Student survivors and activists have worked tirelessly to place campus sexual assault on the national agenda. Colleges and universities’ refusal to competently address campus rape culture has further normalized it, and John Hopkins University is no exception. Student activists are holding these institutions accountable for their failure to comply with federal law and prioritize students’ safety. Johns Hopkins University is one of over 100 schools in the U.S. currently under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases.
On September 23, Force and Johns Hopkins University will display the Monument Quilt starting at 12 p.m. at JHU on the Beach at 3400 North Charles St. in Baltimore, Maryland. The Monument Quilt is an ongoing project which serves as a public healing space by and for survivors of rape and abuse. The hand-sewn, bright red quilt spans more than three basketball courts and currently holds space for over 450 stories of survival. The display is sponsored by the Sexual Assault Resource Unit and Center for Health Education and Wellness. The event will also include performances, yoga and workshops.
Rebecca Grenham, a senior with a double major in International Studies and Sociology, currently serves as a co-director of the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), a student-run group, which staffs a 24/7 hotline and hosts awareness events. She described her desire to see the Monument Quilt come to Hopkins. “The Monument Quilt display will help advance SARU’s mission of creating a more caring campus community.”
Grenham described how rape culture commonly manifests on a college campus: “Campus rape stories challenge many society-wide stereotypes of rape, which can make it difficult for survivors on campus to come forward. For example, most campus rapes are committed by acquaintances. As a result, a survivor’s friends, who may not want to believe that someone they know would rape another student, may not believe the survivor.”
Few schools are willing to acknowledge sexual violence happens on their campuses and choose to foster a culture of silence, until students shatter that silence. Eliza Schultz ‘15, International Studies major, filed a federal complaint after being consistently disappointed with Hopkins administrations not taking sexual assault seriously. John Hopkins University, in addition to fostering a hostile climate for sexual assault survivors, failed to notify the campus of an ongoing gang rape investigation, which is a violation of the Clery Act. “Upon my arrival to Johns Hopkins as a first-year, I noticed the absence of any real institutional support for women. I also quickly discovered that the administration had a particularly flippant and inadequate approach to sexual assault. The appropriate way to address this, I thought, was to work with the administration. I tried that, and what was funny was that, in many cases, they admitted to their own failures, yet failed to address or rectify them in any meaningful way.”
Schultz was not satisfied with this. “It was upon learning that their working with me was a way to placate me, to prevent me from being public about their failures, that I went to the Department of Education. I quickly connected to two other anonymous complainants who had quietly been working on the same issues. We quickly developed into a support system for one another. I can’t imagine this process without them.”
Prior to filing a complaint, Schultz had organized a petition to enact changes to Hopkins’ sexual assault policies, but her petition lacked the political capital of a federal complaint. Schultz cited the impact the lack of social justice organizing on campus had on her decision to file a complaint. “There’s no real activist scene, so even going forward with a relatively uncontroversial petition to change the sexual misconduct policy was a scary thing. That received a lot of support, but the difference between it and the Title IX complaint was that signing an online petition takes no more than a signature and is a legal issue, not a community/cultural problem. Getting behind a Title IX complaint, however, requires acknowledging that not only your administrators, but also members of your student body, have failed their community.”
Laura Dunn is a survivor of campus sexual assault and founder of SurvJustice, a non-profit organization which seeks to empower student survivors and activists and support institutions seeking to comply with federal law. Dunn summarized the complaint she filed on behalf of those who reached out to her, including Schultz. Hopkins failed to alert the campus to an ongoing gang rape investigation. Under the Clery Act, schools are required to give a timely warning about sexual assaults which are reported to them. Hopkins violated Title IX by failing to address a hostile climate, discouraging survivors from reporting to the police or otherwise pursuing formal campus proceedings. Since the original complaint has been filed, nine other complaints have supplemented the original. Dunn explained, “The institutional discouraging of reporting and the failure to provide timely warning are very common violations of Title IX and the Clery Act, but I think what made Hopkins so surprising was just the systematic nature of the violations. The same deans were consistently involved in these petitions, yet they are still employed.”
“These are not just things schools should think about doing for survivors; these are things they have to do for survivors,” Dunn continued. Schools have continued to fail students in both their response to sexual assault and their lack of preventative measures, such as education on sexual and dating violence. “A lack of knowledge about what gender violence is really limits students’ capability to recognize that they’re in a situation to both act and receive help,” Dunn expressed. Additionally, a lack of understanding of their rights can prevent students from seeking support from their schools. “That’s why groups like Know Your IX are so important. Know Your IX is the beginning step; SurvJustice is the next step. We try to be helpful in getting accommodations for survivors, helping them get a hearing, and if necessary file a complaint.”
Schultz expressed her frustration with her campus’ unwillingness to address the reality of campus sexual assault. Schultz experienced a lack of institutional support for student organizing, including the absence of a women’s center. Without channels for organizing, Hopkins fostered a culture of ignorance and hostility surrounding issues of sexual violence. “Students were outraged when two fraternities were suspended for their involvement in gang rapes, but when it came to the gang rapes themselves, students seemed not to be nearly as outraged. It’s not an easy environment in which to be an activist. There’s no women’s center on campus, let alone a student center. The only social spaces sponsored by the university are fraternity houses, which makes for an imbalanced gender dynamic. Men, particularly those in fraternities, have a lot of power here socially, but there’s no institutional support to help women organize. Historically, this has always been the case at Johns Hopkins. Changing it will be a huge struggle and will require an infrastructural overhaul.”
While victories are few and far between for campus activists, Schultz noted some positive changes to come of her petition and complaint. “I was proud when university officials were transparent and informative about the second gang rape that occurred on campus. Even just beginning to break the silence has been an accomplishment.” Schultz also expressed there is still a long way to go for Hopkins, “Administrators have improved in terms of their Clery reporting and even publicly admitted to their past failures, and while this has certainly been a step forward, university officials have offered a lot of empty promises, which they’re able to hide behind as they quietly continue to fail individual survivors.
Meanwhile, the Sexual Assault Resource Unit is working with administrators for policy change. Grenham commented, “We appreciate that the administration values our opinions on these issues as students and as survivors’ allies, and through constructive dialogue we think that we can bring about some critical changes to the campus community. Policy changes, along with culture-changing activities such as The Monument Quit, are key to advancing our goal of creating a more caring campus community.”
“I hope that after the Quilt display more students realize that there are plenty of survivors on campus, and that every survivor deserves support and respect,” Grenham continued. “I really hope that people walk away from the Quilt thinking about how they interact with the survivors in their own lives.”
Schultz, too, expressed hope that the Quilt will help end the campus community’s silence on sexual assault. “There is a culture of silence at Johns Hopkins, and The Monument Quilt is this immense display that is publicly and visibly supportive. There’s a huge absence of this sort of support here. Space doesn’t belong to survivors, but more to perpetrators. The Monument Quilt will help to change this dynamic.”
What can students who wish to change their schools be doing? Dunn and Schultz offered advice from their experiences. Dunn noted that any student –survivor or ally– can file a complaint and that these complaints serve as important tools for pressuring schools to change. “When a complaint is opened, it’s not just researching one case it’s researching all cases under Title IX or the Clery Act, so it’s kind of just a foot in the door to bring in a broader investigation.” She also encouraged students to seek out the help of national organizations like SurvJustice for support. “Unfortunately schools are built to protect themselves. Go to an outside organization that actually has your interests at heart.”
As of this past July, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE Act) is being enforced for the first time. The Campus SaVE Act has expanded students’ rights under the Clery Act, including provisions which ensure schools have proactive and ongoing education and training on sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. Dunn explained that unlike Title IX, the Clery Act is penalized under fines. Institutions can be fined up to $35,000 per violation. “I think activists would be wise to think beyond Title IX because if your school is not in compliance by July 15 then there’s an opportunity to file.”
Schultz offered practical yet critical advice for any activist trying to sustain herself within the anti-violence movement. “The most important thing for activists to remember is to take time for themselves and to know their limits. Having a support system is key, and knowing when and how to take a break is vital for this kind of work.”
The work of student activists has been critical in shifting national discourse on sexual assault. To learn more about campus sexual assault and the impact students continue to have, visit SurvJustice.org and KnowYourIX.org.