Student demonstrators gather in front of the Waterman Building
Thousands of University of Vermont students staged a mass walkout on Monday afternoon, marching through campus to protest the school's handling of sexual assault allegations.
The immense crowd formed on the lawn of the Redstone Campus around noon and weaved its way toward the Waterman Building, where students took over the front steps to share their own stories of sexual assault and slam the administration for failing to protect them.
"I have heard countless 'me toos' shouted into the dark because our university doesn't give a damn about what their students are going through, or the safety of their students," UVM senior Syd Ovitt, 21, one of the event's organizers, said into a megaphone. "That should not have to fall on any one person — that should fall on the university. It is their job to keep us safe. And it is their job to hold students accountable."
The demonstration was sparked by an April 26 Instagram post from UVM junior Athena Hendrick, who goes by they/them pronouns. Their post, which has been liked more than 3,000 times, described how the university responded after they reported they were raped by another student in February 2020.
According to Hendrick, it took UVM's Title IX office more than three weeks to respond to their initial report, and the investigation was then delayed once the pandemic sent students home. The investigation finally began in April and concluded four months later, Hendrick wrote, finding that there was "not enough evidence."
Hendrick's decision to publicly share their experience inspired dozens of other UVM students to come forward with stories of sexual violence last week. Some have shared their posts on their own accounts, while others have submitted accounts to an Instagram account called "ShareYourStoryUVM." Created in the wake of Hendrick's post, it has garnered more than 2,400 followers.
Hendrick's post was the second time this academic year that UVM has come under fire for its handling of a Title IX investigation. Last fall, UVM swimmer Kendall Ware accused the university of pressuring her into resolving her complaint about a men's basketball player whom she said raped her.
Addressing the crowd, Hendrick recalled a range of emotions: fear that so many others on campus have had similar experiences, anger that more hasn't been done to help them, and gratitude for Monday's strong showing. "We are here because we love ourselves and we value ourselves," Hendrick said. "We're here because we love survivors."
The demonstration's impact was felt throughout both the campus and broader community. Traffic along Main Street ground to a halt for more than 10 minutes as a seemingly never-ending stream of students shuffled across the busy through-way.
Messages such as "Believe Survivors" and "UVM PROTECTS RAPISTS!" were written in sidewalk chalk and spray-painted on brick walls throughout the campus. Several named Hendrick's alleged rapist, including one that appeared to have been painted over prior to the march only to be rewritten during it.
Protestors carried similar messages on handmade signs. Some called for broad accountability, while others detailed personal accounts of sexual assault. "I DIDN'T PAY TUITION TO BE R*PED AND IGNORED," read one sign.
Protestors also wrapped caution tape around the Waterman Building, with the intent, according to organizer Cobalt Tolbert, a UVM senior, to send a message that the university was "currently not a safe place."
UVM officials sent out several campus-wide emails in response to the social media storm last week, including one from April 29 that stressed the university does not tolerate sexual misconduct "in any form" but was committed to responding to claims "in a holistic manner."
"We respect the rights of both parties to be fully and fairly heard, and to be supported as campus community members without pre-judgment," reads the email, signed by Nick Stanton, the university's Title IX coordinator, and Erica Caloiero, the interim vice provost for student affairs.
The university's response did not sit well with the organizers of Monday's event, who described it as "largely disingenuous."
"Following the revelations of the depth of the sexual assault crisis, the administration turned off comments from their Instagram account, and began untagging themselves from posts calling them out and demanding action," the organizers wrote. "They have since turned comments back on, following further outcry that what little democratic voice students had was being suppressed."
Officials met with students over the weekend to discuss a list of more than a dozen demands, many of which were outlined in an online petition that has been signed more than 6,000 times. They included calls to conduct an independent audit of the university's Title IX office, which investigates claims of sexual misconduct; establish a 24-hour hotline for survivors of sexual violence; and hire four more victim advocates.
Student demonstrators leave messages on UVM's Waterman Building
In a campus-wide email on Monday, the university wrote that it agreed with all of the students demands.
Asked for her takeaway from Monday's event, Caloiero told Seven Days that it spoke to the power of "student activism and involvement."
"We're seeing that it can be a force for positive change," she said.
The protest organizers, however, weren't celebrating just yet.
Ovitt said she remains somewhat skeptical that the administration would follow through on its promise, partly because she has been fighting to bring more accountability to UVM ever since she was raped by a fellow student during her freshman year.
As a founder of Explain the Asterisk, Ovitt launched a nationwide effort to force colleges to disclose on transcripts when a student is suspended or expelled for sexual misconduct. The title of the initiative refers to a practice by some colleges of putting an asterisk on transcripts indicating misconduct without specifying what kind.
She said university leaders could either view the protest as a significant wake-up call and enact real change or view it as a flash in the pan and hope that it dissipates once students go home for the summer. While she was glad that the university responded to the demands, she said she was hoping for more detailed information on how, exactly, they would be met.
"There's just so many more conversations that need to happen," she said.