When Grace Rebecca Mann, a popular junior and outspoken feminist at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, was killed in April, her death was treated as not only a tragedy but a mystery. The police quickly apprehended a suspect, Ms. Mann’s housemate, but her friends and family were at a loss to explain the motive.
Still, for months before Ms. Mann died, she and her friends feared for their safety and told the university so. In a complaint to be filed Thursday with the Department of Education, which investigates schools for mishandling sexual harassment and sexual assault cases, a feminist student group that included Ms. Mann says the university failed to protect them from a “sexually hostile environment” in which they were verbally harassed in person and threatened on Yik Yak, an anonymous social app that has been criticized as a permissive platform for racism, sexism and violence.
The complaint does not allege that the university is responsible for Ms. Mann’s death, which occurred off campus in a home she shared with three people in Fredericksburg, Va. One of them, Steven Vander Briel, is charged with first-degree murder in her strangulation. Investigators have not speculated on a motive.
“What we are alleging,” said Debra S. Katz, a lawyer for the students, “is that she and the other women were being threatened routinely, that they lived in a state of fear, there was a culture that was allowed to exist at the university and that this is a tragic loss, and we believe this is something that should be looked at as a potential hate crime.”
The university released a statement on Wednesday that said: “To the university’s knowledge, no known reports of direct threats of violence and/or sexual assault have gone unheeded. The University of Mary Washington’s No. 1 priority has been and continues to be the creation and maintenance of a safe environment where all students can learn and grow.”
Ms. Mann, 20, had spoken about her fear for her safety, friends said, adding that her girlfriend had been concerned about her and wanted to accompany her at all times. At a meeting of Feminists United on Campus three weeks before Ms. Mann was killed, she addressed the group. “She said, ‘I don’t feel safe on this campus. I know I can’t defend myself,’ ” said Paige McKinsey, the departing president.
The group had been the focus of backlash several times during the academic year, first after it opposed the formal recognition of fraternities on campus, citing statistics correlating Greek life with a higher incidence of sexual assault. In the fall, Ms. McKinsey wrote an op-ed for a university newspaper titled “Why UMW Is Not a Feminist-Friendly Campus,” listing, among other reasons, a rugby club song whose lyrics depicted “sexual violence against women, including assault, necrophilia and rape.”
And in the spring, Yik Yak exploded with outrage against the group after the rugby club was suspended over the song when a transcript and audio recording of it surfaced and brought national attention to the university.
“Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and grape them in the mouth,” read one particularly threatening post, avoiding the word “rape,” presumably because Yik Yak might have flagged or blocked it. Ms. Mann was among those mentioned by name in the posts, according to a chronology Ms. Katz provided.
The leaders of the group repeatedly met and exchanged emails with the university’s president, Richard V. Hurley, and other administrators, asking for policy changes and informing them of the threats. They asked, among other things, that Yik Yak be banned from the institution’s Internet server, a largely symbolic gesture; students could still access the app on cellphones.
The university, which is public, replied that it was difficult to do so because of free speech concerns, and recommended that students report threats and harassment to Yik Yak. Students said their complaints went unanswered. The company did not reply to a request for comment.
Ms. McKinsey said administrators had responded to some suggestions about sexual assault policies and awareness, but did little about their fears other than offer assurances that safety was a paramount concern.
“They were willing to sit in meetings with us, but when it was finally time for them to act, they were unwilling to do so,” she said. The group had decided to file the complaint before Ms. Mann’s death.
The complaint comes amid a growing national debate over whether campus culture fosters sexual assault and as colleges face mounting pressure from the Obama administration to be more aggressive in investigating and preventing sexual assault and harassment. Last year, the Department of Education disclosed the names of colleges — 55 in all, though experts say that number has grown to more than 100 — under investigation for possibly violating federal rules aimed at stopping sexual harassment, under the provision known as Title IX.
What makes the Mary Washington complaint unusual, Ms. Katz said, is that it alleges a hostile environment for all women at the university, not just individual victims. The complainants allege that the environment caused anxiety and depression and detracted from their studies.
Increasingly, such complaints involve online harassment, said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment with the National Women’s Law Center. She said that the law was clear that when harassment was online, it is no different from in-person harassment. Schools are required to investigate and take steps to address it.
“You wouldn’t begin and end with the fact that it’s online and throw your hands up,” she said.
Ms. Mann, a member of the student government and a former residential assistant in the dormitories, was well-known on campus, and 1,000 people attended her memorial, according to news reports. She was sexually assaulted as a freshman and spoke openly about the experience, inspiring other victims to come forward and exhorting the university to improve and speed its complaint process.
In January, Ms. Mann and her two housemates allowed Mr. Briel to take a vacant room. Mr. Briel, 30, had been enrolled at Mary Washington twice before but never graduated. He moved to Seattle and worked for a social media start-up, but returned this semester to take his final two credits. In his freshman year, Mr. Briel was a member of the rugby club, called Mother’s Rugby, according to a volunteer with the club who did not give his name.
On campus Wednesday, students said that although the feminist group had been blamed by some for the rugby team’s suspension, there had been no animosity directed at Ms. Mann in particular. Her death, said Rachael Harvey, a friend, had shaken the close-knit campus of 5,000 students. The rancorous debate over feminism had fallen noticeably quiet.
“You could just sense,” she said, “the dynamic had changed.”
Source: New York Times