Berea College students raise fists to protest sexual assault

Berea College student on sexual assault

Shanita Jackson, a sexual assault survivor, talks about sexual assaults on college campuses.
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Shanita Jackson, a sexual assault survivor, talks about sexual assaults on college campuses.

More than 1,000 Berea College students, faculty and staff members raised their fists in solidarity with sexual assault survivors Thursday afternoon after students staged a peaceful protest in response to growing concerns about assault on campus.

At the forefront of the protest was Shanita Jackson, 19, who used her story to amplify concerns Berea students have about sexual assault.

“Surviving sexual assault is not an easy task. It is not staying dormant. It is not settling for less. Survival is the refusal to be silent. Survival is calling out every system, every institution, every college, every rapist and holding them accountable,” Jackson said in a speech she wrote Wednesday night. “Survival is waking up every day and striving for healing and change.”

Berea College would not comment specifically on the incident that sparked the protest, mentioning the privacy afforded to all students under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Title IX.

In a campus-wide email Wednesday, Berea College President Lyle Roelofs referenced a Title IX case heard in the spring of 2015 as the one that inspired this dialogue, particularly on social media.

Roelofs’ message came after students’ numerous emails to him about the case and how it was adjudicated. In one set of emails provided to the Herald-Leader, another student and survivor of sexual assault expressed a profound sense of fear that she and others felt of being on campus. The protest Thursday was the second to happen over the past two weeks.

“There have been other incidents (of sexual assault), but this one, whereas the girl had proof and the college kind of gave the person a slap on the wrist, that’s what really outraged us,” Jackson said in an interview following her speech. “But we really don’t want to focus on the individual. It’s more of an institutional problem. You see this problem at other colleges.”

Thursday’s protest was organized by 60 students using social media starting Tuesday, said Clara Ruplinger, 21, the group’s media coordinator. The plan was for students to attend the college’s weekly convocation at Phelps-Stokes Auditorium. Convocation is a speaker series which most students are expected to attend. This week’s speaker was Melanne Verveer, the U.S. State Department Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Verveer spoke for about 45 minutes about the strides women have made around the world and then invited questions from the student body. At that point, about a dozen students wearing tape over their mouths, representing silence regarding sexual assault, and teal ribbons on their wrists, representing sexual assault survivors, walked to the front of the auditorium.

In the audience was Berea’s Title IX officer Katie Basham, who was moved to tears as Jackson spoke.

“Our students are amazing, and they come to us with really remarkable stories,” said Basham, who has worked at Berea for 12 years. “The way that they feel empowered to share those stories and the way to help others and to bring healing to others, it’s something powerful and inspiring.”

Basham fields sexual harassment or assault reports either from students or from college employees in whom students have confided. Students can approach Basham anonymously. This marks the start of Berea’s processes for sexual misconduct cases, Roelofs wrote.

Depending on the case, the student judicial code is used to determine whether a hearing before the Campus Conduct Hearing Board (CCHB) is necessary. The CCHB is made up of Berea staff and students. Both parties can present evidence. The board’s decisions can be appealed, and students are informed of their rights to pursue legal action and file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights or other agencies.

In the Title IX case from the spring of 2015, both parties involved in the CCHB hearing declined to appeal, Roelofs said. Basham would not comment on whether the victim had approached police regarding the incident.

In 2015, Berea College received nine reports of rape on campus, according to data released in its annual security report.

Berea College will hold a forum on sexual assault at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 in its activities room. Roelofs and Basham will be in attendance.

“Participating in this protest was an extremely important and personal decision for me,” Ruplinger said. “Rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment is more than just the stranger on the sidewalk. It is the uncle, the best friend, the brother, the father, the trusted colleague. It is the man who is silent as his friend jokes about that rape, sexual assault or harassment, because he values his friendship more than he values the dignity, life, and safety of the women his friend demeans/assaults.”

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso