By Janine Fiasconaro, YWCA USA intern
Pounding drums echoed across the campus of American University (AU) on April 11. I ran towards the sound with a friend and a few signs in hand, scrambling to get to the source, the Take Back the Night drummers. In just a few moments, I was marching and chanting in a crowd of at least 100 students as we followed a group of women expertly pounding out catchy rhythms on their drums. Flashing blue lights bathed the group every few minutes from a police cruiser that was leading us in our circular path around campus. I danced and chanted until I was hoarse and tired, feeling like there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with a well-organized group of determined women.
In that moment I felt so empowered, so in control. I wanted to feellike I had a part in changing all of the injustices that have been occurring on college campuses and at AU concerning sexual assault.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that sexual assaults and rape culture are real problems on college campuses. I have seen girls carrying their mattresses around campus on Carry that Weight Day. They were protesting in solidarity with a Columbia student who was sexually assaulted on campus and vowed to carry her dorm room mattress around campus with her until her assailant left, or was removed from, the university (she later graduated with her mattress in hand). I have witnessed the release of texts from a now unaffiliated AU fraternity describing the gut-wrenching crimes they planned against their female party attendees, just for the sport of it. I have read about Faith Ferber filling a Title IX complaint against AU for forcing her to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to be present at the hearing for her own campus sexual assault. Major news outlets like the Huffington Post, CNN, and the Washington Post have had stories describing the protests, texts, and Title IX complaint at AU. Meanwhile, with 160 colleges under investigation for Title IX offenses, the entire country has taken notice of the nationwide epidemic of college sexual assault.
AU has been no exception to this nationwide epidemic. At AU, the number of reported forcible sex offenses has risen dramatically since 2010.
I first assumed that this meant that the number of offenses has risen, but a fellow student, senior Joy DeGuzman, pointed out a different possibility for the dramatic jump in numbers: “I think more sexual assaults are getting reported because there’s a push for that at AU and from outside organizations.”
It’s true in the past few years AU has made a push to have more accessible resources, help for survivors, and to teach consent. Those found guilty by universities are given counseling, suspension, or community service but less than a third are expelled according to data from the US Department of Justice.
“AU has a long way to go regarding how they treat survivors. While our OASIS [Office of Advocacy Services for Interpersonal and Sexual Violence] is fantastic and works very hard to advocate for survivors, the administration does not treat survivors with the justice they deserve,” said Catherine Leigh Harlos, Take Back the Night organizer and Women’s Initiative Coordinator for Stopping Violence against Women.
After the march I heard story after story from survivors speaking about their assaults, describing how it changed them, for years after and maybe for their whole lives. They would never forget what happened to them and many said they are haunted about it to this day even if it happened over four years ago. If this offense doesn’t always result in expulsion, what does? We need to urge university administration to treat sexual assault crimes with punishments that fit the severity of the offense. Get involved with groups on campus like Women’s Initiative who are trying to change the way sexual assault is handled on campus. If we work together there is nothing a determined group of women following the beat of a drum can’t do.