DU Community Speaks Out Against Sexual Assault and Gender Violence Via Instagram

Mary Reed Hall at the University of Denver.
Mary Reed Hall at the University of Denver. Nina Petrovic
A new Instagram account that anonymously shares allegations of sexual assault, harassment, stalking and gender violence at the University of Denver has amplified those issues on campus — and raised concerns about the school's handling of such incidents.

The account, wecandubetter, accepts submissions of allegations via Google Survey. Though the posts are not vetted for accuracy, the account’s creators say they can tell which posts are false based on the language of the submissions.

“When actual survivors of assault share their stories, they tend to not use ‘eloquent’ terminology,” say the creators of wecandubetter, who have not publicly identified themselves and asked to remain anonymous for this story. “They don’t have every single detail listed, and may not remember everything that happened. Differentiating between stories that are true and false are just based on how these stories are told.”

Posts to the page have expressed disappointment in DU's policies surrounding these violations. The creators of wecandubetter released a statement on January 19 requesting several changes, including implementing a zero-tolerance policy for perpetrators found guilty of gender violence, and more engagement from the schools' fraternities and sororities to prevent gender violence.

“This should be a group project where everyone works together for change,” says DU sophomore Grace Wankelman. “The biggest thing the community wants is to push for change and solve this problem, but I’ve noticed there are some students who don’t feel supported by the administration or student body.”

The University of Denver responded to the page's request with a statement from the Office of the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor for Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, and the Title IX office. “The stories shared by the DU community are abhorrent and unacceptable,” the statement reads. “You have our promise that we not only hear you, but we are committed to making progress on each one of your requests to help this campus become a better place. We can do better, and we will.”

The statement goes on to list each of the requests from wecandubetter and how the university is working to implement or consider the changes. The statement stresses that Greek life is committed to change and that a task force will be created to “redefine how fraternities and sororities operate in the DU community.”

“Our fraternity is working with our General Fraternity to hold additional bystander intervention and sexual prevention training this weekend, and to include this and/or other programming annually going forward,” says Luke Srsen, president of DU’s Beta Theta Pi chapter, in a written statement to Westword. “Matters related to sexual assault directly contradict our mission, vision and core values — namely to develop men of principle for a principled life.”

But some students say the university’s promise to change policies concerning sexual assault and violence is not enough. According to the most recent Campus Climate Survey, an annual survey conducted by the university, 52 percent of undergraduate students reported in 2018 that they or someone they know experienced sexual assault, dating violence or stalking since enrolling at DU. And 44 percent of undergraduates did not report the violations.

Shannon Saul, the Undergraduate Student Government secretary on Gender Violence Topics, says that while DU's response seems well thought-out, it merely repeats statements that have been made before.

“The administration only said what they’re doing already,” Saul explains. “They say there is a problem but don’t say how they can do better. There’s a public commitment to supporting survivors and a lack of follow-through. Releasing carefully worded statements isn’t enough. They’re only making changes because students fought for them; they did not volunteer to make changes on their own.”

“It’s a mix of culture and administration playing a role in students not feeling supported,” adds Wankelman. “The response has always been to go through the ‘proper channels,’ whether it’s Campus Safety or Title IX.”

Last November, before the Instagram account was created, Undergraduate Student Government submitted a resolution (which Saul and Wankelman co-sponsored) to Campus Safety and the administration, asking that there be improved communication between Campus Safety and the community, including differentiating warnings of gender violence from other forms of harassment that the school's security announces to students.

“Increase clarity in the DU crime log so that it is easier to differentiate between instances of gender-based violence and other offenses,” the resolution reads. “Currently, for example, there is no distinction between incidents of gender-based harassment and other forms of harassment.”

The Title IX office issued a response to the resolution, hoping to clarify how gender-based violence is reported to the community, as well as what Title IX has done to communicate these violations more clearly.

“This year the Office of Equal Opportunity & Title IX and Campus Safety worked closely on the revisions to the Title IX Procedures in an attempt to align these definitions and provide more clarity,” Title IX’s response reads. “You may notice that the 2019-2020 definitions of 'Stalking’ and 'Dating or Domestic Violence’ are more closely aligned to the definitions in the Colorado Penal Code. Campus Safety and the Office of Equal Opportunity & Title IX are committed to continually aligning our definitions so that students can be more informed of what is occurring on campus through the DU crime log. We are open and committed to continued dialogue with the student body around this issue.”

The response refers to annual changes made to Title IX's policy handbook. Every August, Title IX releases amendments to its policy based on feedback from departments such as Campus Safety and student feedback given throughout each year.

“The university wants to create an environment where students feel comfortable and empowered to share their experiences,” says Title IX coordinator Jeremy Enlow. “The administration can’t solve this issue alone. The student body has a voice in this matter, and we want to come together to solve this issue.”

Current sexual-assault training at the university includes an online module called EVERFI that first-year students have the option of taking the summer before they start school. The university also requires that first-year students complete DU Intervene training by winter quarter, which instructs them on how to identify and report assaults; otherwise, a hold will be placed on their account and they will not be able to register for the following quarter.

“DU Intervene has been mandatory since 2018,” explains Enlow. “But we’ve been looking into making that pre-arrival training [EVERFI] mandatory.”

The university’s Greek life also conducts mandatory training in a variety of areas for each fraternity chapter. According to Enlow, the national headquarters of each fraternity made training a requirement in order for fraternities to be accredited, and each chapter must seek out training that speaks to the needs of its fraternity members. For example, Pi Kappa Phi’s uses GreekLifeEdu to train new members on sexual assault, hazing and alcohol abuse.

“GreekLifeEdu is an online program that addresses these critical issues that impact fraternity and sorority life and activates positive change,” explains Victor Tran, Pi Kappa Phi’s assistant executive director of communication, in an email to Westword. “We supplement this program with an in-person bystander intervention program that focuses on treating all people regardless of membership with dignity and respect. This program is delivered on rotation by a trained fraternity volunteer.”

But Saul argues that Greek life hasn’t done enough in training new recruits and current fraternity members and that punishments are not heavy enough.

“You can do as much training as you want, but as long as you allow known perpetrators to stay in your organization, it doesn’t change anything,” she says. “Some fraternities only use punishments such as not allowing guilty members to drink alcohol or having them write an apology letter to the victim, but it doesn’t change anything. A majority of perpetrators are repeat offenders. They have to learn that what they did is unacceptable.”

But with student feedback and the rise of wecandubetter, school administrators say they hope that the perception concerning the university’s response to sexual assault and gender-violence allegations can change.

“The Instagram [account] is continuing the conversation around assault and gender violence,” Enlow says. “The university is committed to doing better. DU greatly talks about the values of our institution, and gender violence goes against those values.”

Wecandubetter will host a silent protest on campus today, January 28. Demonstrators are encouraged to wear teal, the official color of sexual-assault awareness.

Saul and Wankelman hope the protest brings an even bigger spotlight to these issues.

“People will be sitting in silence to demonstrate how survivors are physically silenced,” explains Saul. “But we’ll be coming together so that people know you can no longer silence us.”

“The absolute goal of having this large conversation is to create a campus where survivors feel supported,” adds Wankelman. “You can’t turn being a survivor on and off. It’s always there. Getting the proper support you need not only affects your college career, it helps the rest of your life. Having an education is an investment for the future, and that investment needs to go even further. If DU could be a place of support for preventing assault and gender violence, then it can be known as a place where women and survivors have just as much of an investment as education does.”
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