Picture courtesy of Jackie Ricciardi
“You don’t have to go through this alone.” When scrolling through Boston University’s Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP) website, this sentiment resides in every corner, subsection, and nook of the page. While support seems to be one of SARP’s largest priorities, many BU students have expressed concern over their university’s neglect towards allegations of sexual misconduct. The overlooked narratives of student survivors at Boston University must be acknowledged in the face of the university’s apathy and inadequate responses to allegations of sexual misconduct.
In 2019, the American Association of University’s Campus Climate Survey of Sexual Assault and Misconduct found that, of Boston University undergraduate students, 23.7% of women and 8.1% of men have experienced non-consensual sexual contact (WeStat 3). Compared to other universities nationwide, these numbers are typical (Kholi). However, the statistics that differentiate BU regard its sexual misconduct resources— over one third (37.8%) of respondents feel as though Boston University does not take reports of sexual misconduct seriously, nearly half (47.9%) surmise that an investigation in response to sexual misconduct would be unfair, and 76.9% feel as though school officials at BU do not care about student well-being (WeStat 2-3). These percentages represent a concerningly significant proportion of students who feel as if SARP is not doing its job properly. As an issue with such a large impact on its student population, Boston University should be doing everything in its power to protect and support its campus regarding sexual misconduct. However, as time passes, students feel as if no changes are being made.
On June 30, 2020, Prisha Sujin Kumar published her first open letter to Boston University via Instagram. In her stomach-churning testimonial, she describes her sexual assault and the measures she took through Boston University to ensure justice. She recalls how BU’s own judicial officers told her to “lie low,” and to keep her assaulter’s name out of the narrative, other than in the courtroom (Kumar). Per advice from BU officials, Kumar sought justice solely through the university’s administrative system. Her assaulter was given a year’s suspension from school for his actions. She places this in the perspective of BU’s academic system, highlighting that BU is quicker to expel students for cheating on an exam than for rape. When Kumar felt that her case hadn’t been handled in a timely or fair manner, she sought help from Dean Elmore, who told her that he “can’t help what students feel” and that “it’s not BU’s fault” (Kumar). In the conclusion of her open letter, Kumar details a clear and concise list of demands. In regards to allegations of sexual misconduct, she calls upon the university to ban mediations, establish a formal time limit of 60 days to respond to open cases, and provide equal protection for all BU students. While Boston University has yet to officially respond to Kumar's letter, thousands of students have liked the post and voiced their concern in the comments. Students at Boston University have shown that they care more about Kumar’s struggles than BU does.
Picture courtesy of Hannah Yoshinaga
Despite Boston University’s responsibility to keep its students safe, Kumar’s narrative does not stand alone. Many cases involve BU faculty members as perpetrators: In 2016, two students sued a BU professor for sexual harassment and called on the school to treat sexual misconduct as a “serious allegation” rather than a “public relations inconvenience” (Li). In November of 2020, a Boston University graduate student published a twitter thread detailing her sexual assaults from two BU faculty — yes, two — which resulted in both faculty members resuming their positions as normal (Chagti). In regards to student on student assault, the Campus Survivors Instagram account has posted 98 anonymous accounts of sexual misconduct at Boston University. Despite following the account, Boston University Administration has yet to respond. And, in a case of rape on BU’s campus in 2020, one of Boston University’s lawyers had this to say about the victim: “She was given the tools to assure her safety, a door with a sturdy lock, but she elected not to use it. The university made no definite or certain promise to keep students safe” (Khan). Alone, each of these cases are shocking enough. However, when considered in the context of dozens upon dozens of similar cases, they present a clear issue with Boston University’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.
As an institution composed of 18,000 undergraduate students, BU has an indisputable responsibility to look out for the students that keep its administration, legacy, and reputation afloat. Despite “no definite or certain promise[s] to keep students safe”, President Brown had this to say about COVID-19 in a letter to faculty and students earlier this year: “I can promise that we will begin and end every day by asking, how are the health and safety of those people who were on campus today? Providing a world-class residential education and best-in-class public health and safety are not mutually exclusive” (Brown). This statement seems immensely hypocritical when exposed to the narratives of injustice voiced by survivors at BU. Why is sexual assault excluded in supporting campus health and safety when it impacts so much of BU’s student population? In the words of Kumar, “You cannot cherry pick which public health crisis to fix — you were able to create solutions and accommodations to help students throughout this pandemic, but when it comes to the public health crisis of sexual violence, you are silent” (Kumar). Evidently, Boston University does not prioritize their students’ health and safety if such a colossal problem— one that affects over a third of its student population —remains neglected. Boston University’s apathy is further shown in the publication of Kumar’s second open letter in January of 2021. In this publication, Kumar directly calls out Boston University officials for ignoring her previous demands, writing that the institution “refuses to take criticism” and “protect[s] predators” through “focus[ing] on [their] reputation and brand” (Kumar). She recalls that, in his response to her first letter, Dean Elmore stated that if one wanted to help a campus survivor, they should encourage them to report the incident. In response Kumar writes, “You force survivors to out themselves in order to begin a conversation, and you continue to place all of the work on them” (Kumar). Kumar brings forth an important point: While it is vital to encourage survivors to report the incidents they experienced, the university must be prepared to properly handle said reports.The university’s underwhelming response to Kumar’s first letter demonstrates that, whether BU survivors reach out or not, they feel alone and unsupported. If a sexual misconduct survivor feels as if asking for help would make no difference, why would they reach out? BU must make students feel heard and believed in order to facilitate open conversations regarding sexual misconduct. Without these open conversations, students are left unprotected.
Despite testimonials exemplifying BU’s inadequate responses to sexual misconduct, Boston University officials claim that victims are supported on campus. In early 2016, Boston University student Kyle Floyd published “Aftermath,” a documentary investigating responses to sexual misconduct on campus. Dean Elmore offers his insight throughout the documentary, claiming that his protocols for sexual misconduct allegations are “as thorough as possible” (Floyd 22:00). However, the film’s main subject—Caroline, a Boston University student who reported a case of sexual assault to SARP— felt as if her case was ignored by BU officals. Upon telling a professor of the incident, notifying the Dean’s office, and filing a report with BUPD, Caroline was given little to no assistance. When she sought a meeting with Dean Elmore, she was told that he was “too booked” to look into her case (Floyd 16:35), sending a message to survivors that a student’s sexual assault case was at the whims of an administrator’s calendar. No student should be told that discussing sexual assault does not fit within a schedule. Caroline explains, “I really just wanted someone to advocate for me… and I just got people sending me in circles'' (Floyd 21:58). Evidently, there seems to be a disconnect between Boston University officials and student survivors.
In Floyd’s documentary, Peter Fiedler, Vice President of Administrative Services at Boston University states, “Really, it’s not the administration’s issue to stop sexual misconduct. It’s our responsibility to deal with it and respond to it, but it really comes down on the shoulders of the students'' (Floyd 12:23). Floyd’s documentary came four years prior to the publication of Kumar’s open letter, exemplifying two independent assertions of Boston University’s neglect for sexual misconduct survivors across two different student populations. Clearly, the problem does not lie solely in the students; Boston University bears blame for its neglect of student survivors. Vice President Fiedler fails to consider preventive measures and the importance of halting sexual assault before it occurs. In their report from the Climate Campus Survey, the AAU notes that, in recent years, BU has made an effort to prevent sexual misconduct. These efforts include: “Establishing SARP, Expanding the Equal Opportunity Office, and Implementing required on-line training for the entire community” (WeStat 5). While a great step forward, these measures must be actively and vigorously employed by an administration that uses more than just words to condemn sexual misconduct. In order to prevent future incidents, student assaulters need to be properly held accountable. Small suspensions or restraining orders are not enough; no known assaulter should be allowed on the campus of Boston University. It is up to the university just as much as it is up to students to combat the war against sexual misconduct. Punishing those who commit sexual misconduct must become a priority. Rather than being known as an institution that condemns sexual misconduct, Boston University is building a reputation of enabling it.
Upon hearing stories of sexual assault, many ask: Why not report these incidents with the police? For a college student undergoing the traumatic experience of sexual assault, however, going to the Boston Police Department would be frightening. Police protocols for rape kits are humiliating and invasive, and must be done within hours of a rape to be conclusive. One anonymous sexual assault survivor posted on BU’s Daily Free Press: “After you’ve been violated in the most intimate way physically and spiritually possible, the LAST place you want to run to is a place full of strangers who who are going to physically re-violate you” (A Survivor). Campus police departments serve as a resource for students to guarantee a case, as opposed to city-run police departments, which are often too busy to quickly and effectively respond to cases of rape. The American Civil Liberties Union explains, “Universities are responsible for the safety of their students and the surrounding community— and police have proven time and time again to pose a threat to their safety, rather than promote it” (Silva). While rape cases have a reputation of being dismissed in public courts, a survivor should be guaranteed action at the university level. While a rapist being expelled from BU is not the same as jail time, it is certainly better than nothing.
However, even this seems too much to ask of Boston University. In another open letter written in April of 2015 by an anonymous student, the writer speaks of her rape, to which her rapist admitted his guilt. Consequently, after months of trials and testimonials, BU suspended him for a semester. Her attacker filed an appeal, his lawyers arguing that the anonymous writer “never told him to stop”, and went through the extraneous judicial process because she “was not sexually satisfied” (“Editors”). From this argument, BU granted him a stay of suspension. He resumed classes on campus immediately, despite his suspension that took months of strenuous work. The anonymous writer recalls, “He was somehow allowed to bypass the hearing board and appeal directly to the provost, eliminating any chance of appeal for me” (“Editors”). This anecdote is a clear demonstration of BU’s neglect of campus survivors. How was this student, who admitted to rape, allowed to attend classes on BU’s campus? How many other rapists have exploited similar loopholes and currently reside on campus?
Picture courtesy of Kalman Zabarsky
In response to these testimonies, Boston University students have begun to demand change. Campus Survivors released a statement demanding: “a public statement acknowledging sexual assault and sexual harassment at BU; implementing a zero-tolerance policy for all faculty; implementing a zero-tolerance policy for all student organizations; an anonymous reporting and strike system; and expanding resources for SARP” (Ricciardi). However, Boston University did not respond. These demands all center around the victim rather than the accused, providing survivors of sexual misconduct with tangible evidence that they are supported and heard with action, not just words. These demands seem to align perfectly with SARP’s mission statement. It seems odd, then, that BU would not be eager to voice its support for Campus Survivor’s calls to action. In February of 2021, Kumar and other student leaders at Boston University coordinated a Campus Survivors initiative throughout campus. Over 600 students urged the university to take a “tougher stance on sexual assault” through a chalk protest (Kholi). The sidewalks and buildings of campus were veiled with lines like “Shame on Boston University'' (Kholi) and “stop silencing survivors'' (Ricciardi). President Brown, Provost Morrison, and Dean Elmore were extended personal invitations to attend the protest in support, to which they all declined.
On February 9, Dean Elmore wrote a response letter to this protest, addressed to the students of Boston University. While the letter does clearly acknowledge sexual assault and sexual harassement at BU (one of the five demands made by Campus Survivors), it falls short in all other aspects. It makes no mention of any zero tolerance policies against evidence of rape, the installation of an anonymous reporting system, or any definitive change within the SARP system. Dean Elmore writes, “We are working to create a learning environment where students can decide the ways that work best for them to bring criminal charges'' (Elmore). How? He continues, “I am reviewing and evaluating with President Brown… to ensure that our responses and the services we offer are thoughtful and effective” (Elmore). How? He concludes, “I will do my part to work to support an environment without sexual assault” (Elmore). How? Dean Elmore’s letter is composed of promises with no foreseeable path to reach them. In the eight months since the publication of this statement, no other public acknowledgement of the protest (or changes resulting from the protest) has been made. Why are Boston University officials unable to provide students with additional aid when BU claims to have “unlimited resources''? (Kumar.) While Boston University continues to advertise a campus filled with endless resources and possibility, it quite literally erases the narratives of sexual misconduct on its streets. The chalk on Commonwealth Avenue was removed by morning.
8 months after Dean Elmore’s open letter, students (again) called upon their administration to suspend one of BU’s largest fraternities, Kappa Sigma, after an influx of sexual assault allegations against the frat’s members. Only after numerous open letters, social media initiatives, and a full-fledged protest with over 100 participants did the administration acknowledge the issue. Boston University forbade Kappa Sigma from any independently hosted social events. Despite this, Kappa Sigma continued with their scheduled meetings, and Boston University — for once — responded. On October 22, in a letter to Kappa Sigma’s president, Boston University assistant Dean John Battilingo wrote, “Effective immediately and until further notice, your organization, the Mu Psi Chapter of Kappa Sigma Fraternity, is suspended from official recognition by Boston University” (Laskowski). While a win for those who protested Kappa Sigma’s continued presence on BU’s campus, this suspension was not a direct result of the sexual misconduct allegations against Kappa Sigma. Rather than a condemnation of sexual misconduct, the suspension stems from the fraternity’s negligence of following social event regulations. Nevertheless, this exemplifies substantial progress in Boston University’s handling of sexual misconduct. These circumstances present a clear opportunity for Boston University to fully condemn Kappa Sigma’s numerous sexual misconduct allegations. Will this suspension be ruled permanent? Will BU’s administrators execute fair, timely investigations of these sexual misconduct claims? Will individual members be properly punished for their acts? Only time and BU’s prerogative will tell.
Boston University students protesting at the Kappa Sigma Fraternity house. Picture courtesy of Anh Nguyen
When it comes to cases of sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct, condemnations are not enough. Boston University must act with legitimate, timely investigations and just punishments. Suspensions are not enough; rapists must be expelled from campus. A zero tolerance policy for perpetrators of sexual misconduct would not only prioritize survivors, but would ensure the safety of BU’s general student population. In regards to SARP, survivors must be supported emotionally following a sexual assault, but consulted and encouraged to pursue their avenues of justice as well. SARP needs an option of long term counseling that can guide survivors seeking justice through the judicial process. With the implementation of these measures, a new culture on campus— one that does not overlook sexual violence— can create safe learning environments for its students.
BU assault survivor Victoria Huang felt that “[she] was talking to people who weren't really listening to [her]” after reporting her story (Kholi). No student should feel as if they are ignored. No student should feel unsupported by resources funded by their tuition. From the anecdotes of student survivors, statistics from university-led surveys, and words from Boston University’s own administrative officials, BU has proven that it needs to redesign its approach to sexual misconduct allegations. As of now, for an institution that avidly affirms that “you don’t have to go through this alone”, Boston University certainly falls short.
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