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Hundreds protest campus sexual assault at universities across the U.S.

Stories of sex assault at colleges shared on Instagram
Stories of sex assault at colleges shared on ... 05:18

College students across the United States staged socially distanced demonstrations this week to protest against sexual assault on college campuses.

"BU has a rape problem," said signs taped all over Boston University's campus on Monday morning. Organizers said 600 students had participated in the protest there.

"Minnesota State University, Mankato has a problem with consent… End the silence. End the violence," said fliers posted around that campus, which also listed resources for survivors of sexual assault.

Students on the campus of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania woke up on their first day of in-person classes to find the message, "After I was raped, I was so afraid to simply walk around campus," written in chalk on a pathway through the center of their school.

The protests were organized by the University Survivors Movement, an international coalition of student activists working to address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. They were designed to be COVID-safe by focusing on flyers and chalk messages rather than gathering in big crowds. Activists from at least 17 schools had signed up to participate ahead of the planned actions.

According to the advocacy group RAINN, more than 1 in 4 undergraduate female students and 1 in 15 undergraduate male students experience sexual assault or rape through physical force, incapacitation, or violence while in college. Reporting levels on college campuses are low: Only 20% of female college student victims tell the police when they are assaulted, according to RAINN.

"I cried as I walked through campus because it was covered in messages supporting survivors and calling out BU. I hadn't felt at home at BU since my assault, but it finally felt like I was safe since I was surrounded by a study body that I know actually cares, even if my administration doesn't," Prisha Sujin Kumar, a survivor who helped organize the protest at Boston University, told CBS News. She said the university did not immediately respond to the protest.

On Tuesday, BU's student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, reported that the university had removed many of the posters. In response to a request for comment about the protest from CBS News, a university spokesperson sent a link to an official online publication which said BU's president Robert Brown had mailed letters to students condemning sexual violence and asserting that "every case that is brought to our attention is fully investigated in accord with federal and state law and regulations, including Title IX, and our own established procedures."

Grace Verbrugge, who helped organize the protest at Gettysburg College, told CBS News that it has become more difficult for survivors of sexual assault to get help due to the coronavirus pandemic. She said it was unclear whether a student assaulted while breaking quarantine rules could get themselves in trouble if they were to come forward.

"They're just not communicating that, which is going to decrease reporting even further," she said.

Gettysburg provided a statement to CBS News saying it remained "committed to providing resources for all of our students during the pandemic" and was still making counseling services available virtually for students on or off campus. The school also said it "maintains an amnesty policy for any reports of sexual misconduct that would protect the reporting party from being found responsible for a violation of the student code of conduct, which would also include our current COVID-19 policies and expectations."

But Carter Woodruff, one of the organizers of the University Survivors Movement and a student at Brown University, told CBS News that the pandemic was just another complication on top of "so many impediments to survivors seeking support, justice and safety on campus." 

"During COVID… campuses have been able to further de-prioritize those means of accessibility that are so necessary to reach survivors that need help," she said.

"In terms of how universities are really quick to provide resources for COVID or other types of crises: It's jarring," said Kumar in Boston. "You can care so much about one public health crisis, but you can continue to ignore another one? You can't thoroughly do a good job with helping students with COVID if you ignore everything else about them. Their mental health, their sexual health is just as important."

If you're in the United States and need help and it's an emergency, call 911. Otherwise call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or reach out online at online.rainn.org

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