Students Advocate for Sexual Assault Survivors

Sarah Beth Campisi's picture

In recent months, social movements such as #MeToo and “Time’s Up,” have rocked mainstream media. Survivors of sexual assault are speaking out about their experiences, and are demanding change and justice. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, approximately 11 percent of all college students will experience physical or sexual assault on campus. Lesley University junior Katya Zinn is taking the issue of combating on-campus sexual assault into her own hands.

Zinn is a survivor of sexual assault. She was assaulted in her dorm room during her first week on campus at Sarah Lawrence College in 2012. Zinn said she was mistreated by the administration during the adjudication process.

“When I objected to the way my case was being handled,” Zinn said, “the Title IX coordinator—who also served as the Dean of Student Life—began a pattern of retaliatory actions. I was treated like a liability. The Dean of Wellness informed my perpetrator that I had accused him, and I faced harassment from him and his friends.”

Zinn was expelled from Sarah Lawrence after she attempted suicide in her dorm room. After proving she had not overdosed on illegal substances, but instead the medication the school had supplied her with, she was given forced indefinite medical leave with review.

A representative from Sarah Lawrence was unable to provide a comment at this time.

“Everyone heals from their trauma in different ways. For me, the only way I know how to heal is to do everything I can to prevent anyone else from having to go through what I did,” Zinn said.

In Zinn’s first semester at Lesley, she covered on-campus sexual assault and prevention for a social problems assignment she was given. Zinn presented on the topic.

“What I found was that more and more survivors were beginning to come forward to me with their stories,” Zinn said, “some of which had occurred at Lesley, and that the same structural problems and same patterns of re-victimization were occurring here.”

Title IX guidelines state that a Coordinator should be employed for that sole position at a college. Lesley’s Dean of Student Life and Title IX Coordinator is Nathaniel Mays.

“That was really an unintended consequence of Title IX,” Zinn said. “With colleges suddenly being forced to report sexual assault statistics to the federal government, they began doing everything they could to make allegations appear unfounded. That looks better than admitting there are predators in their classrooms, their dorms, their dining halls.”

In spring of 2017, a resource on Lesley’s website about sexual assault prevention went viral among students when they discovered that it urged survivors to consider the consequences for the person being accused of the assault. Concerned students met to draft a petition, stating the changes they needed made at Lesley. After the petition received over 150 signatures, University President, Jeff Weiss, and Dean Mays met with Zinn. Mays suggested the creation of the Student Advisory Council on Sexual Assault.

Zinn has now given multiple lectures to freshman seminar courses and student-athletes on campus about consent and sexual assault prevention in a presentation called, “Prevention is Possible: A Conversation About Consent.” A job posting for a new Title IX Coordinator at Lesley is now available. Lesley also required students to complete a survey on sexual assault and consent practices in the 2017-2018 school year.

On May 3rd, the SACSA held a phone bank event in collaboration with the Every Voice Coalition, to raise awareness for two bills going to a vote in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, H.4159 and S.2203.

H.4159 is a bill that authorizes a legal mandate for Massachusetts colleges to create a campus climate survey. This allows students to anonymously report instances of sexual assault or harassment, and evaluate the safety of their school. S.2203 would strengthen some of the Title IX regulations as they pertain specifically to sexual assault, and create a confidentiality agreement between a disclosing student and the Title IX coordinator.

Lesley sophomore Matthew Murch was present for the SACSA’s phone bank.

“Lesley should help to set an example,” Murch said, “by establishing interactive and comprehensive programs and reviews which educate students on the very real role they can take in these practices, including bystander intervention training and public activism, as well as communicating to the larger social sphere that sexual assault is morally wrong and devastating, regardless of one’s level of power, fame, or influence.”

The SACSA has met with and phoned Massachusetts legislators the past several weeks to gain support for this bill.

“The purpose of the phone bank was to organize targeted calls to Chairman Sanchez and Speaker DeLeo in the hopes of persuading them to allow the bills to be voted on. We need to convince Sanchez and DeLeo to make them a priority,” Zinn said.

“I hope that the Council’s stances and actions will inspire those committed to progress and safety to fight to make their voices heard and their actions felt, regardless of pressure or adversity, to ultimately shape a more fair and just society,” Murch said.

“To be sexually assaulted is to lose your power in the most significant way imaginable,” Zinn said, “to be robbed of your personal autonomy, your right to choose, your control over your own body. It is so important for survivors to have control over their own story and the way their case is handled, to take that power back. So many survivors describe the adjudication process as a kind of second assault, and we can’t afford to let that happen. I know from experience that it can be the difference between life and death.”

Support the SACSA’s petition here.

Learn more about the Every Voice Coalition.