Vassar College Stands With Willa

Photo Credit: http://msb.georgetown.edu/sites/default/files/20100621%20Campus_2_0194.jpg

Boilerplate Magazine is choosing to republish I Stand With Willa, I Stand With Survivors,” originally published on July 21, 2015 by Georgetown’s Newspaper, The Hoya. Our magazine wishes to continue conversations of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, remembering that Rape Happens Here, but more importantly that rape happens everywhere. Achieving justice for survivors is not only a struggle Vassar is currently undergoing, but one that affects the nation at large. Boilerplate hopes to follow its intended mission statement by centralizing these issues in order to further resist these institutional injustices.

 

TW: Rape, More Gross Administrative Negligence

The Hoya Editor’s Note: Zoe Dobkin wrote this piece in collaboration with Willa Murphy; thus, they share a byline. For reasons of clarity and subject matter, we have elected to keep this piece in Zoe Dobkin’s voice, to which instances of first-person perspective should be attributed.

Zoe Dobkin is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Willa Murphy entered Georgetown in fall 2012 as a member of the Class of 2016.

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Introduction by CARES, Vassar’s student-run, nonjudgmental, private peer-listening service for anyone affected by personal violation:

Unfortunately, we are currently hyperaware of the neglect with which colleges treat cases of sexual assault. We frequently hear cases where survivors are retraumatized by institutions. We can each bring to mind instances where perpetrators have been allowed to continue their educations uninterrupted. We know that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate college. For these reasons, it is crucial that we remain alert and take the time to honor survivors like Willa who have the immense courage to share their experiences in the hopes that others will not face the same injustice.

At schools around the country, survivors of sexual assault face constant roadblocks in the reporting process. The Georgetown University Police Department’s insensitive treatment of Willa may strike a familiar chord with Vassar students who have difficulty trusting our campus security. The bureaucratic practices on campuses like Georgetown and Vassar force survivors who report to live through their traumas over and over again. This is only compounded when administrators spend more time policing survivors than they do perpetrators. How is it that the same institutions that claim to protect their students can treat these cases with such blatant carelessness? What systems allow schools to overlook the harm they are inflicting upon survivors? Why is “fairness” called into question when providing accommodations for survivors, but not considered when discussing conditions that allow sexual violence to occur in the first place?

In addition to turning to the administration for answers, we must also hold ourselves accountable for creating this culture of violence. We must question how Vassar’s own hookup culture perpetuates norms that allow students to overlook sexual misconduct in spaces like the Mug, the THs, and beyond. We must interrogate our own actions (and lack thereof) and realize the harm we allow to occur when we say and do nothing. In our small community, we are all obligated to intervene on both a personal and institutional level. We should strive to create a more supportive environment for survivors and challenge existing structures that continue to privilege the needs of perpetrators. Time and time again, students have been failed by the same administration that claims to protect them. If we hope to hear students feeling empowered by their course of actions rather than revictimized, Georgetown, Vassar, and colleges across the nation need to listen to the voices of students who further suffered because of these institutions’ negligence.

Though Vassar and other colleges have their work cut out for them in reforming their responses to sexual assault cases, there are resources available in the event that you or someone you know needs support. Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Coordinator, Charlotte Strauss Swanson, is a private resource available for support, advocacy, and more information about your options. She can be reached at (845) 437-7863 or by emailing chstrassswanson@vassar.edu. Additionally, CARES is a student-run, nonjudgemental, anonymous, private peer-listening service for anyone affected by personal violation. No matter what happened, where it happened, or whom it happened to–we are here to listen. You can reach a CARES listener 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — just call the CRC at (845)-437-5221 and ask to speak to the CARES listener on call, or email us at CARES@vassar.edu.

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“I Stand with Willa, I Stand with Survivors”

By Zoe Dobkin and Willa Murphy

Originally appeared in The Hoya on July 21, 2015

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In the spring of 2013, Willa Murphy was violently raped by a fellow Georgetown student.

It was such a traumatic experience that it took over a year after her rape before she was able to tell anyone, not uncommon for survivors. It was only in June 2014, after she had taken a medical leave of absence and been off campus since that January, that she officially told the school she had been raped.

I learned all of this two weeks ago, when I met Willa for the first time.

Willa should be a rising senior in the College, majoring in women’s and gender studies. Now, she is unsure whether she’ll even graduate from Georgetown at all (although her rapist almost certainly will). As traumatic as her rape was, she says the way Georgetown treated her after she tried to report has been worse.

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Willa has had to fend for herself to secure the few accommodations Georgetown has begrudgingly given her (not to mention the times they denied her requests for accommodations), despite the fact that legally, Title IX requires the provision of reasonable accommodations to survivors.

Last summer, she also tried to report the name of her rapist to the Georgetown University Police Department, only to be severely re-traumatized by that experience. After she asked to speak to someone about sexual assault, she overheard two officers disparaging her, having looked her up using the information she gave them. She specifically remembers two things she heard them say: “She was suspended in January, what is she even doing here?” and “What the hell are you gonna do with her?”

As she listened, she remembers seeing the university’s public announcement video about sexual assault on the flat-screens in the waiting room. Eventually they gave her the phone number of a female officer, which she threw away immediately after leaving the office, trying to hold back tears. This was “everything that I was afraid of,” as Willa put it. That would be her last interaction with GUPD.

Last summer, when she tried to return to campus, there was roadblock after administrative roadblock. At first, her dean suggested she take classes elsewhere. When she said she wanted to stay in D.C., he suggested, among other schools, University of the District of Columbia Community College. He assured Willa, who took AP Calculus in high school, that credits from UDC-CC would transfer to Georgetown — except if she took algebra.

If not for the help of a pro bono lawyer from the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., she would not have been allowed to come back in fall 2014 at all. Despite her readmission, the obstruction on the part of the university left her burnt out and re-traumatized — three weeks into that semester, she withdrew under extreme pressure by administrators. Her dean used the fact that her rapist was still on campus to persuade her and her mother that she would never be able to academically succeed at Georgetown — not before suggesting she return after he graduated.

This spring, Willa got the Council on Studies to “entertain” her petition to return that summer. Two weeks ago, Willa received an F in her four-week pre-session “Introduction to Ethics” class (it was the first time she had been in a classroom in almost a year). Originally, she had planned on retaking “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies,” for a better grade, since she had previously received a D as a direct result of the trauma from her rape. Despite this being the foundational class of her major, Willa’s dean sent her a patronizing email “reminding” her that she could not retake a class she had already gotten credit for, forcing her to drop that class and switch to “Introduction to Ethics,” which she failed. Because of that F, the university has expelled her.

The university justified expelling Willa based on that F grade, despite her professor asking the dean’s office for a grade change one week after the class ended. She appealed this dismissal and on July 9th, she sat before an appeals panel, composed of a physics professor, a computer science professor, and a college dean she had never met, while they looked at her case file and asked her questions about her rape, its aftermath and why she thought she should be allowed to come back. They handed down a decision: she could take a voluntary withdrawal instead of dismissal.

***

Behind institutionally perpetrated injustice, there are always good people hiding somewhere in the midst, working within the system to fight the good fight. Ultimately, though, nothing is clear-cut except the actual consequences the system inflicts.

Instead of standing with Willa, or asking what she needs, the university has consistently pushed her to leave campus and has made no effort to find ways to make sure she could finish her Georgetown education. Regardless of their intentions, it is no exaggeration to say that these administrators are ruining Willa’s life.

Instead of streamlining the administrative process to make it clearer for survivors, the dean’s office made Willa go through committee after committee after committee, each time having to repeat how she was raped. It didn’t help that she had difficulty recounting the list of different people or offices that she had contacted for help since she was raped, because it was so long: Title IX coordinators and sub-coordinators, therapists, psychiatrists, professors, the Academic Resource Center, Student Health Services, GUPD and three different deans within the dean’s office.

Yet even through all that, Willa trusted that Georgetown would do the right thing, and therefore had not gone public about her mistreatment at the hands of administrative bureaucracy.

Willa has experienced the oppressive, almost insurmountable weight of injustice. The weight of injustice is Willa covering her living room table and floor in Title IX guidance, documents from her case file from the dean’s office, and more legal papers. The weight of injustice is Willa receiving dehumanizing emails that just talk past her. The weight of injustice is Willa navigating a legal minefield with no adequate support system within the university structure. The weight of injustice is Willa typing “Title IX” into her inbox and getting lost in a sea of exchanges with so many different administrators it makes my head spin. The weight of injustice is Willa’s hair falling out because of the stress of being a rape survivor. The weight of injustice is Willa accruing interest on her student loans while not being allowed to be a Georgetown student. The weight of injustice is Willa having to pay for the summer school class she failed because the university would not provide her with accommodations — as her dean replied to her professor: “All the other students were graded on work that was does done within the proper time [of four weeks] and this [accommodation] would give her an unfair advantage and becomes an issue of equity.”

Injustice is the administration refusing to accept Willa’s philosophy final a week late, so they can expel her for failing while being on academic probation; yet, they had no problem giving her an additional week to think about changing her expulsion status to a voluntary withdrawal, ignoring a previous email from Willa to her dean: “Since I was raped, nothing about this has been voluntary. So I do not voluntarily withdraw.”

***

I honestly have no idea how she keeps track of everything, how she keeps going every day, how she still has so much fight in her. College is hard enough; Willa’s experience proves it is nearly impossible for survivors.

That’s the thing though — Willa is a survivor in every sense of the word, but she is also so much more than that. She has this incredibly witty and intelligent humor that often flies over my head; she is unbelievably kind; she has a remarkable passion for women’s and gender studies; she is a killer makeup artist; she knows pop culture like the back of her hand and can quote verbatim skits from “Key and Peele” and “Kroll Show,” and has an encyclopedia of reaction gifs; she can show you every YouTube video you never knew you had to see — she once watched Bill Clinton’s 2012 address to the Democratic National Convention, “to get pumped up” for a night out with friends. Above all, she has this unrelenting desire to learn and analyze and reflect. She belongs at Georgetown.

Perhaps most impressive is Willa’s strength, courage, persistence and deeply embedded sense of purpose. She has the kind of bravery of which most people only dream; she has this unyielding drive that is practically unheard of. Willa is fighting not just for herself, but every other survivor out there.

As a condition of publishing this piece, Willa wanted to make clear that she only speaks for herself and for her experience; however, if she — a white, upper-middle class, straight, cisgender, able-bodied female, with a tremendously supportive family — had this difficult of a time of dealing with Georgetown and being a survivor on campus, there are probably people with much worse experiences than hers.

In my opinion, Willa’s commitment to justice, especially in the face of tremendous adversity, makes her as much of a Hoya as any student actually allowed to attend Georgetown. Clearly, given the administration’s institutional problems, our campus needs Willa and her moral compass now more than ever.

Being a true Hoya means taking pride in our Jesuit identity. “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam — “for the greater glory of God” — is plastered all over our campus, and yet what the administration is doing to Willa is downright sinful. “Contemplation in action” is another hallmark of Georgetown’s Jesuit identity, and yet the administration seems to be going through Willa’s case in the most impersonal, meaningless way possible. We pride ourselves in “cura personalis” and “educating the whole person” — apparently survivors don’t count.

As Hoyas, we need to take back our Georgetown and rewrite our reputation, so all survivors know we are truly women and men for others. And more importantly, as human beings with a conscience and beating hearts, we need to stand with Willa because the administration has failed to do so.

If Willa is permanently expelled from Georgetown, which it increasingly appears like that will happen despite appeals, she wants to make sure that she left having done everything she could for all the other survivors that remain. We all have a moral obligation to ensure that her righteous struggle is not in vain. There are unfathomable systemic injustices that we must make sure no other survivor on Georgetown’s campus ever has to experience.

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