'Can I trust the institution?' Students push U-M to change sex assault reporting policy

University of Michigan
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-07 16:43:05-04

(WXYZ) — The annual Take Back the Night rally is returning to the University of Michigan's campus Thursday night. The event is a protest against sexual assault and an opportunity to support survivors.

Pamela Swider, who leads Standing Tough Against Rape Society (STARS) and organizes the rally, says they will welcome keynote speaker Drew Dixon, music producer, and #silencebreaker. She was featured in the HBO documentary, "On the Record," where she told her story of sexual violence in the Hip Hop world.

This year students, survivors, and community leaders are tackling rape culture and seeing what it really takes to make a campus safe from sexual assault.

Swider says there's a general lack of trust when it comes to how the University of Michigan handles reports of sexual assault.

"I had multiple friends that were allegedly assaulted by members of fraternity parties or other people on campus and they felt that every time they reported, they were directed to some kind of conflict resolution office as opposed to any kind of disciplinary board," said Kaitlyn Collier, a senior at the University of Michigan.

Survivors and advocates feel that policies only change when something bad happens.

In 2022, UM settled a $490 million lawsuit after more than a thousand men came forward accusing former campus doctor Robert E. Anderson of sexual assault.

"Universities kind of had a spotlight on them, we know this is happening, what are you guys doing about it and they are slowly making changes that need to happen but in my opinion, is it enough? No," Swider said.

Under the terms of a separate settlement between students and the university, UM agreed to create a coordinated response team that would better represent the community's wants and needs.

Kaaren Williamsen is the director of UM's Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center (SAAPC).

During her time at SAAPC they've made it possible for survivors to report assault online. The process includes assigning advocates who guide them through the next steps.

"They know the complications and we find that makes it easier for people to report and to persist through the process because they do have a support person with them," said Williamsen. "They help them remember details and help them remember procedural steps."

They've also put anti-retaliation policies in place for people who report abuse.

"People are trying to figure out, 'can I trust the institution? Can I trust what I'm hearing?' I think it's going to take time and it's going to take effort and it's going to take evidence," said Williamsen.

Collier and Swider were disheartened in January when University President Mark Schissel was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

"That's incredibly painful and the university has to reckon with it somehow," Collier said. "I think its current strategy of, 'oh this is painful, I can't believe this has happened at our university,' it's not working. We have to do something different."

It is not going to happen overnight. Collier knows that and so does the university.

"We have done some deep reflection as an institution and I would not say that's over, but I think we are on a big change journey of figuring out how do these things happen, how do we make sure they don't happen again, and that people understand their resources and how to report," said Williamsen.

Williams went on to say it's important to constantly examine the systems in place and make sure they are working.

Collier, who plans to study sexual assault law after graduation, says she has some ideas of her own on how to change the culture.

"The first thing to push back against is the public perception that people are lying when they talk about assault," said Collier.

"I realized there are so many things we can do within the law to make a difference, there are so many ways that we can word our legislation or word our statutes or defend clients in a way that is survivor empowering and also survivor focused," she added.

Thankfully students feel empowered to demand their own change through Take Back the Night. This will be the first time since the pandemic that the event is full scale.

"We have created it to become a celebration because um no one celebrates healing and it is inspiring to see people we know are afraid to identify as survivors and then they come to our event and they can," said Swider.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m so you can visit with local organizations who are tabling at the event with the rally starting at 7 p.m. and march immediately following. It will take place at U-M Union Rogel Ballroom. It's free to the public.