Demonstrators at UMass call for sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights

Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2015

AMHERST — After a woman reported being raped at the University of Massachusetts, a sexual assault disciplinary hearing forced her to face the man she was accusing.

Following the hearing, as she continued to recover from the sexual assault, her attacker not only remained a student at the university, but maintained his campus residence.

For Mitchell Manning, a UMass freshman and friend to the survivor, it is frustrating that UMass officials wouldn’t give his friend the consideration to provide testimony in a private setting, and have now created a potentially hostile atmosphere for her to continue her education.

“It’s a basic human right that no student should have to go through that,” Manning said.

Manning was among a few dozen students who gathered for a rally Monday morning in front of the Student Union calling on the university to adopt what is being called a “Survivor’s Bill of Rights.” This bill would ensure a series of protocols are in place to better protect victims of rape and sexual violence, and make punishments more consistent.

“I’m hoping this brings in more voices and lets more people know what’s going on,” Manning said.

The rally was part of a Day of Action by the Coalition to End Rape Culture, a student group formed two years ago with the goal of ending sexual violence. The day also included a march to the Whitmore Administration Building to deliver an appeal for adopting the bill of rights to Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Enku Gelaye, and to request a meeting on the topic with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Demonstrators held signs with the phrases “End Rape Culture” and “My Dress is Not a Yes,” and chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, rape culture has got to go” and “no justice, no peace, no poorly trained police.”

“We are here to end institutionalized sexism here on campus,” said coalition president Priya Ghosh, a fourth-year student at UMass.

Ghosh cited statistics showing that rape or attempted rape is common for female college students, but many don’t get the necessary support from administrators.

Ghosh, herself a survivor of a sexual assault, said she had to pay a fee to be readmitted to the university and still has to see her attacker on campus.

“This is not OK,” Ghosh said. “We’re here to demand justice for survivors and students.”

Under investigation

While colleges and universities are mandated to offer sexual assault victims a hearing under Title IX, the 1972 federal law that legislates equality in academia and considers sexual assault a form of discrimination, there is often little privacy during these sessions. In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a letter to institutions of higher education defining how Title IX should be applied, which prompted UMass and other local colleges to re-evaluate the procedures they have in place.

Last year, UMass and Amherst and Hampshire colleges were among 71 colleges placed under investigation by the civil rights office for their handling of campus sexual assaults and possible violations of federal law. UMass and Hampshire had no complaints that prompted the review, while Amherst had two complaints filed in November 2013.

UMass spokesman Patrick Callahan said in a statement Monday that it has been a long-standing practice at UMass to adhere to the victim’s bill of rights contained in the federal Clery Act, a law requiring colleges and universities to provide information about crime on and near campus.

“The university takes the issues raised by the coalition members very seriously,” Callahan said. A meeting has been set for April 2 at 2:30 p.m. in the Campus Center between Gelaye and other university officials to discuss a range of concerns contained in a letter presented by the coalition members. Some of these issues are already being addressed.

Callahan said UMass has also been the host for the Center for Women and Community, the confidential rape crisis center for Hampshire County.

In fact, three of its counselors were present for the rally because talking about rape and sexual assault can be a sensitive subject.

Bill of rights

Stephanie Hung, a UMass senior who serves as a rape crisis counselor, said the center supports having the university adopt a survivor’s bill of rights.

Elizabeth “Liz” Mungovan, a UMass sophomore and vice president of the coalition, said the bill of rights offers a series of protections for those who have been traumatized by rape and sexual assault.

Among the stipulations specified in the bill would be that survivors of rape and sexual assault won’t get “withdrawn” marks on their transcripts if they leave school for an extended time, won’t lose tuition or other academic expenses already paid during that recovery period, and won’t have to pay additional fees to be reinstated.

The bill would also require more prevention techniques for residence assistants in dormitories, and calls for sexual assault information to be a greater part of the New Student Orientation.

Mungovan said the bill would give survivors a better chance of making their cases. “If these rights are violated, the school can be held accountable,” Mungovan said.

She is confident it can happen, noting that a survivor’s bill of rights was recently enacted in the State University of New York system and that the state of Calfornia has adopted the so-called affirmative consent law, which more clearly defines when both parties have agreed to have sex.

The Day of Action featured the use of mattresses, which have become a symbol of the Carry That Weight movement, which began at Columbia University in 2013 after student Emma Sulkowicz was raped. Upset with the university’s decision not to expel her attacker, she began carrying a 50-pound mattress around campus.

The UMass students hauled several mattresses, each with a large red “X” taped across them, to signify the burden they are also trying to overcome, and the barriers put up by the administration. To show solidarity, many of the students participating in the rally had red tape forming an “X” placed on their jackets and backpacks.

During the rally, survivors had an opportunity to speak out about their experiences. One freshman said she is still affected by a rape that occurred when, as a high school sophomore, she got into her boyfriend’s vehicle and was attacked. To this day, she said, getting into a vehicle can be emotional, as can be being with men who are taller than she is.

The rally was also used as a means of beginning to collect signatures for a petition that will demonstrate the level of support on campus for the survivor’s bill of rights. That will be completed in mid April during the next stage of the call to action.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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