Today, the barely one-year-old Title IX Office of The University of Missouri released its first annual report of sex discrimination incidents. From August 2014 to the end of July 2015, there were 332 “potential incidents of discrimination,” which were “categorized into 374 alleged policy violations.” These violations include, but are not limited to, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, bullying, and stalking on the basis of sex.
One of those 332 incidents happened to me. And I was one of the extremely lucky ones.
On the evening of February 4, I was walking home from doing study hours at my sorority house to my apartment downtown. It’s a roughly mile-long walk, and as someone who walks a lot every day, it wasn’t ever a huge deal to me. I was used to walking at night, and was keenly aware of the dangers that come with it. However, this night it was snowing pretty hard, which made getting home safely a little bit more challenging.
I was walking up Ninth Street when I heard a car going the other direction honk at the car in front of it, briefly grabbing my attention. Their light turned green and I continued my walk, not really thinking anything of it. About a minute later, the same car that had honked was now on my side of the street, driving slowly next to me. I could see that the driver was a thin old man with greying hair, and he was just silently leering at me. His car was going probably barely any faster than I could walk in the snowfall, and he refused to break eye contact. I wanted to shout at him and ask him what his problem was, but the words died in my throat. Just as I couldn’t take it anymore, he suddenly sped off up the street, and I was kind of freaked out, but relieved he was gone.
I walked up the block past a church and a froyo shop, and as I was about to cross the street, he appeared again, waiting for me to cross in front of his car. I froze in that moment, and made the split-second decision to cross anyway, even though he probably could’ve gotten out of his car and grabbed me. I crossed with no incident, but he turned onto the street after me and continue to follow me, staring silently.
At first I had just thought he was creepy and wanted to look at a girl, but in that moment it became clear that he was trying to follow me home. I knew I had to do something, but it was freezing and after 10 p.m. on a weeknight, and wasn’t really sure where I could go to throw him off my trail. By some insane stroke of luck, a bar further up the street appeared to be open, and I rushed inside.
I was able to throw him off, call Columbia PD, and my roommate came to get me. One of the bar employees could tell that something was off and told me he’d keep a lookout until my ride arrived. I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t assaulted. If he had a weapon, he didn’t use it. I never saw him again after this incident, and thankfully nothing like this has happened to me since.
However, the test I had been studying for earlier that night was the next day, and there was no way I could focus on anything else besides the incident once I got home. I was supposed to have papers due in the next few days in my other classes as well, but I just couldn’t concentrate. I felt dumb to be so worked up over such a small incident in comparison to the things my peers have faced, but also was terrified at the thought of having to walk home alone at night again for the rest of the year. I decided to email my professors to let them know about what happened to see if they would have any leniency on upcoming due dates.
Luckily, all of my professors understood that I was pretty shaken up, and I was given anywhere from an extra day to a week to get assignments in with no penalty.
However, under Title IX, “University policy requires any employee of the University who becomes aware of sex discrimination (including sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking on the basis of sex, dating/intimate partner violence or sexual exploitation) to share that information with the Title IX Office, regardless of whether the recipient of the behavior is a student, employee, volunteer or visitor of the University.”
I reported my incident to all four of my professors at the time, not even in the interest of filing a report, but in order to save my grades. The only professor who sent a report of my incident to the Title IX Office was the one female professor I had that semester.
Anybody who is even vaguely familiar with the American higher education system knows that sexual assault is a horrifyingly huge problem on campuses across the country. Even though we had 332 incident reports, in reality there were probably hundreds more incidents on this campus alone. And if mine hadn’t been reported by the only professor who even dreamed that I would find this incident terrifying, mine would be among the hundreds of thousands that go unreported every single year in the United States.
This isn’t a dig at my fellow students or survivors who refuse to report – I technically have never reported an incident that has happened to me either. On the contrary, it is the universities that make the process of reporting a Title IX violation so arduous, and the environment on campus can become so hostile that survivors just don’t feel that reporting will get them anywhere. Even when they do report a sexual harassment or assault incident, student conduct boards will beleaguer the survivor about what they were wearing, how much they may have had to drink, or why they didn’t act differently at the time of the incident. Tens of thousands of rape kits go untested in the United States, and attorneys often don’t want to take up rape cases because they are often hard to prove to a jury, especially if the defense uses particularly slut-shaming tactics.
I also don’t understand why in the hell the University I love so dearly did not establish a Title IX Office until 2014. In high school, the only definition of Title IX we received was “the law that let girls play sports.” Every school in the U.S. that receives federal funding is required to have at least a Title IX coordinator, and my junior year of college was the first time I learned that “sex discrimination” under this statute even applied to cases of sexual violence or harassment.
The things survivors go through during their incidents are truly horrifying. But the treatment – or lack thereof – they receive after the fact can just make the problem worse. Universities are scared to make any move that would reflect badly on their image, whether they are concerned about prospective students or rich donors. They are afraid to confront perpetrators in the fraternity system, and rarely lay a finger on any accused member of their athletic teams. University boards – including our own – have let rapists continue to play on their sports teams, walk the halls of their academic buildings, and rage at their fraternity parties, all while survivors are swept under the rug, told their incidents didn’t occur, or drop out of school.
In a frankly half-assed effort to combat the sexual assault epidemic on our campus, a proposal put forth (by a bunch of old men) this summer suggested MU ban women from fraternities during peak party hours. Luckily, sanity prevailed after the MU Panhellenic Association Executive Board and all fifteen sorority chapter presidents addressed a letter to our chancellor expressing how ridiculous the majority of the proposal was. Hard liquor is now banned from fraternity chapter houses, but women are not.
And the administrative disappointments seem to keep coming this year – after our MSA President was verbally assaulted with racial and homophobic slurs one evening last week, our chancellor remained silent until an email that was sent out this morning addressed the incident. I want to believe that the administration really was “interview[ing] affected parties, and…have been in conversation with the students involved in recent incidents to ensure that their wishes are taken into account in any public statement that we make,” but with our past record of sweeping bias incidents under the rug, it’s kind of hard to give that benefit of the doubt. Not to mention that today it was also announced the the University will be cutting all ties to Planned Parenthood, jeopardizing the academic and health future of students and faculty alike.
So what are we left with here? What can we do? We can keep fighting. We can keep supporting survivors, speaking out when incidents occur, and educating people to understand what sexual assault and harassment are. But we can only do so much. Until universities across the nation stop bending to rich donors and special interests like athletic departments or fraternity boards and start taking the pleas of survivors and other students seriously, the system is not going to change. The watchwords of honor and duty do not only apply to the students of this University, but also to the administration that is charged with keeping us safe. Someday, we’re going to be alumni and maybe even rich donors. And we’ll remember what happened here.