College Students Using Social Media To Combat Sexual Misconduct

Maya Reter, a student at Northwestern University, was watching TV with friends last week when she received an email from the university police about a crime on campus.

It said NU received a report from “an individual alleging they were drugged without consent” the night before at the address of one of NU’s fraternities. This was the second email students had received about a drug-related incident at a NU fraternity in two days. Reter said she wasn’t surprised, but she was left feeling sickened.

Students started speaking out on social media. By the next evening, a large crowd of them had gathered outside the two fraternities where the incidents allegedly took place. They called on the university to abolish Greek life.

A week earlier, a similar scene unfolded a few miles south on the Loyola University Chicago campus. At a rally, students called on the university to take action after dozens of online posts accused specific students of sexual misconduct.

The posts came from an Instagram account designed to expose individuals accused of sexual assault. The account, created on Sept. 13, shares posts that include the full names, social media handles, photos and dating profiles of people accused of sexual misconduct by Loyola students. It now has almost 2,000 followers.

“Anything posted on this account has been reinforced by a victim’s story,” a post on the account said. Initially there were two accounts, but one has since been deleted, the Loyola Phoenix reported.

In response to the posts, the university emailed students on Sept. 14, saying it believed the account was “a platform for students who may have been impacted by sexual misconduct to come forward and file a report.” But “Unfortunately, these efforts have resulted in public accusations of named Loyola students without a formal investigation or due process.”

Three days later, students marched through Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus with signs that read “Believe survivors” and “Stop protecting rapists.”

Despite their differences, the events that led to the recent Northwestern and Loyola rallies share something in common: Students are dissatisfied with how their universities have handled sexual assault allegations and instances of drug abuse in the past and say they no longer trust the way cases are handled.

“Normally, when I hear about allegations, they’re not brought to the attention of the whole university,” said a Northwestern student who asked not to be named to protect victims they know. “They’re either swept under the rug or a lot of times, survivors that I know don’t want to come forward because it’s too traumatic or because so many cases in the past have been dismissed.”

But the recent fraternity cases felt like a tipping point, the student said. And some students are taking it upon themselves to address the longstanding problem of sexual harassment on college campuses.

Hundreds of Loyola students and others protested on September 17, 2021 demanding action from the school administration after students were accused of sexual misconduct on social media. Nicky Andrews / The Loyola Phoenix

“These issues are still rising”

At both Northwestern and Loyola, as well as many other college campuses, there have been long-standing issues raised by students about how complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct at fraternities have been handled.

At Northwestern, officials say they are investigating last week’s alleged druggings and all fraternity-related events are suspended until Oct. 17. Northwestern officials declined to provide further comment.

In a statement, Loyola said it was “aware of recent allegations of sexual misconduct” and that “we have been in touch with the students involved, and are investigating the allegations.”

University officials also made clear in their statement to students that they are committed to ensuring due process.

On both campuses, some students are not interested in waiting.

Deena Callas, a senior English major, said she has been hearing stories of sexual assault victims for over a year.

“I just found it very devastating that these issues are still arising and that these [victims] specifically didn’t have a say up until now, and that we even had to get to the point where we had to have that march happen,” Callas said.

Sexual assault complaints on campus

The incidents come as the environment for both reporting and investigating sexual assault complaints has gotten more complicated in recent years.

Lesley Wexler, a law professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, said the standard of what counts as sexual assault was narrowed in 2018 by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the Trump administration.

This has made it harder for a victim to prove they were sexually harassed than it was under the Obama administration, she said.

Other changes include the number of people who are mandated to report sexual harassment complaints on any given college campus.

Wexler said if a student told their professor under the Obama administration about an incident of sexual harassment, the professor would have to report the claim to the Title IX office. But under the Trump administration, “that doesn’t count as knowledge that could lead to liability. So if a professor says, ‘a student told me this’ … the university doesn’t have to do anything about it.”

Although the new guidelines make it harder to register a complaint, Wexler said she doesn’t think the process was all that effective under the Obama administration either.

Wexler said the Biden administration has started rewriting DeVos Title IX regulations, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex at any educational institution that receives federal funds. But it will take time before they are implemented on the university level.

For now, she says, students are making their own choices.

“It may be that what you want is for a formal decision-maker to say, ‘You’re telling the truth, and this other student is lying,’ ” Wexler said. “But maybe what you want is for other students to know that that student is dangerous and social media is going to get you to that goal a lot faster.”

“Take back control”

At Loyola and Northwestern this fall, some students seem to be choosing the social media route.

Therapist Christine Berry said this may be about students assuming control over their lives. She said sexual abuse victims often feel they have very little of it.

She didn’t want to comment on the Loyola or Northwestern cases but said there is value in victims coming together online to support each other in a constructive way.

“There are a lot of things that social media has done that aren’t all that positive,” said Berry, who oversees programming at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee. “But the fact that we can come together and talk about these issues [online] now makes them more real in a way.”

Berry likens the idea of students banding together on social media to group therapy, as it connects survivors to others who may have experienced something similar and helps them realize they are not alone.

“That’s one way that they can take back control,” Berry said.

But taking to social media can also leave victims and alleged perpetrators without any due process in school systems and fail to address the underlying problems of sexual violence and why it occurs, said Nabilah Talib, who oversees sexual harassment training in schools for YWCA Chicago.

“It’s sort of the archetype of [when] someone happened to violate another person and their support person is ready to go get in a fight,” Talib said. “Well, now we have two traumas instead of one. We didn’t quite fix the violence yet. So how we dismantle that systemic issue is key.”

Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @annasavchenkoo.

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