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Students talk back at listening session

UMBC’s administration hosted a listening session in regards to the sexual assault cover-up allegations revealed last week. The event was hosted in the Fine Arts recital hall, with a turnout so large that faculty had to make use of two overflow rooms to fully accommodate the turnout.

The session was a direct result of news regarding a class action lawsuit filed last week. Students from both UMBC and Towson claimed that their cases were mishandled after they reported being sexually assaulted. The lawsuit claims that several members of the administration, along with UMBC Chief of Police Paul Dillon, misclassified these cases.

A student protest on Monday, Sept. 17 organized by a new student organization known as Speakout to Oppose Predators and their Protectors, or STOPP UMBC, began in the Breezeway and concluded with students marching to the Administration Building to voice their concerns directly in a meeting with President Hrabowski. The campus-wide speak out was then extended into the listening session this past Thursday.

Throughout the two-hour listening session, students came forward to voice grievances to a panel consisting of President Freeman Hrabowski; Nancy Young, Vice President of Student Affairs; Patrice McDermott, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs; Valerie Thomas, Associate Vice President of Human Resources; and Adam Harvey, a physics PhD student and chair of the University Steering Committee.

Maryland delegates Clarence Lam, Mark Chang and Shelly Hettleman were in the audience, as well as the University System of Maryland’s Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Joann Boughman. Several local news outlets were also there as part of their coverage of the ongoing case.

Before students began sharing, President Hrabowski offered a few comments, apologizing to the community and promising that the administration could and would do better. He assured students that faculty had received many suggestions and that they truly were listening. He expressed how proud he was of them for having the courage to speak up. After this brief introduction, Hrabowski turned it over to the students.

The panel sat silently on stage as people lined up to share via one of two microphones on either wing of the recital hall; the moderators also periodically read responses shared anonymously through an online forum.

Students and sexual assault survivors shared heartfelt stories about their experiences, concerns and disappointments regarding the recent allegations as well as the administrative response. Support from the audience was strong, with uproarious rounds of applause from peers when most were finished sharing.

Students detailed their complaints to the panelists of the session, citing issues with the process of investigation. Many of those who shared knew survivors whose experiences with Title IX had been clunky and ineffective, with the only access to proper physical exams available at hospitals located far away.

Several survivors expressed frustration with having to traverse campus with the worry that their assaulter was still presently attending or employed at the university.

Others who had not experienced assault mentioned the issues of burned out lights and long walks to parking lots after late night classes, which they said contributed to an unsafe atmosphere on campus.

Many of those who shared recalled their excitement to attend UMBC and their love for the school, now tarnished by these allegations and the sense that the campus remains unsafe. “16 over 1 doesn’t matter when at least half the people on this campus feel like we don’t matter to you,” one student told the panelists over the mic. “I feel like UMBC, my dream school, has failed me and everyone here.”

Students of color also called attention to potential discrepancies between case handlings and discrimination based on race. Others called on male students to actively fight against toxic male behavior and work to prevent sexual assault and harassment.

Many students offered up suggestions to the panelists on how to move forward. Many questioned the way in which the campus police department operated. In addition, students proposed action steps such as instituting a dedicated office to meet the needs of survivors and providing easier access to health services for students who have experienced sexual violence.

A frequent request was for more access to Sexual Assault Forensic Exams and the professionals who are qualified to carry them out. “I think that UMBC should have a 24-hour SAFE nurse on campus, especially with the amount we pay to go here,” said one student.

One of the larger-scale demands was the institution of mandatory, in-person sexual misconduct training for all incoming first-year students. Additionally, students called for the revamping of the Title IX process.

Aliya Webermann, a human services psychology doctoral student at UMBC, described how We Believe You presented changes they wanted to see at the university in light of ongoing Title IX investigations during the Spring 2018 semester, only for their concerns to be dismissed. She expressed a hope that many students are feeling: that this incident will at last catalyze real change.

“I just really hope that this puts the pressure on and this helps the administration see that this is an important issue,” she said. “We deserve better. Retrievers deserve to be on [a] campus where we’re safe, where we’re supported, where … sexual assault is actually taken seriously and not just swept under the rug.”

The day after the listening session, President Hrabowski sent out an email updating the campus on the continued conversation about sexual assault procedures. The email named faculty and staff who would lead the charge in reviewing the recommendations that have been shared and keeping the campus informed of what action was being taken.

Hrabowski’s email also detailed how he has taken initial steps to bring in an external review board to help the campus move forward. Additionally, it notified students of a web form through which they could share thoughts. Thus, the conversation that the listening session embraced will continue.