruitment for fraternities and sororities,” said Engel. “When that was one of the No. 1 things we were asking for is like, ‘You guys need to postpone recruitment if you have this unsafe environment where this many people are coming forward and telling you that they were victimized during their time in [FSL].’”

A petition started three months ago and posted on Twitter titled “Call on USF to Delay Greek Recruitment After Allegations of Sexual Misconduct” had received 925 signatures as of Oct. 11. The petition was drafted by alumni of FSL organizations at USF, according to its webpage.

Sexual assault survivor and USF student Christine Njiri shared similar thoughts on the postponement of recruitment.

“Why would you continue when you’ve got issues? Right? How can you grow something that is already absolutely messed up,” said Njiri. “Before you try to expand, I am all for expansion, I really am. I believe in being able to create an environment that feels inclusive to as many people as possible — but I also recognize that in order to do that, you need to make sure that you are in line, you need to make sure that what you’re doing is correct.”

Since FSL was heavily connected to the allegations brought forth over the summer, fraternities that were involved in the virtual discussions posted to their social media accounts that they would take action to resolve these issues. 

“Our current programming does not do justice in covering these essential topics and any mention of these topics did not have a lasting impression on the community,” said Interfraternity Council (IFC) President Brett Purcell in a statement on its Instagram page June 29. 

“We commit to providing more education to our members on consent and intervention as well as intentional dialogue with sexual harassment and assault at the forefront.”

All four FSL councils — IFC, the Multicultural Greek Council, the Panhellenic Association and the National Pan-Hellenic Council — posted similar statements of promise to their social media, and university administration followed up on Aug. 11 with details in a statement released by USF President Steven Currall to students, faculty and staff regarding the on-campus sexual violence allegations.

In the statement, Currall listed what the university planned on doing to address the issue, which included planning a series of educational forums for organizations in FSL and Student Government, and hiring new people for the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity.

These educational forums have been discussed in meetings between the presidents from all four FSL councils and staff from the Center for Student Involvement (CSI). All parties have begun meeting weekly since the many sexual assault allegations were brought forth to discuss how to address the issue of sexual violence in their own communities until the start of the semester, when they have since been meeting biweekly, according to CSI Director Mónica Miranda.

“The councils believe that as leaders in the student community, and as a large student organization collectively, they want to take some leadership and have some additional educational opportunities to strengthen their knowledge, to strengthen their development and strengthen their action against any of these actions that may happen and try to prevent any issues from occurring in the future,” said Miranda.

Each council’s representatives met with staff from the Title IX office and Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention (CVA) to develop educational plans for chapter members and leadership that will involve USF, as opposed to each chapter’s own required training designated to it by their corresponding national organizations, according to Miranda. 

Stafford said that education plans are a step, but they need to go further. 

“It’s great to have something like a workshop or PowerPoint presentation, but it’s going to start with the individual members. And it’s going to start with, again, not just words, but actions being taken,” said Stafford. “I’m glad that they’re doing ‘preventative measures,’ but at the end of the day, it’s going to be the reactive actions that may come later that are really going to tell everyone if this is something they care about or not.”

Stafford said she thinks education shouldn’t stand alone in the response to what was brought forward by survivors about their experiences with FSL. She said it’s going to take a conscious effort by its members to confront this issue.

“Take action, sort things out, address these issues that are happening right now instead of just throwing a blanket over it and saying, ‘We’ll have a workshop for the future.’ It just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Stafford. 

In terms of addressing sexual violence systemwide, the university’s Coordinated Community Response Team (CCRT), created in 2019 to address gender-based violence at USF, has been in direct and regular contact with Currall to create a “charge” on how the CCRT will lessen and respond to gender-based violence on campus, according to its co-chair, Chris Ponticelli. It would describe the CCRT’s purpose, including what it will be doing and how it plans to do it, as well as who it will be reporting to.

“That charge should, we’re requesting anyway, that the CCRT report directly to [Currall], which would make us a true advisory committee to him,” said Ponticelli. 

The CCRT’s plan will include coordinating different departments on how it plans to address gender-based violence at USF. 

One department that is involved specifically in helping survivors of sexual violence is the CVA. Juanita Collins, survivor of sexual violence and USF alumna, said that awareness about resources like this are important for survivors to feel safe at USF. 

“[Survivors] knowing what resources are available to them, I think a lot of people still don’t even know that [CVA] is a thing, it’s completely anonymous unless their life is in danger, that resource definitely helped me and I think a lot of people don’t know about victim’s advocacy, about counseling, about the Title IX office,” said Collins. 

Collins was notified that her abuser was expelled from USF on Sept. 25 after his hearing with the Student Conduct and Ethical Development Office. 

However, when trying to report her perpetrator to University Police (UP) during her time at USF, Collins found less aid for her case.

“[UP] needs to be trained more on mental health and learning how to help survivors, learning how to deal with those situations because they’re just very aggressive,” said Collins. “I’ve seen it firsthand because I used to be a [resident assistant] and then also going through my own process [of reporting my case to the police].”

UP spokesperson Audrey Clarke said that UP staff is trained to effectively handle cases of on-campus sexual violence.

“All our investigators undergo advanced training to include sexual battery investigations training,” said Clarke.

Although there were many allegations of sexual assault and violence made over the summer, not all of them were addressed like Collins’ case. If they were, that didn’t mean they were necessarily resolved. Neither Stafford nor Njiri were contacted after sharing their story on social media. Engel made an appointment to meet with McDonald, but the meeting was never held due to a rescheduling conflict.

“I am often contacted either individually or through letter-writing campaigns to the university.  Those concerns may be as a result of a lack of information, miscommunication or misperception and need clarity,” said McDonald. 

“Sometimes there are concerns about things we cannot change like federal laws. Sometimes students are not happy with the outcomes of a case. Sometimes students identify areas where we need to improve in response, education, prevention or resources.“

As the conversation regarding sexual violence at USF continues, survivors want a response that shows the university is moving to really change the culture on its campuses. 

“I think USF is lacking accountability, action and reform,” said Collins. “I think that more needs to be changed within the university in terms of the guidelines, the consequences and people being knowledgeable about those things as well so they don’t think they can get away with just anything.”