UMBC students demand campus accountability in tense meeting with president after sexual assault lawsuit

Students gathered Monday on the UMBC campus to share their experiences with sexual violence and demand accountability from the administration after an explosive class-action lawsuit alleging a culture of covering up abuse.

With a steady drizzle coming down, the protest seemed close to wrapping up when 21-year-old Milan Brown made her way to the front of the group. “If y’all want to storm the administration building, follow us,” she yelled out.

More than 100 people followed for the impromptu march. They moved through campus chanting “No means no” — not stopping their cries even as they trekked up the administration building’s nine flights of stairs. At the top, they crammed into a conference room where University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III was ready to meet with them.

For more than an hour, the students went over their list of demands and grilled Hrabowski on how he planned to solve what they characterized as a scourge of sexual violence on campus. Their protest was spurred by a lawsuit, filed Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court, that was brought by two former UMBC students, who said they were raped in separate incidents.

Each say they interacted with police and prosecutors who humiliated, intimidated and deceived them as part of an intentional effort to “cover up justifiable complaints of sexual assault,” according to the suit. The defendants include Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, UMBC, Baltimore County police and the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland. The plaintiffs, whom The Baltimore Sun is not naming, say their experiences represent a “concealed epidemic of sexual assault in Baltimore County.”

For far too long, student leaders said Monday, the campus "whisper network" has transmitted individual stories about sexual assault survivors encountering road blocks when seeking justice.

The lawsuit, said junior Erin Schoeneman, shows the issues are systemic. And the students want a change.

In the 10th floor conference room, 19-year-old John Platter read Hrabowski the students’ demands. They include the immediate removal of UMBC police chief Paul Dillon, for what the students call a “failure to enact justice, for his use of fear tactics against survivors, for his disregard for safety.” They are also seeking for some people within the Title IX office and athletics department to be immediately suspended pending an investigation. One of the plaintiffs in the suit alleges she was gang-raped by three UMBC baseball players.

Earlier in the day, Platter had stood before his classmates and shared his story of being sexually assaulted and unsuccessfully navigating the Title IX process at UMBC. The Sun typically does not name survivors of sexual assault, but Platter said it was important for “people to know that survivors are real people who exist on the UMBC campus.”

“I will not be swept under the rug,” Platter promised.

Platter emphasized to Hrabowski how widespread the issue of sexual assault is on campus. An estimated one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, studies have shown. Platter asked everyone in the meeting to raise their hands if they were a survivor, and hands went up all around the room.

“I am so very sorry,” Hrabowski said. “We need to do more.”

Among the students’ other demands: More in-depth sexual assault prevention training, more resources for the Title IX office and more comprehensive health care for sexual assault survivors at the university health center.

They want nurses at the school health center to be trained on how to administer rape kits, a rarity on college campuses. Most students across the country instead have to go to a local hospital if they want a rape kit.

The mishandling of rape kits is one of the issues at the core of the lawsuit. One of the plaintiffs in the suit claims she was drugged and sexually assaulted three years ago by a UMBC student on campus while she attended the university. She submitted to a rape kit, but later discovered it had been destroyed, according to the suit.

Hrabowski said he must review the group’s demands in more depth, but some seem doable. He would not discuss personnel issues, citing the pending litigation.

“But there are many things on this list that are very reasonable,” he said. “Some are low-hanging fruit that we can work on. Others will take a little time. … You have my word we will take this very seriously.”

He said he would have more specifics and answers by a town hall meeting scheduled for Thursday. He said he will speak with survivors about what the university must do better.

Hrabowski said his priority was listening to student concerns, ensuring students’ safety on campus and rebuilding trust with the community.

The more than-hourlong meeting included many tense moments between the student activists and the university president, including one between Hrabowski and a local reporter who recently graduated from UMBC and said the president has known about these problems for a year. One student stood behind Hrabowski with a white board that read, “Is Hrabowski a) complicit or b) ignorant?”

When the meeting was over, the university president said he was proud of the students who stormed his office building and demanded accountability. They were speaking truth to power, he told them.

The students promised they would continue doing so.

“We’ll see you at the town hall,” one said.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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