LARAMIE — Amid a surge of sexual assault allegations, confessions and discussions across the nation, many at the University of Wyoming are examining — and questioning — the way UW handles sexual assault.
Several UW students walked out of class Monday and gathered on Simpson Plaza to show support for victims of sexual assault. The students marched across campus — holding signs decorated with slogans and statistics — to deliver a signed petition to Old Main, the location of UW President Laurie Nichols’ office.
“We can’t wait — it’s happening now,” said Alexandra Eisele, who helped to organize the walk-out. “We wanted to do something that is a little more noticeable than a petition going around, because it needs to be said and needs to be heard.”
The issue of sexual assault took a center spotlight earlier this month when the UW Police Department reported an assault occurred on campus.
“University police were informed early this morning that a female victim was walking across the (East Stadium) parking lot on Friday night when an unknown suspect tackled the victim and sexually assaulted her,” according to a Nov. 12 all-campus email. “At this time, the victim in this case wishes to remain anonymous. Evidence has been collected in the event the victim elects to make a formal report at a later time.”
University of Wyoming student Peytin Fitzgerald said she was shaken when she read the email.
“We all are studying, we all are walking home late at night,” she said. “And it could have happened to anybody.”
In addition to releasing details about the specific incident, the email provided hotline phone numbers, information on counseling resources and safety suggestions.
“Anyone can be sexually assaulted, and there are no sure means to prevent sexual assault, because the only people who can prevent sexual assault are those who perpetrate it,” the email reads. “However, you can take steps to lessen the likelihood that you or your friends will be assaulted or will assault someone.”
Fitzgerald said she was motivated to help plan the walk-out in part because the email’s suggestions focused on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators.
“It’s a very gendered list of things — things that our society thinks women need to do to keep themselves safe,” she said. “It’s ‘Don’t let anybody pour your drink,’ ‘Don’t walk home alone at night,’ ‘If you’re in an unsafe situation, say something’ — things we are told from a young age. But I think sexual assault is not a gendered thing. It happens to everybody.”
The petition calls for email notifications of this kind to refocus on perpetrators and gender-neutral solutions. It also calls for timelier handling of sexual assault allegations, notifications of sexual assaults occurring off-campus, more emergency buttons and better lighting on campus and greater police presence.
“It states things that we have issues with and it also has a list of demands ... and what we need to do to keep campus safe and keep people safe,” Fitzgerald said.
Nichols invited Fitzgerald and Eisele to meet before the walk-out and discuss their concerns.
Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Blackburn, who was also present during the meeting, said the students had a positive conversation with the president about their concerns with UW protocols.
“I think it was very productive,” Blackburn said. “Those students shared good feedback, and the president was able to kind of understand their perspectives.”
Eisele also said the meeting went well, and she and Fitzgerald would be talking with Nichols more.
“After Thanksgiving Break, Vice President Sean Blackburn and President Laurie Nichols are going to meet with us again about what we can do to improve everything on campus and how we can go about it,” Eisele said.
Blackburn, UW Chief Diversity Officer Emily Monago and ASUW President Ben Wetzel were all present on Simpson Plaza as the students gathered. Wetzel said he appreciated students organizing for a good cause and hoped to help improve campus safety.
“From my understanding, it sounds like a lot of their concerns are things that we’re working on trying to address currently through the UW No More committee,” said Wetzel, who co-chairs the UW No More campaign’s policy and response committee.
No More is a national initiative to raise awareness and end domestic violence and sexual assault, most visible throughout the Laramie community in the form of bright blue circle bumper stickers.
Wetzel said the walk-out organizers will have the chance to share their concerns with the UW No More committee, which is currently in the process of revamping the student code of conduct.
“We’re definitely already operating at national best practice, in regard to sexual misconduct and Title IX procedures, but I think we can always do better than just what’s called ‘best practice,’” he said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to hear from students who are really concerned about this and try to take those concerns and try to put them in real change.”