Education

UVM students stage mass walkout following social media posts detailing sexual violence on campus

Several thousand University of Vermont students take part in a Survivors Solidarity Walkout to protest the university’s response to sexual assault in Burlington on Monday, May 3, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 6:05 p.m.

University of Vermont students on Monday afternoon participated in one of the largest protests the institution has seen in recent years, sparked by a student’s social media post detailing their experience with sexual violence on campus.

The Instagram post was written by junior Athena Hendrick, who said they were raped in February 2020 by a fellow student and received lackluster support from the university. Their story inspired dozens more social media posts — and a viral Tik Tok video — many of which criticized UVM for not doing more to support survivors and hold alleged perpetrators accountable. 

The social media storm inspired Monday’s walkout, which led about 2,000 students to leave class and join a march throughout campus chanting slogans such as “Believe survivors” and “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!”

Students walked from the Redstone Campus to the Waterman Building, where they engulfed the area and blocked off traffic on South Prospect Street. On the steps of the pillared building, students shared their own stories of how they said the university failed to help them find accountability. 

Senior Syd Ovitt, a survivor of sexual violence and founder of Title IX reform group Explain the Asterisk, told VTDigger that Monday’s demonstration was a reflection of the student body’s frustration.

“When someone is being vulnerable and open about their experience,” Ovitt said, “it can really ignite things in people.”

She added that during the pandemic, when partying is less prevalent, the community can forget that sexual assaults continue to take place on campus. So when the stories appeared on social media, UVM community members rallied around those who shared their experiences.

Dozens of students have shared personal stories on their own Instagram accounts. Other stories have been shared anonymously on an Instagram account that was created this past weekend called ShareYourStoryUVM. 

Ovitt and other organizers sent a list of demands to UVM administrators explaining how the institution could reform its Title IX system to better support survivors. Title IX prohibits sex-based discrmination in federally funded educational insitutions and also applies to complaints and investigations of sexual misconduct. 

Students asked that the university conduct an independent investigation into the Title IX office, hire three to four more campus victim advocates, establish a Sexual Violence Response Team, create a 24/7 hotline for survivors of sexual abuse, and require various organizations and officials on campus to undergo sexual violence prevention training. 

The university agreed to all 17 of the demands, according to Erica Caloiero, vice provost and dean of students.

“As I read the accounts that survivors were sharing on social media, it was clear to me what students are asking for in the way of clarity, support and affirmation that we believe survivors,” Caloiero said in an interview.

She said the university could improve its practices around sexual misconduct prevention and response, and would seek new models to employ at the university. 

Caloiero said she met with students over the weekend to discuss how the university could move forward. 

Standing before hundreds of students at Waterman, Hendrick held up a bull horn and expressed awe that the experience they shared on social media had resonated with so many others.

In their Instagram post, Hendrick said that after they had been raped on Feb. 1, 2020, they went to the UVM Medical Center for help and had reached out to the Title IX office. They said they didn’t hear back until the first week of March. 

Then the pandemic hit, which further slowed the investigation. According to Hendrick, the investigation began in April and was closed by UVM in August without a finding because there wasn’t enough evidence.

Hendrick said they’ve been cycling through various emotions the past week: anger, fear, grief, gratitude and hope. 

“I am so mad that UVM did this to so many people that I love and care about,” they shouted, before encouraging attendees to engage in a group-wide collective scream. 

But Hendrick also acknowledged their gratitude for friends who supported them and to the UVM community for showing them that there is hope that the culture on campus can change.

“We are here because we love ourselves. And we value ourselves,” Hendrick said. “And we’re here because we love survivors.”

Another speaker, graduate student Robin Rice, also shared his experience with sexual assault. When he was in high school, Rice said, he visited another college with a group of friends. There, he became drunk and was raped by a male friend, he said. 

Rice specifically called out to the men in the crowd and reminded them that sexual assault prevention is not a “women’s issue.” 

“This is my work. This is our work,” Rice said. “What the world needs is for men to rise up and say this is our fight.” 

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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