Focus turns to awareness in wake of Roosevelt rape

Students unhappy with university's response start grass-roots campaign

(Chicago Tribune file photo )
December 27, 2012|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

Twenty-one-year-old political science major and Student Government Association Senator Jessica Thiesen said it was "really upsetting" to receive an e-mail from the Roosevelt University on Nov. 30 notifying her that a student had been sexually assaulted in the stairwell of the school's Wabash Building, a residence hall five blocks away from her dorm.

"It was weird that it was just this matter-of-fact statement that we got in our inbox like, ‘Hey, by the way, someone was sexually assaulted, stay out of your stairwell!' " Thiesen said. "It was really strange. I just sat there for 10 minutes, like – ‘This is it?' "

Shortly after receiving the e-mail, Thiesen began composing an awareness flier to let other students know about the assault. She got in touch with Anna Rangos, the head of Feminists United, a student organization Thiesen is also involved in, and found out Rangos was also working on a flier and planned to distribute leaflets about the assault on campus. 

Thiesen and Rangos were both unhappy with the tone of the alert, which instructed students to protect themselves by taking "precautionary measures" such as being aware of their surroundings and using the buddy system in stairwells.

"We were really upset with the alert that went out because it basically just told victims how to stay safe," Thiesen said. "The alert basically said, ‘Here's how you don't get raped,' when we wanted it to say, ‘Don't rape.' It was sort of our answer to that."

"It was ridiculous--using the buddy system in your own building is not an answer to anything."

According to university officials and Vice President of Residence Life Bridget Collier, the language in the alert was required by the Clery Act, a federal statute that requires universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose information about crimes that occur on and near their respective campuses within 48 hours of a reported incident.

Collier said she is working with Feminists United to help the group understand other policies such as the Clery Act that Roosevelt is mandated to follow--as well as help them organize sexual assault-related education and outreach.

But Thiesen said that although the Clery Act requires the university to alert the students of a crime, it doesn't say that is all the school has to do in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

"The fact that something like [a sexual assault] would happen on campus is a signifier that we aren't doing enough to proactively create a culture on campus where that doesn't happen," Thiesen said. "When it does happen, everybody needs to act out in a big way condemning it--it's a symbolic thing that says ‘We don't accept this here, and we will make it a really big deal and a No. 1 priority to stop behavior like this.' "

The university newspaper The Roosevelt Torch cited the school's 2011 Annual Security Report that said until November's assault, there had been no on-campus sexual offenses at Roosevelt in the past three years.

Thiesen, Rangos and other FU members organized a grassroots campaign using social media to get students to e-mail Roosevelt President Chuck Middleton and ask him to make a statement condemning the assault. Thiesen estimated that about 40 to 50 students e-mailed him, and a week after the university alert went out, Middleton released a formal statement.

In Middleton's statement, he commended the number of students and others who had spoken up about the assault.

"They are advocating for people who have been victimized by other members of our society," Middleton said. "During my 40 years in higher education as professor, dean, provost and president, I have always enforced a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and all forms of violence."

Thiesen called the president's statement "a step in the right direction" but said his statement read as a general PSA about sexual assault instead of a specific condemnation of the attack that happened at the end of November.

"If you had no idea what was happening, you would have no idea what he was referring to," Thiesen said. "He didn't acknowledge that [the university] can do better and that there can be more steps taken in the future, that we can do something to change the culture here."

Thiesen also said she doesn't know if the president would have released a statement if she and other students hadn't put pressure on him to do so.

"I don't think he would have given it a second thought, in all honesty," Thiesen said. "The only reason this was made more than just a passing incident is because there were a select few of us who were very, very vocal about it."

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