Crime and Justice

Explain the Asterisk: Sexual Violence at UVM

Editor’s Note: Sabine Love adapted this story for the Underground Workshop from an article she wrote in Professor Benjamin Dangl’s Activist Journalism course at UVM. The Underground Workshop accepts submissions from high school and college students across Vermont. For more information please contact the workshop’s editor, Ben Heintz, at [email protected]

Graffiti on UVM’s campus, Saturday, May 1. Photo courtesy of Isabel Puziss

by Sabine Love, UVM

One night in her first month on UVM campus, in September 2020, Abby Talaga was planning to walk back to her building late at night. She was with a group of students and felt unsure about walking alone from Redstone across campus to Central Campus Residential Hall, a 20-minute walk. She wondered if she needed to call someone. 

A male student reassured her. “It is Burlington, you will be fine getting home,” he said. “It’s a safe place, UVM is safe.” 

That is the stereotype in Burlington and at the University of Vermont: that no person, no woman should feel unsafe.

But is this true?

Recent allegations of sexual misconduct on the UVM campus suggest an underlying problem. In the past week alone, UVM students have taken to social media and have written on campus buildings with chalk, questioning UVM’s lack of response regarding sexual assault. An Instagram account has also been created as a safe space for survivors, reaching nearly 2,000 followers in just a few days.

Sexual assaults are not the only sexual violence women face. Josie Sheeran and her girlfriend Marissa Staffier are both seniors who experienced UVM and Burlington pre-Covid. In the summer of 2019, Sheeran, Staffier and a few of their friends were walking back from a party on Loomis Street in Burlington when they were passed by a group of men in a car that started honking at them.

The girls waved at first, a lighthearted moment that immediately became serious when they noticed they were being followed by the car, with the men insisting for them to get in. When the girls called out to the car, telling the men to leave them alone, it pulled over on the side of the road.

Sheeran and Staffier stood back while the car pulled up to their friends Emily and Allie and three guys stepped out onto the street. “They got out of the car and punched her in the face,” Sheeran said. “And then my other friend went up to them to stand up for our friend, and they also punched her in the face … They both got black eyes.” 

This took place less than a block from UVM’s campus. “Nowhere is safe,” Sheeran said, “not if you’re a woman.”

Unfortunately, this sort of street harassment with sexual intent is all too common. The incident with Sheeran and her friends was assault nonetheless. The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without clear consent of the victim. Sexual assault includes rape, but not all sexual assault is rape. According to Campus Safety Magazine, between 20% and 25% of women will experience a completed and/or attempted rape during their college career. 

During her freshman year at UVM, Syd Ovitt became a survivor of sexual assault. She decided to take legal action, but ended up losing the case. She initiated a Title IX investigation.

Syd Ovitt

Ovitt inquired about the numbers of sexual assaults, rapes and stalking events on campus for UVM students. She found that UVM is required to put out the numbers for the Clery Act, but the law only requires the school to disclose police reports. 

UVM’s Annual Security Report includes the most recent statistics from 2019. The report lists 18 confirmed rapes of UVM students, including incidents on and off campus. But the statistic is misleading. The annual security report includes notes on the methodology behind the numbers: “To the extent that sex offenses were reported as ‘sexual assault’ with insufficient information to characterize the type of sexual assault, they have been classified and reported as rape.” This means that UVM’s report categorizes all sexual assaults as rape, if there isn’t sufficient information to define it otherwise. 

The number of 18 confirmed rapes also represents only those reports upon which legal action was taken. Reports and allegations that are made and dismissed do not count toward these statistics. Ovitt believes that the real number of sexual assaults is much higher. 

When Ovitt started her own Title IX case in 2018, she asked her investigator, “If he gets suspended or dismissed, is he able to transfer colleges? Will they know why he had to transfer, or why he left UVM?”

Her investigator explained that some schools will include an asterisk on the student’s academic transcript to show that they were dismissed, but not the reason why. That stuck with her, although it didn’t pertain to her case. She was infuriated that a student convicted of sexual assault and dismissed from their college or university could transfer, with no indication on their transcript as to why they were dismissed. 

The incident motivated Ovitt to start her organization, Explain the Asterisk.

Ovitt created a transcript notation bill that was introduced to Vermont’s Legislature in 2018, requiring colleges and universities to explicitly indicate when a student has been dismissed on the grounds of sexual misconduct. When legislators suggested Ovitt start a petition urging passage of this bill, Ovitt gathered over 53,000 signatures. Ovitt said the petition was ultimately deemed invalid by state legislators and some administrators at UVM, because the signatures were not solely from UVM students and staff.

Posters for Explain the Asterisk, 2017. Photo by Syd Ovitt,

In 2016, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier of California  introduced a federal bill called the “Safe Transfer Act,” which specifically targets transcript notations. While the bill stalled in Congress, there is a plan to reintroduce it soon.

In May 2019, a Task Force on Campus Sexual Harm was established by the Vermont Legislature to examine issues relating to sexual harm, dating, intimate partner violence and stalking on campus, along with transcript notations. Though the group only had 6 meetings, they produced a report on the initial findings. The Legislature is working to create a new task force that will be made permanent. 

Syd Ovitt testifying at the Statehouse on Feb. 28, 2019. The Task Force on Campus Sexual Harm became part of Act 77 that May. Photo by Bethany Carver.

UVM has also made efforts to eliminate sexual assault and domestic violence among students, faculty and staff. Every incoming student is now required to take an alcohol awareness course created to reduce negative consequences of drinking, and a college-focused sexual assault prevention training is required for all undergraduate students. 

Explain The Asterisk continues to work to advocate for the prevention of sexual violence on college campuses and to educate students about the issue. Their social media accounts spread awareness and give people the option to send pre-written messages to legislators. During the pandemic, Explain The Asterisk has been quieter, but it is currently working on getting free Uber/Lyft vouchers for survivors to get to hospitals.

UVM campus, May 1st 2021.  Photo courtesy of Rylie Blanchfield

Abby Talaga has felt pretty safe at UVM as she nears the end of her first year, but not nearly safe enough for her to walk alone at night back to her dorm room.

“I never walk home by myself,” she said, “and if I can’t walk with someone, I call someone I know and make sure I am on the phone with them the whole time.”  

Readers who have experienced sexual assault are encouraged to call :

National Sexual Assault Hotline: Confidential 24/7 Support: 800-656-4673

Burlington HOPE Works: 802-863-1236

Steps to End Domestic Violence: 802-658-1996

UVM Medical Center Emergency: 802-847-2434

At UVM: Campus Victims Advocate, Judy Rickstad, (Confidential): 802-656-9637

Women’s Center, [email protected]: 802-656-7892

Student Health Center, 802-656-3350, (Confidential)

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the names of the Steps to End Domestic Violence and Burlington HOPE Works organizations.

Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.


Underground Workshop

Send us your thoughts

VTDigger is now accepting letters to the editor. For information about our guidelines, and access to the letter form, please click here.


Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Explain the Asterisk: Sexual Violence at UVM"