Share Your Story Posts Spark Discourse on Pervasive Campus Sexual Violence

Kirby Goodman and Nicole Dienst

Editorial content warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault and sexual violence. 

After the Instagram account @shareyourstorycolgate — an anonymous platform for Colgate students to submit their stories of sexual violence — posted an influx of student testimonials detailing instances of sexual violence on campus and beyond, many students have expressed frustration about the state of campus sexual assault and administrative response. In response to concerns, administrators say that while there’s room for improvement and student feedback, Colgate does provide adequate support for survivors and responds to instances of sexual violence.

“I think that a lot of the stories this semester have shocked people because some of them, at least, are particularly graphic,” junior Joanna Rodriguez, who co-founded @shareyourstorycolgate with junior Nicole Weiss, said. 

Hundreds of Colgate students and alumni have submitted anonymous testimonials to the account since its creation in August 2020. The platform exposed a pervasiveness of sexual violence which led to campus-wide shock, but Rodriguez and Weiss say they aren’t all that surprised by the prevalence of campus sexual violence. 

“[Sentiments like] ‘Wow, that’s so many submissions, so many people have been affected — that doesn’t surprise me at all,” Weiss said. “It shocked me a little the [number] of responses we got. I didn’t really expect there to be a lot of submissions, I didn’t know how comfortable survivors were about sharing their story… I’m just proud of the survivors on this campus for speaking out.”

Rodriguez and Weiss saw a significant shift in broader campus discourse after the account was flooded with hundreds of testimonials. 

Senior Elsie Kindall, involved with the Medusa Movement, Yes Means Yes and Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC), spoke to this shift and said that while Share Your Story creates a space to critique dominant narratives, much of Colgate’s discourse on sexual violence remains white and heteronormative. 

“Sexual assault is typically depicted as something that happens between a white [cisgender, heterosexual] man and a white [cisgender, heterosexual] woman at a frat party. While this narrative is definitely very valid and important to tell, sexual assault movements and prevention efforts that solely center this narrative leave out our most marginalized survivors, queer BIPOC,” Kindall said. “Our most marginalized survivors on Share Your Story have been calling to our attention these questions.”

Kindall also attributed this to the role fraternities and sororities play in perpetuating sexual violence on campus, a conversation she says is long overdue. 

“The narratives on Share Your Story move us to question [Greek life’s] existence, truly,” Kindall said, citing the inequitable power dynamics facilitated by fraternity-hosted social spaces. “The privileged people on this campus don’t want to explore these questions because they benefit from these systems. But this is exactly the dialogue we need to be having at Colgate.”

Amid the flood of testimonials on the page, Weiss said the account received a series of submissions that contained descriptors many students used to identify an alleged perpetrator earlier this semester. The posts also leveled allegations about University mishandling of the incident, which has opened a larger conversation about Title IX proceedings on campus. As a policy, Rodiguez and Weiss remove any identifying descriptions of individuals or organizations mentioned in the testimonials to avoid legal ramifications, but many students saw common threads across the posts and began widely resharing them and directly calling on the University to address the allegations. Weiss said she believes this was an effort to increase accountability for this perpetrator.

“I think more people were trying to achieve justice because they felt like they knew that one person — it was a seemingly easier goal,” Weiss said. 

After this series of posts Rodriguez and Weiss received an influx of questions to the account about the reporting and complaint process for sexual violence on campus. In response, they posted a series of Instagram stories outlining the University’s Title IX protocols and reporting procedures. 

“It sucks that it has to be our job to educate people who don’t know about how to seek justice. It should be the school’s job,” Weiss said. “There’s a total lack of education on it and then the administration just expects students to know what to do.”

In response to these campus conversations and wide criticism of administration, Vice President and Dean of the College Paul McLoughlin addressed the Colgate community in an email on March 5, saying social media posts caused confusion amongst community members. 

McLoughlin’s email denied claims from circulating posts that Colgate has received five complaints of sexual assault committed by one student, and that the administration responded by moving the student to a different residential hall — his email stated that Colgate’s response procedures would not simply move a perpetrator to another campus residence. 

“Colgate respects the right of survivors or others to decide whether to make a report with identifying information and/or to seek an investigation, but without this kind of information we cannot take action based on unspecified assertions that someone has engaged in misconduct,” McLoughlin wrote, stating that forwarding anonymous testimonials shared online will not spark administrative action. 

Students expressed discontent with McLoughlin’s email. Sophomore Anna Gianneschi is one of many students frustrated by the University’s response. 

The language of the email seemed to pressure survivors to come forward,” Gianneschi said. “I understand that the administration is in a difficult spot, but the email’s defensive tone and the lack of transparency contradict Colgate’s supposedly survivor-centric image.”

In an interview with the Maroon-News, McLoughlin said the email was intended to clarify the reporting process and make students aware of resources available to them and to the greater community. 

“What I hear students saying through all of that is ‘Do better Colgate.’…Where I would specifically ask [students] is, where do they think Colgate is falling down in addressing students concern in sexual assault?” McLoughlin said. “We do have resources to help; we’re always open to considering new ways to support survivors and victims of sexual violence.” 

Much of the student criticism in the circulating posts also cites a lack of survivor-centrism in Colgate’s sexual violence complaint process, which is mandated in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX policies.

“Our process is designed to be fair to all parties in any given case,” Title IX Coordinator Lyn Rugg said. “Students who report being survivors of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct can obtain a variety of supportive measures regardless of whether they pursue a full investigation or adjudication. Under the Title IX regulations, there are limits to a college or university’s ability to implement significant restrictions on students who are accused of misconduct unless and until they have been found responsible for the violations.”

According to McLoughlin, once a formal complaint is made to the University, an outside firm handles the investigation process in order for himself — the appellant on these cases — to remain neutral. 

McLoughlin added that COVID-19 has not altered the number of complaints and reports received by the Title IX office, noting that anonymous monthly reports indicate that calls, complaints and reports have remained at relatively stable levels, which he calls “very small numbers.” But many students say the hundreds of testimonials on Share Your Story illustrate that reporting numbers fail to substantively reflect the pervasiveness of sexual assault on campus.

Rugg added that despite campus discourse on sexual violence and the student body’s knowledge of certain perpetrators’ identities, spead through Share Your Story or other means, Colgate’s Office of Equity and Diversity — which includes Title IX — can only address individuals formally reported through complaint processes.

“We have been aware (both this academic year and in prior years) of contentions that certain students are known perpetrators, but in many cases we have never received reports with respect to those students. In other situations, the information we have received has not been sufficient to enable us to take action,” Rugg said.

In response to criticism about the support and response services available to students, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services and Sexual Violence Support Dawn LaFrance and Assistant Director of Survivor Support Services Denise Contreras wrote in a joint statement to the Maroon-News that, contrary to some discourse among students, the counseling center does not have a waitlist and crisis services are available to students 24/7.

“Ultimately, we would like to eliminate sexual violence, but we know that there is a lot of work to do before this happens, work that our entire community needs to do,” LaFrance and Contreras said. “In the meantime, I think we need to work together to make sure that students are safe on campus and can access the support resources they need when violence events occur. We want students to have accurate information so that they feel more compelled to access resources when necessary.”

McLoughlin echoed the sentiment of students having access to factual information regarding student resources, specifically noting the ‘fall semester rumor’ that the counseling center had a waitlist was incredibly problematic as it would discourage students from utilizing these available resources. He also warned of what he sees as dangers of social media platforms like Share Your Story, describing some testimonials submitted to the account as rumors.

“Rumors aren’t discourse, and I know that there have been rumors, and I think there’s also perhaps been some personal experiences,” McLoughlin said. “And the reason for my note to the community was to clarify the difference between the two and to make it clear that we need people to file reports so that we can investigate cases, and hearing about incidents on social media, does not represent a report, but can actually compromise and damage an investigation by providing incorrect information.”

McLoughlin added that he feels the platform could potentially discourage individuals from utilizing campus resources, and instead stressed the importance of holding perpetrators accountable through Colgate’s formal complaint procedures.  

“Anything that can help survivors and that is cathartic to them, if that’s social media because they can be anonymous and share and find validation — I want them to heal, and if that helps that, then of course,” McLoughlin said. “Here’s the other hand: if there are falsehoods, rumors, incorrect information, then it could actually undermine our work.”

Kindall questioned the logic of McLoughlin’s assertion.

“Why would someone spend their time sharing made up trauma with the internet?” she asked. 

Weiss added that while she appreciates the reform administration is doing, she feels McLoughlin’s sentiment is problematic.

“The administration’s immediate defensiveness instead of self-accountability and ownership of their past mistakes speaks volumes,” Weiss said.

In response to McLoughlin’s assertion, Rodriguez said that Share Your Story makes accurate information on Colgate’s procedures available to the student body on their platform and that to question the experiences shared in testimonials undermines the platform’s survivor-centric mission.

“We have pages and stories specifically dedicated to the resources Colgate has made available. We even have a Google sheet with links to the various resources and reporting forms at the school on the same website that students submit their stories to,” Rodriguez said. “The things people chose to share are their personal stories, and we are in no position to judge whether those stories are true as that would invalidate them, and that goes against the mission of our page which is to support survivors.”

In Haven’s support and advocacy, LaFrance and Contreras said they share many of the same frustrations as students on the legal limitations of Colgate’s procedures and take student feedback seriously.

“As the government changes its laws, we need to act in accordance. This can be very frustrating to students, but it is also frustrating, and at times limiting, to administration as well,” Contreras and LaFrance said. “We want to work together with students to support you… we will continue to advocate for change, social justice, healing, and we will continue to challenge ourselves as clinicians within a broader system that has normally failed survivors.”

McLoughlin echoed the frustration, saying that students often misconstrue the true intentions of administrators.

“For me, it’s really frustrating when there is motive attached to the administration that is actually the antithesis of the way we feel — and the administration as individuals,” McLoughlin said. 

But many students feel the administration’s sentiments are ingenuine, including first-year Noah Hann-Deschaine, who said he was disheartened by its response to sexual violence this semester.

“After seeing the fantastic job that Colgate’s Task Force [on Reopening] was able to do in expanding the state and national COVID-19 regulations to protect students from the coronavirus [pandemic], I feel like it is not too much to ask that they do the same for the sexual assault epidemic that we continue to face,” Hann-Deschaine said. “Where is the Sexual Misconduct Task Force? Where is the Sexual Misconduct Dashboard?”

In response to widespread discontent with the University’s actions following the March 5 email, Haven Intern junior Mackenzie Harrison began working with McLoughlin, aiming to help administration better understand students’ frustrations with the University’s response and for students to feel more supported and understood.

“My focus at the moment is increasing understanding between admin and students, going in both directions. Admin doesn’t always understand student experiences, and students don’t always understand the constraints admin has to work within,” Harrison said, who facilitated a panel discussion on University Response to Sexual Violence with McLoughlin, Rugg, LaFrance and Julianne Thomas, Help Restore Hope’s campus advocate, on April 13.

As Share Your Story has sparked this salient discourse among both students and administration, Rodriguez and Weiss reflected on the role of the account in allowing a long-pervasive issue at Colgate to emerge on a more accessible platform for survivors seeking healing or justice in sharing their experiences. 

“[Before], the only way people could really speak out or receive any kind of justice for what they’ve been through was through either Title IX or the SAPAS (Sexual Assault Prevention and Support) processes, or just word of mouth,” Weiss said. “They never really had a platform to share their experience without having to ask for any sort of consequences [for perpetrators] and just be believed right away with no questions asked.”

In their work at Haven, which didn’t have staff or a designated space until recent years, Contreras and LaFrance also reflected on the everchanging nature of campus advocacy surrounding sexual violence, due both to specific factors on Colgate’s campus and broader national trends, including the #MeToo Movement, founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke.

“The issues that are concerning to students are different from five years ago because things have changed,” Contreras and LaFrance said. “Our means of advocacy has changed with the widespread use of social media and the use of technology during the pandemic for health reasons.”

Senior Nizhoni Saenz — involved in the Medusa Movement, QTPOC Sex Education and Consent Workshops and an LGBTQ intern at Haven — discussed the importance of Share Your Story in helping survivors process experiences of violence, and in provoking necessary introspection on campus rape culture.

“It’s saddening and angering that this is such a prevalent issue at Colgate, but also unsurprising… as a survivor of sexual violence, I think sharing your own story can be extremely empowering and healing, allowing you to feel heard and validated in your emotions,” Saenz said. “Sexual violence isn’t a problem that only exists here, but I think some personal, introspective questions we can ask ourselves [are], ‘What am I doing to change this? What can I do to change this? Do I care enough to change this? And if I don’t, why don’t I?’”