Editor's note: This story contains information about sexual assault and suicide. Please proceed thoughtfully.
On August 27, Hannah Johnson stood on the stone steps of the student union at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, her blonde hair pulled back into a low ponytail and a microphone in her right hand. “Alright, guys, I'm about to do something that’s terrifying,” the 20-year-old said to the dozens of people assembled before her. She took a deep breath, then began to detail her experience being sexually assaulted by a fellow student. “According to him, I was the main actor that night — a night I still don’t remember,” she told the crowd, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “After, I felt despair, depression, I suffered physical ailments from distress, and for a period of time I became suicidal.”
Johnson, a third-year psychology and business major, says another student assaulted her in March 2020, and she reported the incident to the UNL Police Department and UNL's Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, which handles Title IX investigations, that August. A Zoom hearing between her and her alleged assailant took place in March 2021, but the case was closed with the Title IX committee deeming the other party “not responsible.”
Johnson’s experience left her feeling angry and incredulous. Those emotions bubbled up again six months later, when she heard that someone else had been raped on campus, at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house, known best by its nickname, Fiji. The assault had been reported to the UNL Police Department just before 4 a.m. on Tuesday, August 24.
Refinery29’s request for public records containing more information about the reported assault from the UNLPD was denied by a university lawyer who stated the records were part of an investigation, and a spokesperson for UNL declined to comment on the incident. The Lancaster County, NE, Sheriff’s Office told Refinery29 they hadn’t received a report related to the assault, and the County Attorney’s Office did not return Refinery29’s multiple requests for comment.
While Johnson herself hadn’t been assaulted at the Fiji house, it already had a reputation among the student body for being unsafe. In fact, it had only recently emerged from a three-year suspension that began soon after members made headlines for reportedly chanting “no means yes” to protesters at the 2017 Women’s March in Lincoln, NE.
The March 2017 university investigation that led to Fiji being suspended and placed on a “Chapter Rehabilitation Plan” found Fiji in violation of student conduct codes. “The behavior included reckless alcohol use, hazing, and inappropriate sexually based behavior, including a pattern of sexually harassing conduct,” a press release announcing the suspension stated, adding that while the Women’s March comments were “not the focal point of the suspension,” they were “consistent with the pattern of sexually harassing conduct evident in multiple other incidents.”
The fraternity has publicly stated that none of its members chanted “no means yes,” and John Osterholm, the president of the house corporation board at UNL’s Fiji chapter, denied in a statement to Refinery29 that “the Rehabilitation Plan was designed to address any ‘pattern of sexually harassing conduct,’ nor was that allegation even mentioned in Chapter Rehabilitation Plan.”
Fiji’s suspension was lifted in May 2020, but its reputation persisted among the student body. And now, in August 2021, news of the assault reported at the house spread quickly. By that evening, students and activists had begun to gather at the student union, located directly across the street from the house, speaking out against what they called a long-standing pattern of sexual harassment, violence, and bad behavior at the Fiji fraternity, and more widely on UNL’s campus. Over the next several days, hundreds of protesters descended on the campus chanting and holding signs reading: “Abolish Fiji!” and “Even My Dog Understands When I Say No!”
When Johnson first saw that people were gathering in protest, she felt a chill. “There were so many people down there,” she tells Refinery29. “I thought, They’re not just letting this go. Thank God. We’ve had enough.”
More than one in four women, and about 7% of men, experience rape or sexual assault as undergraduate students, according to data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network. At UNL, where Johnson goes to school, there were 26 reported rapes on campus and 24 reported rapes in on-campus housing in 2020, according to UNL’s 2021 Annual Campus Security and Fire Safety report. A November 2019 survey of 3,117 UNL students showed that nearly 19% reported experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or sexual harassment within the previous 12 months. But just 48 cases of sexual assault have been investigated by the UNLPD since 2015, a university spokesperson confirmed to Refinery29. Compared to similar institutions, UNL’s reported sexual assault incident numbers are comparable or “relatively low,” a spokesperson emphasized.
A confluence of factors is to blame for the “rape culture” students say exists at UNL, and at colleges and universities across the U.S., including a startling lack of education around consent in America’s schools and a society that reinforces violence, homophobia, victim-blaming, and oppressive gender dynamics, says Tanya Bass, PhD, a sex educator in North Carolina. (A university spokesperson told Refinery29 that, “any statement that UNL has a ‘rape culture’ isn’t factually based.”)
But what is happening at UNL, and on campuses all around the country, also underscores systemic problems with how colleges and universities implement Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at federally funded schools, including sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violence, says Laura Dunn, a national expert on Title IX and founding partner at L. L. Dunn Law Firm. Under Title IX, schools are responsible for taking immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Recently, guidelines regarding how Title IX complaints must be investigated have been subject to several changes: In 2017, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era Title IX guidance about how schools must handle sexual assault, which had been hailed by some activists for providing much-needed protections for survivors, but which others had criticized, saying it unfairly pushed schools to find alleged assailants responsible. Then, in August 2020, the U.S. Department of Education implemented DeVos’ new, amended regulations that expanded the rights of the alleged perpetrators, narrowed the definition of sexual harassment, and made the reporting process more arduous for survivors.
A federal district court struck down one particularly controversial DeVos guideline that stated that Title IX officials couldn’t consider a “statement” from a person who didn’t submit to cross-examination at a live hearing. Under that guideline, if a perpetrator admitted to committing rape, but then refused to subject themselves to cross-examination, the school would have to throw out the confession.
But other problematic guidelines are still in place. For instance, when schools receive a complaint, DeVos’s regulations mandate that they give notice to the respondent (how Title IX offices typically refer to the alleged perpetrator) before they’re questioned. “Can you imagine in the criminal system where a victim comes in and reports someone for rape and before the police bring that person in for questioning, they get a formal notice saying, ‘You are being accused of rape, you can bring an attorney, you can take a week before you visit us?’ That is not how a criminal system works,” Dunn says. “As much as people wanted to herald the regulations for protecting due process, they weren’t. They were protecting offenders.”
How Title IX is implemented matters, because the law is supposed to hold schools accountable in how they address sexual assault. This accountability is sorely needed, given that many educational institutions have shown time and again that they care more about protecting their reputation, and the reputations of certain influential students or professors, than they do about protecting survivors, says Kathy Redmond, the founder of the WeLead Project, formerly known as the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. This is demonstrated by how many schools don’t do anything more than the baseline that Title IX requires to support students who report harassment, assault, or rape, she adds. Many — including, survivors allege, UNL — do far less.
“As much as people wanted to herald the regulations for protecting due process, they weren’t. They were protecting offenders.”
On March 4, 2021, seven months after Hannah Johnson reported her rape to UNL, her Title IX hearing took place. She says hers was the first hearing following a significant reform of UNL’s Title IX procedures. Johnson felt like a “guinea pig,” she told the crowd during her speech at the August 2021 protest. In a later conversation with Refinery29, she said that an employee in the UNL Center for Advocacy, Response & Education (CARE) office, which is set up to support survivors, told her, “I can't tell you what this is going to be like, because it’s the first time they're doing it.”
While describing the events of the hearing, Johnson illuminates what appears to be a stark double standard in how the school handled her case. According to Johnson, her CARE advocate told her to meticulously follow every instruction she was given, or her case might be thrown out. So when she was told by a Title IX official to show up to every pre-hearing meeting and to submit the name of her advisors, her witness list, and a list of questions she intended to ask ahead of time for review by everyone, including her respondent, she complied. During the pre-hearing conferences, some of the questions she planned to ask were thrown out on the grounds that they weren't directly related to the specific assault, Johnson says, so she didn’t ask them during the hearing. “It was very clear to me that there was no leeway,” she tells Refinery29 of the rules.
But according to Johnson, her respondent skipped his two pre-hearing meetings, and surprised her by showing up to the hearing with a lawyer — Justin Kalemkiarian of Berry Law Firm, known for helping students who are alleged perpetrators in Title IX cases.
When Refinery29 asked UNL about their hearing guidelines, a spokesperson pointed to UNL’s procedures executive memorandum. It does not explicitly state that all students are required to attend pre-hearing meetings, which contradicts the guidance Johnson says she was given. It does say that all parties “shall have an opportunity to inspect documents and a list of witnesses prior to the hearing.” But according to Johnson, her respondent brought witnesses she didn’t know about ahead of time, and a Title IX employee fought her request to take a five-minute break to prepare questions for these witnesses.
Kalemkiarian, who says he’s represented respondents in several Title IX cases at UNL, told Refinery29 that he couldn’t recall if the respondent in this case went to pre-trial hearings or if witnesses were called, but added that if they were, “those witnesses would have been known to the complainant [Johnson] as far as I remember.” In a later email, he clarified that “there cannot be surprise information and/or witnesses provided for the first time during the hearing and that did not happen in this case.”
Johnson also tells Refinery29 that Kalemkiarian asked her about her past sexual behavior during the trial, which was allowed by a Title IX hearing officer. A Title IX official asked Johnson how often she drank and partied. She says she'd been told by her CARE advocate that if she chose not to respond to questions, her case could also be thrown out.
Johnson felt dismayed by these inquiries, which she says were irrelevant to the details of the assault. UNL’s executive memorandum states that most questions of “past sexual history” aren’t permitted. It does, however, grant a few exceptions, one being: "If the questions and evidence concern specific incidents or the Complainant’s prior sexual behavior with respect to the Respondent and are offered to prove consent." Kalemkiarian pointed specifically to this memo language when asked for comment on this matter.
But as Shari Stenberg, PhD, a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at UNL, told Refinery29 via email, "Consent to one activity does not mean consent to others, and consent can be revoked at any time.” Ultimately, the kind of language found in the memo — which, unfortunately, is not uncommon in current Title IX procedure guidelines, according to Sandra Hodgin, PhD, a national Title IX compliance expert and founder of Title IX Consulting Group — reinforces the type of systemic survivor-blaming that makes it harder for people who have experienced sexual assault to report their abuse.
The trial went on for almost six grueling hours, with Johnson’s witnesses sitting in a Zoom “waiting room” the entire time. One witness Johnson considered essential — her friend and fellow UNL student Kim Luis — ultimately had to leave before she could testify.
When the verdict came back that her respondent was not being held responsible, Johnson was devastated. She didn’t appeal the decision because she couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer on her own, and she didn’t want her family to know what had happened to her and worry, she tells Refinery29.
Meanwhile, Kalemkiarian believes the recent changes made to UNL’s Title IX process were for the best. “All parties get a chance to ask questions and cross-examine people and bring in their own witnesses,” he told Refinery29. “I understand why complainants don’t like that… but from the respondents’ perspective, they get a chance to put out their side of the story, they get a chance to ask questions, and the complainant gets to do the same.” However, some experts argue that the cross-examination taking place under the DeVos guidance can, as former Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and John King put it in a May 2020 statement, “unnecessarily burden victims and deepen trauma for students by increasing the chance of victims being exposed to their accused assailants.”
When the verdict came back that her respondent was not being held responsible, Hannah Johnson was devastated.
Johnson, for her part, says she fears the double standards she experienced might dissuade students from reporting their assaults; already, only about 23% of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2020 criminal victimization survey.
Citing their requirement to protect students’ privacy under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, UNL’s Office of Communication and UNL’s President’s Office denied Refinery29’s public records request for: transcripts from the hearing and pre-hearing meetings; the materials Johnson and her respondent submitted for review ahead of the hearing; and emails, text messages, and calendar entries regarding Johnson’s case sent by Title IX Coordinator Meagan Counley and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Leslie Shaver. The UNL CARE office didn’t respond directly to multiple requests for comment. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights did not complete Refinery29's public records requests asking for copies of Title IX complaints pertaining to sexual assault at UNL before press time.
Johnson’s experience with her campus Title IX offices is just one example of injustices happening on college campuses all over the country, says Karen Truszkowski, a lawyer who tries Title IX cases against educational institutions. Kendall Ware, a swimmer and graduate student at the University of Vermont, also felt confused and betrayed by her school’s Title IX process.
Ware told Title IX officials that a member of the school’s basketball team had sexually assaulted her in October 2019, about a month after the incident had occurred. Ware was told she could either undergo a “formal” or “informal” investigation, but received conflicting information about what that meant. At first, she was told that an informal investigation wouldn’t result in disciplinary action, so she asked for a formal investigation. Two days later, and hours after giving her formal statement to UVM’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, she received a call from an administrator, who said something along the lines of, “It sounds like you don’t know what you want,” according to Ware.
The next day, Ware told Refinery29, the Title IX intake and outreach coordinator and Krista Balogh, UVM’s associate athletic director for external relations and communications, told Ware that if she asked for an informal investigation, her respondent could be suspended from playing basketball and be required to go to mandatory counseling, which Ware felt “was really important… so that he could work on things and hopefully not do this to another person ever again.” She also was told she’d be able to read a “victim impact statement,” which she saw as “a chance to take back my power.”
Ware agreed to an informal investigation, but later, an outside Title IX facilitator told her that the informal investigation actually couldn’t lead to game suspensions or mandatory counseling; she also wouldn’t be able to read a victim impact statement in person.
Looking for clarity, Ware said her mother Marcie called Balogh, who said that a game suspension “wouldn’t be fair” to her respondent’s teammates or to “the community that comes out and watches him play,” according to Marcie and Ware.
Now, Ware says if she had received clearer information earlier on, she may have opted for a formal investigation instead. In the end, she was still able to give her victim’s impact statement via Zoom, but wishes UVM had made her feel more heard. “I want them to acknowledge that the culture of our athletic department impacted my case,” she said. “I can’t say for sure what would have happened if the case didn’t involve a… basketball player, but I know that had an influence. And I want them to acknowledge that mistakes were made.”
“I want [UVM] to acknowledge that the culture of our athletic department impacted my case... And I want them to acknowledge that mistakes were made.”
In response to Refinery29’s request for comments, a spokesperson from UVM said, “We are confident in the integrity of UVM’s handling of reports of sexual misconduct… An independent, external review of the reporting, investigation, and adjudication processes found them to be in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations.”
In a statement sent through a spokesperson, Jeff Schulman, UVM’s athletic director, declined to comment on Ware specifically, but said, “I can share that Athletic Department staff members treat every allegation of sexual misconduct with the utmost seriousness… Sexual misconduct in any form is not tolerated at UVM, including within the athletic department.”
Balogh didn’t respond directly to Refinery29’s requests for comment, and Refinery29’s public records requests for access to records of meetings in which officials explained Ware’s investigatory rights, and for access to Title IX-related communications sent from the email addresses of Balogh, UVM Title IX coordinators, and UVM Title IX investigator Kate Spence, went unanswered. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights did not complete Refinery29's public records requests asking for copies of Title IX complaints pertaining to sexual assault at UVM before press time.
In response to Ware’s case, students and other survivors called for the dismissal of Balogh and Schulman. But they’re still in their posts. In 2020, Ware, along with seven other athletes from other colleges, sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for the failure to protect them from sexual assault. The case was voluntarily dismissed this summer, but may be refiled in a different jurisdiction.
If schools fail to meet their Title IX obligations, they can be tried in court, and multiple lawsuits have been brought against UNL over the years. In fact, in 1995, the very first Title IX lawsuit regarding sexual assault in the country was filed by Redmond, a former UNL student who said that while at school, she had been raped twice by a football recruit named Christian Peter, an allegation he has denied. Police didn’t pursue criminal charges against Peter in this case, but he was convicted of sexual assault after a separate incident in 1993, receiving 18 months probation, according to court records. He has not responded to Refinery29’s request for comment.
Redmond claimed that UNL had failed to prevent sexual harassment on campus, thereby violating Title IX. The lawsuit stated that she’d been subjected to "a pattern of overt sexual harassment, as well as a pattern of intentional failure to investigate her allegations of sexual assault ... thus permitting her attacker to remain a highly visible athlete." Redmond’s suit against Peter and the school was settled in 1997, with Redmond receiving $50,000 from the school.
Redmond says that about 25 years later, little has changed about how UNL and campuses across the country approach sexual misconduct cases. Recently, Redmond was involved in helping bring nine women together to file a Title IX suit, Thomas v. Regents, against UNL and other parties in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska in July 2020. The suit claims that “UNL’s investigation and response to each of the Plaintiffs’ sex discrimination complaints was insufficient and did not comply with basic due process requirements” or with “accepted Title IX response requirements as outlined in guidance from the U.S. Department of Education."
One plaintiff in the suit, Sydney Brun-Ozuna, told Refinery29 that after she disclosed that a fellow student had assaulted her and UNL’s Title IX office got involved, the school’s current Title IX coordinator, Meagan Counley asked her graphic and inappropriate questions, as detailed in the lawsuit, including what she’d been wearing during the reported assault — even going so far to ask her to stand up to show Counley where on her legs her skirt’s hemline ended.
Brun-Ozuna eventually received a letter saying the Title IX office had found no evidence of sexual misconduct. She requested a meeting to discuss this decision, during which she said Counley told her, “You’re not going to change my mind.” Brun-Ozuna called the experience “more traumatizing” than the assault itself. Although Counley provided a statement to Refinery29 for this story, she did not respond directly to our request for comment on Brun-Ozuna’s statements.
About 25 years after filing her own Title IX lawsuit against UNL, Kathy Redmond says little has changed about how the school and campuses across the country approach sexual misconduct cases.
Sheridan Thomas, the lead plaintiff in Thomas v. Regents, told Refinery29 she ultimately left UNL after being raped and harassed by a student-athlete in 2015. She said she had a harrowing experience with UNL’s Title IX office, and that she was academically dismissed when she attempted to withdraw from classes she struggled in after her rape. “It’s hard for me to function in a society, let alone to do college-level work, when my brain isn’t functioning properly because of trauma,” Thomas said. She appealed the dismissal, but soon after decided not to return to the school. “I didn’t want to be on a campus where I didn’t feel safe,” she said. Since the assault and her interactions with the school’s Title IX office, she has dealt with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In April 2021, UNL officials filed a motion to dismiss the Thomas v. Regents suit, claiming that they acted properly. But in June 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice responded in a rare “Statement of Interest”, stating that “UNL’s arguments largely misapply the Title IX case law,” and that the university has been implementing an unnecessarily restrictive definition of what it means to face harassment and discrimination under Title IX. UNL, for instance, had attempted to argue that the complainants needed to show they’d been harassed a second time by the person they were accusing, which the DOJ statement said ran counter to the goals of Title IX.
UNL responded: "We remain confident of our legal position and are pleased that the vast majority of claims were dropped by the plaintiffs. Beyond that, we cannot comment on pending litigation." This November, the plaintiffs filed a supplemental brief clarifying their Title IX claims, and in December the defendants requested again that the case be dismissed. Litigation is still ongoing.
“I didn’t want to be on a campus where I didn’t feel safe."
In response to Refinery29’s request for comment on the case, a UNL spokesperson said, “We cannot comment on the specifics of any Title IX investigation or on pending litigation. We emphasize that the health and safety of all of our students is of the utmost importance to us. We have a strong Title IX process and are confident in it. Every case is difficult and investigated based on the information made available.”
Both Thomas and Brun-Ozuna told Refinery29 that the DOJ’s Statement of Interest felt validating. “Having the Department of Justice come in and say, ‘No, you’re wrong?' That was really powerful,” Brun-Ozuna said.” It’s sort of like having one bully and thinking that they run everything, and then there’s a bigger bully. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not as big and tough as I thought you were.’”
Truszkowski, who is a lawyer involved in bringing this case against UNL, told Refinery29 that it shouldn’t be so hard for campuses to figure out how to appropriately handle sexual assault. “You need to treat the survivors with respect, follow your own policies, and treat everyone equally,” she says. “It’s not rocket science.”
Despite the ongoing litigation and a purported commitment to change, many students say that UNL is continuing to fall short in its response to the alleged rape at Fiji this past August. For instance, while UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green pledged in August to close Fiji and stated in October that the frat would be suspended until 2026 for violating the university’s policies on alcohol use, UNL students told Refinery29 that they’d heard parties with alcohol were hosted at the house (which is located on private property, a UNL spokesperson confirms) through the fall.
But Osterholm, of Fiji's UNL chapter, takes a different view. He told Refinery29 in an email statement that he believes UNL’s chancellor “exacerbated the charged atmosphere that enveloped the University this prior fall,” with his public statements about closing the house. “I think students are misinformed about so-called ‘parties,’” Osterholm added. “There have been two events at the Chapter House, 1) an Alumni event and 2) our annual Parent/Son Christmas party.”
When I visited the Fiji house in early September, the parking lot was full of cars, lights were turned on inside, and I observed multiple people entering the house, although my knocks at the door went unanswered. Later, I spotted a man with long blond hair and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, and caught up with him as he was going in a side door; I asked if he’d be willing to speak with me about what had been going on. “I don’t really have the time right now, but all I know is I think someone threw a bottle the other night at our window,” he said. He declined to comment further.
On Fiji’s front porch, there was a plaque on one of the pillars reading, “More Phi Gam, Less Self.” The house was also adorned with a banner, emblazoned with the words, “kNOw More.” Banners with the same phrase hung from many fraternity and sorority houses. The emblems were part of a project started by students to raise awareness for campus sexual assault, and by mid-September were one of the few tangible signs of the movement that had begun on campus a month earlier.
The banners had already begun to draw some criticism for being performative at best — especially the one hanging on the Fiji house. “Sexual assault awareness is important and no single action constitutes ‘enough’ to be sure we are carrying out our organization’s ideals,” Osterholm told Refinery29 when asked about the banners. “The chapter unequivocally condemns sexual assault.” He also said, “after the allegation originally surfaced on social media, members of the chapter immediately invited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Police Department to the chapter house to assist with the investigation. To our knowledge, no one has been charged with a crime.”
Osterholm adds that the chapter participated in a university-sanctioned disciplinary process earlier this fall, but adds that the university didn’t “charge the chapter with a violation of the university’s sexual misconduct policy.” Rob Caudill, the executive director of Phi Gamma Delta’s International Headquarters, didn’t respond to Refinery29’s multiple calls and email requests for comment.
In November, UNL Police Sgt. Margot Mason told Refinery29 that no other details about the case are being released until an investigation is completed, adding: “There’s been a lot of speculation regarding this case. Some things are true, some things are not true. The rumor mill is churning out a lot of details that have never been confirmed by this department.”
Meanwhile, the frustration over what other students see as schools’ long-standing failure to address rape culture on campuses has encouraged them to push for change at a grassroots level. UNL student Rose Felice, for instance, created the account @shutdownfiji to drive attention to a Change.org petition that called for the school to close the Fiji frat house. She hoped “to hold these people accountable and to show that they can’t just throw the big red rug over everything that happened,” she told Refinery29 in September, referencing the school’s colors, scarlet and cream. “The problems here have been swept under that rug for far too long.” Felice’s petition was named by Change.org as one of its “top 10 petitions that changed 2021,” saying it “resulted in much-needed attention to the stories of survivors on college campuses.”
In April 2021, after Ware and other students came forward about UVM’s mishandling of their Title IX cases, student activists created the Instagram account UVM Empowering Survivors, hoping to force change by providing a supportive and safe space for survivors to share their stories.
Many similar social media accounts sprung up at colleges across the country in the summer of 2020, inspired by examples of digital activism following the murder of George Floyd in June of that year. “We really do owe a lot of credit to the BIPOC Surviving PWI [Black, Indigenous, People of Color surviving Predominantly White Institutions] movement accounts that shared collective trauma,” says Grace Verbrugge, a student at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who helps run Survivors of Gettysburg, an account dedicated to sharing sexual assault survivors stories. “A lot of activists who’d been working to prevent sexual assault saw this model and said, ‘Wow, we could really utilize this, too.’”
These types of accounts became so common that many of the administrators formed a coalition: the University Survivors Movement, which provides resources to people hoping to start similar accounts at their schools. The accounts reassure survivors that they’re not alone, provide information to empower people to fight for change, and sometimes function as a kind of digital “whisper network” about who and where to avoid on campus. They’re largely survivor-led, says Verbrugge, the co-coordinator of outreach and communications for USM.
Some survivors say contributing to these platforms was validating. “When I finally felt like I could talk about it, that was when everything kind of changed for me,” says Sarah McCluskey, a 22-year-old drama major at New York University who runs the @nyu.survivors account. At her Title IX hearing, she wished that the committee weighing in on her case would have been more gender diverse, and she felt that she wasn’t treated with the same level of respect as her respondent. After that experience, she felt “lost,” says McCluskey. “I wanted to share my story, [and] help other people share theirs.” A spokesperson for NYU didn’t respond to Refinery29’s requests for comment.
But this work can take a toll on the survivors’ and activists’ mental health; it also opens them up to harassment. After creating the @shutdownfiji account in August, Felice quickly found herself on the receiving end of serious backlash. One person commented on her Change.org petition, “You will start hearing that this rape story is all a lie. So [Rose] better buckle up because they’re coming for you.” Felice’s last Instagram post was September 10.
Dom Liu-Sang, who helped organize the Fiji protests early in the school year, also received criticism after her involvement. “When you talk about sexual assault, yes it happens to everyone, but when it comes down to demographics and things, Black people, women of color, people of color — we don’t get the same treatment coming out of it that other people do and it’s a lot more silenced,” she says. “We were trying to bring that up… People didn’t like that I was bringing that perspective and narrative to the situation.” She said that, as a survivor herself, the pushback she received was difficult for her.
“Most of us doing this work, we all have a shared burning feeling that what happened to us should never happen to anyone else again, and you can’t just stand idly by as you watch your university actively work against you to allow this harm to perpetuate itself,” says Maya Greally, who graduated from the University of Vermont last year and who co-founded the UVM Empowering Survivors account. “It’s a difficult balance because you want this work to be survivor-centered. But also, why are we the ones doing all the work?”
Too often, the answer to Greally’s question is: because no one else will.
“Most of us doing this work, we all have a shared burning feeling that what happened to us should never happen to anyone else again... But also, why are we the ones doing all the work?”
UNL officials, however, have remained unified in the position that they’re already doing all they can. “The university cares deeply about the safety of our campus community and takes all reports of sexual misconduct seriously,” Counley, UNL’s Title IX coordinator who investigated Brun-Ozuna’s case, told Refinery29 in a statement. “UNL has established policies and procedures to investigate complaints and address identified concerns as required by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and related laws, regulations, and guidance.”
One remedy that UNL officials have repeatedly pointed to as proof of their commitment to change is the October 2020 report on campus-wide sexual misconduct. In September 2021, UNL released a statement that claimed that the university has successfully implemented 15 of the 35 recommendations from this report, including three “critical points,” one of which was “promoting broadly the definition of affirmative consent.”
But when Refinery29 asked Susan Swearer, PhD, the chair of the now-renamed Chancellor’s Commission for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct, what this meant in practice, she responded, “That’s a good question,” and recommended I talk to another member of the committee, Dr. Stenberg, the professor of English and women’s and gender studies at UNL. Dr. Stenberg told Refinery29 in an email that the school should promote the definition of affirmative consent “through education — by having conversations with students about respect for people’s (and especially women’s, because it has been denied across history) sovereignty or agency over their own bodies. This means that sexual activity requires an affirmation from both parties that they consent to the act.” Dr. Stenberg teaches this in her women's and gender studies department, and added, "the university SHOULD do this [across the board], but this is work not yet undertaken."
Dr. Swearer is also the chair of UNL’s Department of Educational Psychology and a licensed psychologist who’s worked with both survivors of and perpetrators of sexual assault. She told Refinery29 that it’s important for people to know that sexual assault can be “complicated,” adding, “Not all perpetrators have been assaulted nor molested themselves, but many have and so sexual misconduct is a complex cycle of violence and victimization.”
Because sexual assault “is such a complicated pattern of behavior,” Dr. Swearer said, “it really takes everyone to work together to change behaviors and the campus climate.” After the protests earlier this August, “the Greek system kind of organized a response,” she added. But when asked for specifics about what the response was or how the university participated, she referred Refinery29 to Chancellor Green's video statement about the schools’ efforts to handle the incident and in a later email pointed to students’ “kNOw More” campaign that included the banners on the Fiji house.
Dr. Swearer adds that the Nebraska University system has mandated annual sexual misconduct training for incoming students, faculty and staff, University Police, and University Health Center employees, and says education and training will be a focus of her new commission. UNL is also expanding the facilities of their CARE office and has plans to hire more CARE staff members and a director this year. Green has pledged to re-establish UNL's partnership with Voices of Hope, which offers confidential, free services to survivors of sexual violence. Additionally, in a statement to Refinery29 Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer, said that UNL was “training relevant Title IX employees in trauma-informed care and restorative practices as an option for informal resolutions.”
But, “they claim to have been using trauma-informed training this whole time,” Brun-Ozuna said. When asked about that assertion, a UNL spokesperson said, “We have always taken care to follow best practices, and since 2020 we have enhanced training on trauma-informed care when responding to reports of sexual misconduct.”
For Brun-Ozuna, watching UNL’s response last year was like watching history repeat itself. After her interactions with UNL’s Title IX office in 2017 — during which she says she was denied even a hearing to investigate her case — she started the student-led advocacy organization Dear UNL.
“I got a group together and we had a story in the newspaper and we tried to work our way up to the chancellor’s level to say, ‘Hello, we have a big problem’,” she told Refinery29. “It felt like we had a lot of momentum, and then the University of Nebraska did what the University of Nebraska does very well, which is use bureaucracy to slow and stop any type of dissent and remove it from the minds of the public to the point where you no longer really have a voice for your cause anymore,” she said. She felt there was nothing to do but file a lawsuit.
She worries that the current outrage over the Fiji house and UNL’s inaction will follow a similar trajectory. But she hopes her lawsuit will set a precedent that holds her alma mater accountable and creates lasting change. She may have seen the system fail her and many of her classmates, but she believes it can undergo changes for the better in the future — even if those changes are forced by the courts.
It’s unclear whether UNL is currently working its way toward real, systemic change, or if school officials are, yet again, attempting to slowly sweep what happened on campus in August and September under the “big red rug” Felice described. Meanwhile, many students and survivors like Hannah Johnson are left to deal with the traumatic aftermath of their assaults on their own.
When I spoke to Johnson for the first time in September, the background of her Zoom screen revealed a slice of her dorm room, which looked like hundreds of others: twinkle lights, a can of Febreeze, and college-ruled notebooks. And while the details of her story are unique, the alleged mishandling of the case by her university also echoes a reality that’s become all too typical for college students.
Before the assault and hearing, Johnson was “like the sunshine of every room,” according to her friend Kim Luis. After, though, there have been many days where Johnson felt like she couldn’t even get out of bed. For months, she didn’t go a day without thinking about the assault.
Last December, Johnson was officially diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which gave her a sense of validation that she never received from her hearing. “Having that diagnosis helped,” she says. “[PTSD is] a well-known, real disorder, and it made me feel like, People are taking me seriously… That was a huge step in my progression in general.”
While Johnson says she’s been able to get to a better place after being diagnosed with PTSD and receiving therapy, she wishes her case had been handled differently by the school and hopes student actions — including survivors speaking out about their experiences, as she did on the steps of the student union that August evening — prompt UNL to improve its processes. She hopes future survivors can feel safer and, at the very least, be listened to.
Feeling heard, especially during a trial or hearing that’s carried out fairly, can make a major difference for survivors’ outcomes, Truszkowski says: “What I hear students wanting to say is, ‘Listen to me. Give me the benefit of believing my story, and a fair, reasonable investigation. I can live with the outcome.’”
“What I hear students wanting to say is, ‘Listen to me. Give me the benefit of believing my story, and a fair, reasonable investigation. I can live with the outcome.’”
For a long time, Johnson would replay the hearing in her mind, trying to figure out if she would have been believed if her final witness had been able to speak, or if the school had held her respondent to the same strict standards she’d been held to. But, in the end, she believes that the system was always set up to fail her. “Title IX isn’t set up to protect survivors, it’s set up to protect the school and students — including respondents,” she says.
Johnson’s been working toward making peace with the outcome, but she wishes she didn’t have to. “If I could say anything, it’s believe people — even if their story isn’t in the context you’d think of sexual assault being in,” she says. “After everything that happened and all the questioning, I have to go back and remind myself, still to this day, ‘Hey — that wasn’t your fault.’”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.