Students say NIU is not doing enough to address sexual assault on campus
DeKALB – In December 2017, Mattie Hayes was on a Huskie Line bus back to campus from Molly’s Eatery & Drinkery with her friends when she said she was pulled from the bus, led into a Northern Illinois University football player’s apartment and raped.
A year and a half later, Hayes is adding her voice to a group of concerned students and fellow survivors of sexual violence. Hayes, 22, a senior from Sycamore and captain of the NIU Silverettes Dance Team, along with dozens of others students gathered outside the MLK Commons to express anger and voice frustration at what they feel is NIU’s mishandling of Title IX cases. When a student is sexually assaulted or harassed by another member of the campus community, they can file an official misconduct report with NIU to seek punishment for the accused.
“I have memories of trying to pull my abuser off of me the moment I realized exactly what was happening,” Hayes recounted. “With him being an NIU football player who was as strong as he was, he wouldn’t budge. I told him to stop and he wouldn’t, and I felt so helpless.”
She filed a Title IX complaint a few days later and did not hear from an investigator for two months. She said she did not use a rape kit because she wasn’t aware of it as a resource. She went through a lengthy interview process, which ultimately ended in the case being dismissed because of insufficient evidence, Hayes said.
What is Title IX?
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 bars discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal money, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, including in cases of sexual violence such as assault, rape, harassment, and stalking.
In April 2011, under the Obama administration, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights issued what is known as a Dear Colleague letter, citing statistics on sexual violence as “deeply troubling and a call to action for the nation.” The letter was meant to be a guidance for nationwide institutions to use “preponderance of evidence” in Title IX cases, meaning cases could be determined by which side had a greater probability of truth, instead of the overall amount of evidence. In September 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed that policy, rescinding the 2011 guidelines and saying institutions could instead use “clear and convincing evidence.” This meant standards for providing evidence that would result in repercussions for the accused would be harder to achieve.
Ashley Burkhardt, a sophomore from Dwight, tearfully declared that she was living in “pain and silence” after being raped multiple times by the same person in October.
“I never filed a report because I couldn’t stand being told, ‘We don’t believe you,’ ” Burkhardt said.
Fayth Springer, 20, a junior from Westchester, said her Title IX case – an incident in which she said she was sexually assaulted repeatedly for four hours in a dorm on the same floor where she lived – lasted seven months, and the ordeal made her suicidal.
“I truly don’t feel as though I’m safe on campus,” Springer said, adding she has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
Springer said the man who raped her had to move dorms. Like many other people who came forward Friday to share their stories, she felt like his punishment wasn’t enough.
Institutions have specific staff members mandated to conduct investigations in the event a formal complaint is reported. Sarah Garner, ethics and compliance officer and Title IX coordinator for NIU, oversees Title IX investigations.
“Fact-finding consists of interviews, gathering documentary evidence, gathering police reports, witness interviews, text messages, videos, photos,” Garner said Friday. “Those types of things would typically comprise the investigation.”
She said it is difficult to toe the line between asking clarifying questions and being tactful and respectful of what many view as insensitive questions.
“We encourage individuals to have a support person with them because it can be traumatizing to share that story,” Garner said. “The majority of times, the investigator will explain why they’ve asked, ‘What were you drinking’ because they want to determine the level of incapacitation. An individual cannot consent to sexual activity when they’re incapacitated.”
Spring, along with Sandra Puebla, 22, a senior from Chicago, addressed the crowd Friday with a list of action items they’re requesting from NIU.
They want the Title IX office to create a better time frame for cases, so survivors such as Hayes and others don’t have to wait so long for correspondence in between steps in the investigative process. They also want safety alerts to be sent out via text, notifying the campus community if a perpetrator has entered buildings; a student task force created by the end of the semester to maximize student voices; and the Title IX office to better convey what students’ rights are.
“We can always do better in our work,” Garner said
Friday. “And knowing how we can change our process and getting student perspective is really important.
I think it’s going to make our process better. I encourage concern because that’s how
I know I can do things better.