Students gathered at noon, Monday Sept. 17, in the Commons Breezeway to protest the UMBC administration and stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence. The protest had its roots in a shocking class action suit reported on Sept. 12 in an article by the Courthouse News Service.
The lead plaintiffs in the case were two survivors of sexual assault who alleged a systematic and deliberate cover-up of two separate and respective sexual assault cases, one of which occurred on the UMBC campus and the other which involved UMBC students at Towson University. When Baltimore Brew covered the topic in an article five days later, outrage at the UMBC administration and the Baltimore County Police Department for failing to identify these cases correctly spread like wildfire across campus.
Over the weekend, students vented their frustration through social media and by posting flyers that read “FIRE PAUL DILLON” and “UMBC PROTECTS RAPISTS” around campus. Frustrations came to a head during a protest at the Commons Breezeway organized by Speak Out to Oppose Predators and their Protectors UMBC, a coalition of students with roots in various organizations around campus including UMBC Progressives, We Believe You and the LGBTQ Student Union.
Protest organizers widely distributed flyers which demanded that UMBC Chief of Police Paul Dillon, Title IX Coordinator Bobbie Hoye and other UMBC leaders be investigated due to their alleged complicity or direct involvement in the coverups.
At the rally, junior psychology major John Platter read STOPP, UMBC’s demands to the gathered students, insisting that the campus provide more robust health services and security to help survivors of sexual assault. The demands also included mandatory, in-person sexual assault education and the suspension of scholarship money for any student currently under investigation for sexual misconduct.
Following STOPP UMBC’s demands, survivors and supporters spoke about their experiences. “[Our friend’s] process with Title IX took a total of five months,” said two students sharing a friend’s story. “It was never concluded even though there was substantial evidence … We had to drive them to five separate hospitals trying to find a place where they could get adequate treatment.”
Platter faulted Title IX officials for the mishandling of sexual assault cases. “In my freshman year in [the] Fall semester, I was sexually assaulted in my residential hall. My assaulter still works for UMBC to this day,” Platter said. “Bobbie Hoye and Erick Kim have designated the finding that there was not enough evidence even though both parties involved had said that sex did occur and there was not verbal consent present.”
Other students claimed indiscretions by the police department. Junior global studies and philosophy major Nate Stewart described one exchange between Police Chief Paul Dillon and an anonymous survivor.
“The survivor tells of her experience of brutal violence and how the campus police and administration just made her feel unsafe,” says Stewart. “The response that she got was Chief of Police Paul Dillon saying that he was sorry that she had been made a target.”
The same flyer calling for Paul Dillon’s firing that had been posted on Academic Row over the weekend quickly spread through the crowd. As the flyers were being distributed, Platter led protest participants in chanting, “We demand to be heard. We demand change. We demand justice.”
Frustrated by the administration and the police’s failure to implement changes, Milan Brown, senior geography and environmental science major, suggested the group take the protest to President Freeman Hrabowski. Platter embraced the idea and rallied the students down Academic Row, megaphone in hand, chanting as they marched toward the tenth floor of the Administration Building.
Once on the tenth floor, Stewart, Platter and many others filled the conference room, where Hrabowski sat at the head of the table. There were so many in attendance that students and faculty spilled into the hallway.
Hrabowski congratulated the students before beginning his response to their grievances. He expressed the sentiment that there had in fact been a good deal of progress made toward making campus safer from the threat of sexual violence, but that the administration had not communicated well enough the steps it was taking to do so.
However, he also acknowledged that there was still work to be done, saying, “We’ve really been working to do our job — we haven’t done it well enough, I’m the first to say … We’re going to work to listen even more carefully, and I think you can judge us by our actions.”
In terms of the action that would be taken, the president promised that the administration would listen to survivors and representatives from student organizations, like We Believe You, throughout the process of making change. To determine what reforms need to be made, he suggested that they would work with groups like the Women’s Center, as well as bringing in outside consultants, to assess areas of weakness.
When Sarafina Harper, a former UMBC student and a reporter for the Baltimore Post-Examiner, pointed out that she had raised concerns about sexual violence on campus when she was still a student, Hrabowski insisted that he had tried to provide Harper with resources and that she had failed to follow up with Title IX Coordinator Bobbie Hoye.
However, students felt that Hrabowski was making the issue about Harper rather than acknowledging that the rape culture on campus was his responsibility. “People are missing class to do what should be your job,” said one student at the table.
Survivors among the crowd made their presence known to the president when at one point during the meeting Platter asked for a show of hands from those who had experienced sexual violence. More than a dozen hands shot up, and Hrabowski apologized to the students.
Hrabowski emphasized the importance of having a trusting relationship between students and the administration despite the latter’s past shortcomings. “I want you to think about this,” he told the students. “The university cannot move ahead if students don’t believe in us — because you are the university. I have nothing that’s more important for me to do than to rebuild the trust.”
According to Hrabowski, a town hall scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 20 at 3:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Recital Hall will facilitate further discussion about measures that can be taken to make the campus safer. He dismissed the students after expressing how proud he was of them for standing up for what they believed.
As the meeting came to a close, Stewart expressed dissatisfaction with Hrabowski’s answers. “You’ve talked a lot of pretty things,” he said before the room dispersed, “you’ve complimented us, you’ve given us a lot of platitudes, but in the end you’ve talked us in circles. We’ll see you at the town hall.”
Discussions continued later that evening at an open forum held by the SGA in room 318 of the Commons. After listening to representatives from STOPP UMBC and We Believe You, senators agreed to draft legislation that will be put to a vote on Monday Sept. 24.
“I am glad that we’re having these kinds of discussions… we are breaking past barriers of poor communication,” We Believe You founding administrator and Discussion Leader Haley Owens said after the SGA forum. “I am hopeful.”