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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

An Instagram Account Is Waging War on Sexual Assault at Case Western Reserve University

Posted By on Wed, Aug 26, 2020 at 10:46 AM

click to enlarge @CWRU.SURVIVORS IG ACCOUNT
  • @CWRU.survivors IG account

“It all started at a ZBT party.

“This was not one of their ‘official’ parties, so all bets were off. It started innocent enough. I was a freshman hanging out with cool fraternity brothers. I started getting drunk and then all of a sudden felt it. I had been roofied. Four of the brothers took me away from the party, and I didn’t realize what was happening.



“Once we got back to a private room, that’s when it happened. Something snapped in them. One of them smacked me on the face and told me if I did what they asked I wouldn’t get hurt. They ripped my pants off and started doing lines of coke on my butt, and then they all took me at once. They forced me to take all of them at once…”

So begins a July 21st post on Instagram, written and submitted for publication by an anonymous undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University. The post is one of hundreds – literally hundreds – that have appeared since July 4th on the @CWRU.survivors account, jolting a summer-breaking student body upright like non-stop cracks of thunder.

The posts describe a vast spectrum of sexual misconduct on the campus of Case, Ohio’s top-ranked university: from unwanted advances, offensive language, drunken handsiness and general “creepy” behavior at parties; to nonconsensual activity during consensual sex; to egregious misogyny within fraternities; to gang rape. In many cases, these posts also describe a profound lack of institutional support for survivors of assault, and university systems of reporting and discipline so ineffectual that they have exacerbated trauma.

Like at other college campuses where “drunk hookup culture” is pervasive and boundaries are often crossed, survivors are aware of, and often powerless against, the inequities inherent in bureaucratic university structures. Case has a women’s center, a Title IX office, an office of equity, an office of student affairs and a Greek life office on campus, but current and former students told Scene that these offices fulfill specific roles, and none of them is to support survivors. The system is designed not only to protect predominantly male assaulters, they say, but to shield the university itself from reputational damage.

As the @CWRU.survivors account demonstrates, many students have foregone reporting their assaults entirely to avoid the humiliation and presumed disappointment that lurk along the official avenues available to them. “My Title IX experience was somehow more traumatic than the actual incident,” one post read.

That’s a big reason why the account has exploded the way it has, students told Scene. Many of the published submissions are from seniors and recent grads who admit that their posts are the first time they’ve opened up about their experiences. Other submissions, and indeed, comments on published posts, have come from older alums, who are in a position to corroborate the persistence of bad behavior.

The individual posts can be horrifying to read. But more horrifying is the aggregate picture, in which rape culture is omnipresent on campus. The two anonymous administrators of the account told Scene that they were flooded with submissions once they took the account live at 1 p.m. on July 4.

“We’ve been in contact with similar accounts at other universities,” one of the admins told Scene. “And they all basically said, ‘Holy shit, you have a ton of submissions.’ They couldn’t believe it. They had numbers in the 30s or 40s. We got more than 600 in three weeks. Our bubble is obviously limited, but we’ve seen nothing on a scale like this.”

The total submissions now number close to 750. And as students prepare to return to campus, or log on remotely for a largely virtual fall semester, the @CWRU.survivors shockwaves have crested and evolved. The slew of graphic reports naming specific fraternities have led many to call for the abolition of Greek Life entirely on campus, (provoking unexpected reckonings for many assault survivors who belong to, and value, sororities). Others worry that students have grown too accustomed to the daily posts, and that well-meaning or revenge-seeking fabulists may begin submitting increasingly inflammatory, decreasingly accurate, stories to garner attention. Others want to center the discussion on the shortcomings of the Title IX process and the new standards imposed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, which stack the deck against survivors in yet another way by raising the evidentiary standard in cases of campus assault.

But the dramas and prurient details available for daily consumption on Instagram mean that students – and many administrators, some speculate – have been glued to their devices all summer. A side effect of the pandemic is that students have become more engaged in university affairs than they’ve ever been before.

That’s a mixed blessing, said Marin Exler, outgoing President of CWRU’s undergraduate student government.

“I mean they literally have nothing else to do,” she said. “It obviously can create a massive headache for [student government], especially when the responses from the administration are so vague, but the raised awareness is good. I think people are grappling with issues, especially around Greek Life, in ways that are new and sincere. And I think the stories are an important wake-up call. But I’m sensing a fight on the horizon. I had to deal with Covid during my tenure, but I feel worse for the new president. He’s dealing with even more of a mess.”

***

The July 21st post gets more explicit as it progresses, relaying shocking details of the student’s alleged rape at the hands of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity brothers. All previous posts on the @CWRU.survivors account, including more than 30 on its opening day, had opened with a black screen and the lone text, “Trigger Warning: Sexual misconduct / assault.” But the July 21st ZBT post began with an off-white screen: “TW: Gang Rape,” it read, and included an additional warning: “Please be advised this next story is extremely distressing to read.”

Three similarly tagged posts have appeared since then, two of which reported alleged gang rapes in the Zeta Psi fraternity house, which were later discovered to be on the same night. Brothers there had reportedly joked about “going to Paris,” their term for three-way sex derived from the “Eiffel Tower” position, and shared stories of their “conquests” at a subsequent chapter meeting. The other post reported an alleged gang rape at the hands of the Frisbee team.

The account administrators, who redact all names from the submissions they receive via Google Forms but otherwise post them to the @CWRU.survivors page without edits, say that their goals from the start have been to raise awareness, provide education and demand accountability for sexual assaulters.

Both admins are anonymous to their peers and remained anonymous in multiple conversations with Scene, conducted via Zoom. They identified as students at CWRU, but beyond that, they said that anonymity was important for their own safety and for the safety of survivors submitting stories.

“The parallel I would draw is a suicide hotline,” said one of the admins. “If you’re calling, and you know who’s on the other end, it’s a different atmosphere. We don’t want our identities to prevent people from coming forward. It’s also important that we’re not bound by pressure from the organizations that we may belong to.”

This has led to moments of discomfort on their end. They noted that while it’s their policy to redact names from submissions, the people who submit their stories often do not, and so the admins see the names of those who are alleged to have committed a wide range of misconduct. They’ve seen their friends mentioned.

“We have to recognize that this is a campus-wide culture, and it’s embedded in so many organizations at Case,” one admin said. “Our social groups aren’t immune to it either.”

The admins said they were inspired to launch the account by another recently created account, @black.at.cwru, which in late June began anonymously chronicling experiences of racism on campus. (Similar accounts at John Carroll University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Laurel School and Hathaway Brown were also launched at around the same time, all in the wake of George Floyd’s slaying by police in Minneapolis and racial justice demonstrations nationwide.)

The Survivors admins reached out to the @black.at.cwru creators to see if they’d be interested in running an additional account but quickly recognized that the time and energy required to maintain the page and its influx of submissions would be substantial. They decided to take it on themselves.

They said they felt the account was necessary to publicize elements of a culture that were widely known, but seldom discussed openly on campus. “During orientation week, you hear through the grapevine, ‘Don’t talk to ZBT.’ ‘Don’t talk to Zeta Psi.’ They’re the quote-unquote ‘rapey frats,’” one admin said. “And you hear these warnings from upperclassmen all the time about being cautious, asking where you’re going, who you’re going with.”

They allowed that these warnings were no doubt similar to experiences on other college campuses but said at Case, a popular notion held that Greek Life was somehow different, (i.e. better), than elsewhere, unafflicted by frat house stereotypes. Multiple students mentioned this dynamic independently in conversations with Scene and suggested that it might have something to do with the general elitism of higher-caliber colleges. The student body is supposed to be more inclined toward academic rigor at Case. More diverse. More enlightened. So naturally, the frats should be too. Students said this strain of exceptionalism has allowed systemic misbehavior to be swept under the rug.

“Case prides itself on the image of being different,” one of the admins said. “It’s so focused on its reputation that it leads to things not being dealt with.”

On July 29, after nearly a full month of daily posts, the admins published an open letter on the account addressed to Lou Stark, the university’s VP of Student Affairs, and Dr. Angela Clark-Taylor, director of the university’s women’s center. The letter highlighted what it called the “failed” Title IX process and “implore[d]” the university to make a series of reforms. (Title IX is the landmark 1972 federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs. It includes, in its broad mandate, protecting students from sexual harassment and sexual violence.)

Most of the letter’s demands were for specific improvements to the reporting and investigation process after incidents of assault. The letter called for “an easily accessible statement on the CWRU website that explicitly states that all parties involved in a Title IX investigation will be recorded during their communications with the investigator,” for example, and a “prohibition on graduate students from being Title IX investigators in cases where another graduate student is involved.” The letter noted that these were only small steps in the right direction.

“A massive cultural change about how the CWRU community views consent, accountability, and respect for others is integral in combatting the prevalence of sexual violence at Case Western Reserve University,” the letter read. “This issue requires both external and internal change.”

Scene made multiple attempts to interview both Lou Stark and Robert Solomon, the VP for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. Both declined, but provided a joint statement through the university’s office of media relations.

“While we have significantly expanded and strengthened our education and prevention programs in recent years, we also recognize that ending sexual harassment and violence requires that we continually assess and refine our efforts,” the statement read.

As a response to multiple new Instagram accounts, including @CWRU.survivors, the VPs said they planned to announce a university task force “focused on advancing a broad culture of respect on campus.” They said it would include subcommittees to examine issues of race, gender, LGBTQ+, mental health, disabilities and sexual misconduct. They also noted a number of new and expanded initiatives that the women’s center was planning to implement, including education on consent and bystander intervention.

“Finally, the university established a policy review committee (including faculty, staff and students) to examine the U.S. Department of Education’s recent changes to Title IX regulations and determine how to update the university’s policies and procedures in a manner that addresses its requirements and also addresses sexual misconduct complaints in ways that help reduce campus incidences.”

The Survivors account admins were not overjoyed with the response. But for now, they told Scene, their focus will continue to be supporting survivors by amplifying their voices and finding ways for them to be better supported at Case.

One of the unique ways they’re building support networks is by “matching” survivors who share abusers. If a survivor feels comfortable, they can share the name of their abuser with the admins via DM. And if two or more survivors share the same name, the admins message the survivors to notify them there’s been a “match” and offer to put them in contact with one another.

“Whether they want to officially report their incident or not, it can be really comforting to know that there are people who went through what you had to go through,” one of the admins said. “Strength in numbers.”

As for the university response, one admin stressed that if the university is serious about improving its systems, it must hold assaulters accountable for their actions.

“We’re not trying to take a stance on Greek Life at Case,” they said. “That’s not our place. But in terms of accountability, Zeta Psi and ZBT need to lose their houses. I think we should disband them indefinitely. The posts show that these are systemic problems with those two houses in particular. I hate to say it, but it’s gotten to the point in those frats where you’re either a rapist or you’re covering up a rapist.”


***

click to enlarge CHARLES BURKETT JR./FLICKRCC
  • Charles Burkett Jr./FlickrCC


One student, who has asked to go by "LL," was raped after a night of heavy drinking at a spring bash last year. Like many of the women who shared stories of their assaults on the @CWRU.survivors page, she was a freshman at the time of the incident. Unlike almost all the others, she published her name.

She told Scene she’d been texting with another student, and that they both decided to share their stories with their names attached. They’d had frustrating experiences with the university in the aftermath of their assaults and felt these were important to highlight.

“I didn’t even report it after it happened,” LL told Scene over Zoom. “But after the summer, at the beginning of sophomore year, I heard that the guy who’d assaulted me had assaulted someone else, and something just clicked. I felt he had definitely done this to other people, and I wanted to report.”

LL was referred to the campus Title IX office by her campus navigator – a counselor who helps students with scheduling and other academic questions – and made an official report.

“You go in, you basically report what happened, and they start an initial inquiry,” she described the process. “One thing Case does right is that they take ‘appropriate interim measures,’ which could mean help with classes or some time off. Then there’s the investigation, where witnesses are questioned, and then there’s a formal or informal hearing.”

For LL, the university-based process took nine months from start to finish, roughly the entire academic year. She told Scene she wasn’t legally allowed to discuss the details of her hearing — other than that it was conducted via Zoom — or its results, but repeatedly stressed in general terms how the system works against survivors.

“These cases hardly ever go to a hearing, first of all,” she said. “It was a miracle that mine did. I truly believe the only reason it did was because I got a lawyer.”

One of the demands in the @CWRU.survivors July 29th letter to the administration was for “up-to-date sexual misconduct reports on the CWRU website.” An annual report of complaints and their resolutions is required, under Title IX, to be compiled and made accessible every year. But for years – and for the duration of Scene’s reporting – the only such report available was from 2015-2016. CWRU Media Relations, when asked where the most recent reports were, told Scene that they would be posted online “shortly.” For the last month, there were no reports available on the site. Even the 2015-2016 report has inexplicably been taken down. (Shortly before publication, CWRU posted the 2018-2019 report.)

“We don’t know how many people are being sanctioned for assault, because they don’t publish the statistics,” LL said, “but the only time I’m aware of anyone being sanctioned is when the accused actually admits to an assault. Otherwise it’s he-said she-said.”

Until the DeVos Title IX updates enacted this month, those who filed sexual misconduct complaints had to meet a “preponderance of evidence” standard to win a hearing. That standard connotes a likelihood of guilt higher than fifty-fifty. But the new changes have increased the burden of proof to a more rigorous “clear and convincing evidence” standard. Advocates for sexual assault survivors have argued that survivors are already reluctant to come forward and seldom get justice, even with lower evidentiary standards. The changes will diminish reporting even further, they say.

LL pointed out that any burden of proof is difficult to bear when alcohol is involved, which – at least as reflected in the stories on the @CWRU.survivors account – it often is.

“If you’re blackout drunk, you can’t remember anything,” she said. “So your testimony is automatically unreliable – you know, maybe you actually did consent, they can say. Or on the other hand, you’re victim-blamed for putting yourself in that situation.”

The incident described in the July 21st ZBT post not only included alcohol, it also occurred at an “unofficial” frat party. At Case, frats host both “open” parties, in which the first floor is open, and invite-only parties, in which guests are documented via Microsoft Excel. Both are sanctioned by the university, and alcohol can be served to those of age. Additionally, a frat-elected “Risk Manager” abstains from drinking for the duration of the party and is meant to observe the proceedings.

“The unofficial role of the risk manager is to prevent rapists from being rapists,” one of the @CWRU.survivors admins told Scene. “But the whole idea of a member of a frat policing his brothers – given the issues of accountability in fraternity culture already – doesn’t really make sense.”

The unofficial parties are not sanctioned by the university, meaning that reporting an assault would constitute simultaneously reporting one’s attendance at a forbidden event. That’s yet another factor which discourages reporting. The account admins said they expected a similar dynamic to be in play this fall, assuming people are on campus.

“We won’t be allowed to have parties because of Covid, so all the parties will be ‘underground,’” one of the admins said. “Which means people will be even less inclined to report because they know they weren’t supposed to be partying in the first place.”

In a statement, the University said that they were working with Greek Life chapter leaders “to ensure that all students comply with the university’s extensive guidelines regarding COVID-19 transmission risk. The university will enforce its code of conduct regardless of whether students are living on or near campus—and has communicated that message to all students.”

***

As the @CWRU.survivors account gathered momentum through July, content from individual posts spawned spinoff protests and petitions. Multiple stories, for example, referenced a table at the Phi Gamma Delta (“Fiji”) frat house, sexual intercourse upon which was evidently considered a rite of passage for brothers there.

“It’s sitting in their library, and it literally never gets washed,” said Sarah Moran, a rising junior, in a Zoom call with Scene. “That's beside the point, but it’s so gross. The door to the room doesn't even fully lock. It’s right at the bottom of the staircase, so you can hear everything going on in there, and this sometimes happens with multiple girls in the same night. And then these stories are shared at chapter. They laugh about it.”

A Change.org petition to “Burn the 1911 Table” was created later in July. “Not getting rid of the table would continue to allow the objectification of women and suggest that the brave survivors [on the @CWRU.survivors account] spoke up for nothing,” the petition read. “Allowing the table to remain promotes more acts of sexual assault and rape.”

The CWRU Fiji chapter did not respond when Scene sought comment via social media, but they took to Instagram to convey the seriousness with which they were taking allegations of sexual misconduct. “We will be continuously re-evaluating our programming, policies and what it means to be a man, let alone a Fiji,” the statement read. The account was flooded with comments chastising them for a lack of concrete action steps.

“Burn the table,” wrote the @CWRU.survivors account in response.

One commenter, who identified as an alum of the chapter, said the statement was “full of fluff, something I would write in two minutes before class.” But he then posted an addendum. “I’ve talked to the guys,” he wrote. “They have an action plan but they aren’t allowed to post it on social media until Phi Gam HQ approves it. The process is a bitch.”

Other chapters’ official accounts have issued contrite statements with promises to improve and investigate. “We are appalled by the despicable actions of our brothers past and present,” wrote the ZBT account. “We recognize the need for us to examine our brothers and hold them to higher standards.” Scene’s campus sources said they would remain skeptical of these apologies until they see actual accountability.

But what that accountability should look like remains a topic of debate. As increasing numbers of fraternities have been accused of misconduct, calls to Abolish Greek Life have swept across campus. And many students in sororities, including survivors of sexual assault, have mixed feelings.

“It definitely has me thinking,” said LL, who sits on the executive committee of her sorority, Alpha Phi, and whose boyfriend began the process of deactivating from ZBT after the July 21st post. “There are bad people in every frat and in every sorority. But there are also decent people trying to make improvements from within. I don’t know. I definitely see how limited we are in what we can do, by our advisors and our internationals. We answer to higher people.”

Marin Exler, the outgoing president of student government, said she believed fraternity brothers should be kicked out of CWRU chapters, or even expelled, for their behavior, but said she wasn’t sure about removing frats from campus, “especially those without complaints on the assault side.”

“Many of these complaints have to do with brothers talking about women in a problematic way,” she said. “That requires a culture shift, but I think that’s fixable. I guess I’d say that hope isn’t completely lost.”

Exler speaks from experience. She is a member of Phi Mu, a sorority which was targeted and harassed this spring by the Delta Sigma Pi fraternity. Someone created and circulated a “Bingo Card” in which brothers were meant to cross off squares when they’d seen certain Phi Mu sisters exhibiting unflattering traits – “Ugly,” “Blimp,” “Cripplingly Low Self-Esteem,” etc. Exler was the only Phi Mu listed by name. She was the board’s “Free Space.”

She told Scene she believed she was targeted specifically because she’d stood up for a friend when the fraternity had spread false rumors about her. “It was a petty disagreement blown out of proportion,” she said, and noted again that it likely circulated quickly in group chats and DMs because everyone was at home, on their phones all day long.

Exler said that accounts like @black.at.cwru and @lgbtqatcwru, which in many cases documented microaggressions, were leading to internal review that could inspire changes in language and thinking. And she hoped some of the posts on the Survivors account – like frats discussing “conquests” at chapter meetings – could be learning moments too.

“But the stuff with ZBT and Zeta Psi?” She said, “I mean that’s crazy.”

Scene asked the Office of Greek Life, through the office of media relations, about its investigative and disciplinary procedures with respect to the allegations against Zeta Psi and ZBT. The University responded that the national chapter of Zeta Psi decided this summer to suspend its CWRU chapter for a minimum of four years. In a statement, the national chapter wrote that the actions described in the @CWRU.survivors posts "are antithetical to the values of Zeta Psi and our policies. Zeta Psi will continue to support the ongoing investigations in the hope that those harmed can find some level of justice."

ZBT, for the time being, remains an active fraternity on campus. Its national chapter told Scene in a brief emailed statement that it had been made aware of the allegations in the July 21st post. “Health and safety is our utmost concern at Zeta Beta Tau,” the statement read. “We have placed the chapter on an investigative status. We will continue working with the university moving forward.”

It’s unclear what that status means for returning students, but regardless of the investigation and disciplinary action imposed by the national chapter, there’s no question that the @CWRU.survivors account has raised awareness. Moving from awareness to accountability will be a challenge, said Marin Exler, if these accounts remain anonymous.

“What’s needed are official reports,” said Exler, whose experience liaising with the administration taught her, among other things, that higher ed moves at a snail’s pace. “I really doubt that, from a legal standpoint, the university could follow up on the @CWRU.surivors stories to conduct investigations.”

She said that while the Title IX process was flawed, filing an incident report with the Greek Life Office has yielded tangible results in the past. Other than Zeta Psi, the only frat currently suspended or disbanded on the Case campus is Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp), which was suspended in 2016 after an investigation spurred by an incident report. A grim joke among assault survivors is that alcohol and “hazing” infractions are much more likely to get a frat punished than rape. SigEp was scheduled to return to campus in 2020, but the university told Scene that the chapter would not be coming back this year after all.

Halle Rose is a member of the class of 2020 and of the Phi Mu sorority. She’ll be returning to Case’s campus in the fall to begin graduate studies in social work. She said that while she’s in support of the Survivors account and its mission, in recent weeks she’s become increasingly concerned.

“I think drawing attention to these issues is great,” she told Scene via Zoom, “but it’s just getting into murky territory when you have anonymous people controlling the narrative, given the seriousness of the allegations.”

Rose said she recognized that the account was not meant to be journalistic, and the admins didn’t necessarily have a responsibility to ‘show both sides’ of every story. But they nevertheless functioned as gatekeepers, and she worried that consumers of the account might not be approaching the posts critically.

“The posts don’t name names, but people are sometimes described in such a way that you know who they are,” she said. “Isolated incidents can be taken out of context. And it’s just, if something’s not true, how are you supposed to respond? If you question a post, it’s gaslighting.”

Despite these concerns, Rose acknowledged the overwhelming positive effects the account has generated, especially at the start – “It’s radical, it’s empowering” – and said she hasn’t seen the dangers she’s worried about yet. She just cautioned that social media tends to reward the most sensational content and worried that, without vigilance, the conversation could veer from achieving constructive ends and toward fanning flames.

LL, for one, said that the @CWRU.survivors account has already achieved something significant by raising enough awareness to capture the attention of the administration and force them into action, even if it’s still largely symbolic.

“Incoming students are starting to message me about this,” she told Scene. “And if there is an effect on enrollment, Case will change. Because Case cares about one thing more than anything else: money. It’s just like in Title IX. They side with the person who gives them more money, or who might cost them more money if they don’t.”

She was asked what she tells incoming freshman about Case, in light of the recent controversies.

“I tell them that Case is different in some ways, and that I chose the school because of the student body, which really is diverse and full of smart people,” she said. “But it’s also like every other school out there. It’s probably not going to protect you.”

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