Fighting sexual assault on campus, college activists learn as they go

An informal national network shares legal advice, media tips and organizing strategies to hold schools accountable

By Katie McDonough

Published March 19, 2013 8:44PM (EDT)

      (Heather Martino)
(Heather Martino)

Without much precedent to guide federal lawsuits over sexual assault cases on college campuses, members of a national network of activists have turned to one another for advice.

Through a network that is both an inspiration in its national scope and a disheartening reminder that sexual assault on college campuses is widespread, activists from across the country have shared legal tips on filing Title IX claims, guidance on going public with stories of abuse -- and the emotional support necessary to keep pushing for campus accountability.

As the New York Times reports:

Frustrated and angry over the handling of sexual assault cases at Occidental College in Los Angeles, a group of students and faculty members recently decided to take the matter to the federal government as a civil rights case. Few people had explored this legal terrain, so the Occidental group reached out to women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who had filed a similar complaint – which this month prompted a federal investigation – for insights on how to press their case.

The North Carolina group had taken inspiration, and a few strategic cues, from students who last fall drew attention to the mishandling of sexual assaults at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The Amherst students had, in turn, consulted extensively with women at Yale University.

In addition to sharing important legal advice that will help groups hold schools accountable for failing to act on -- or efforts to cover up -- sexual assault on campus, activists say the visibility of their network has also inspired other survivors of sexual violence to speak up.

“I have received hundreds of letters, Facebook notes, phone calls from students, professors, administrators, survivors saying, ‘Here’s what’s going on here, what do we do about it?'” Annie Clark, a North Carolina graduate and author of the complaint filed against that college, told the Times. “I’ve heard so many times from survivors, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever told.’ Once you create a space for people to talk, they will.”

Social media has played a huge role in bringing these women (and men) together. Informal connections across Facebook, Twitter and email have linked people and stories in a way that would have seemed unimaginable in the days before the Internet.

“We really started to get student buy-in when we started our blog, and started using Tumblr and Facebook and Twitter,” Audrey Logan, a senior at Occidental and a co-founder of the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition told the Times. “Then all of a sudden we were getting messages from other schools, even other countries.”

It's uncharted territory, but these activists are learning as they go.

“You go online and it becomes obvious that this is a problem that others have addressed and that you can address it on your own campus, and that is how we came to it,” said Caroline Heldman, a political science professor at Occidental. Heldman went on to tell the Times, “We’re all relying on people who are only six months or a year ahead of us.”

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Campus Rape College Sexual Assault Rape Sexual Assault Violence Against Women