WHO WE ARE-I arrived at my daughter’s college graduation excited to celebrate four years of hard work, to listen to inspiring speeches, and, of course, to watch her triumphantly walk across the stage to receive her diploma. I got my camera ready as the graduating students filed into place and the president stepped to the podium to give the Welcome. As he began his address, the majority of the graduating class stood in unison, turning their backs to their president and facing the audience with the message “KEEP IT QUIET” written on their hands placed over their mouths.
The gesture symbolized how the students felt their college administration routinely silenced survivors of sexual assault. Earlier that morning, a student handed me a pamphlet stating dissatisfaction with the administration’s history of handling charges of sexual assault along with a list of demands to change the school’s policies. I then noticed many of the students and faculty with teal ribbons pinned to their robes; my daughter later explained that they also expressed support of survivors of sexual assault. I learned that the demonstration was a response to a classmate’s Title IX case.
Yenli arrived to the States four years ago as a freshman international student at Pomona College, right here in Claremont, California. On her first day, she went back to the dorm room of a new “friend” where he proceeded to sexually assault her. In her compelling account on the Huffington Post (“BUT I WAS LUCKY: IT WASN’T RAPE”), Yenli says that she did not realize what happened was a punishable offense, thinking that perhaps this was simply part of the college experience. A year later during her sophomore year, the same man assaulted her again. The events terrorized and haunted her with anxiety and panic attacks, yet she refrained from coming forward.
During her senior year, Yenli chose to open a Title IX investigation for multiple instances of sexual assault. The perpetrator’s lawyer parents hired top legal defense to make sure there were no repercussions on their son’s record. Therefore, there were little consequences for him. In fact, it was Yenli that the college administration told to be quiet.
After Yenli made the case public, she and a group of her peers decided to come together to take action. The protest at graduation educated potential donors—parents and alumni—who have significant sway with the administration. More than that, it brought the community together to send a clear message: sexual assault will not be tolerated. Though the administration allowed the assailant to graduate, he chose not to walk to receive his diploma in public. He most likely knew that his presence would be met with silence if not heckling. In contrast, when Yenli’s name was presented at the conferring of the degree candidates, her fellow classmates gave a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. The effect was powerful.
As an audience member, it peaked my awareness of sexual assault and forced me to recognize the reality of the situation. Of course, this issue is by no means unique to my daughter’s campus. The newspaper headlines state it again and again: “One of five women are assaulted at college”. The last one was Knox College in Illinois; the time before that was University of Virginia. Even our own CityWatchLA featured Susan Rose’s article, “The Hunting Ground: Human Truths about Campus Rape”, the documentary raising awareness of campus sexual violence.
However, my daughter’s graduation forced me to acknowledge that these things do in fact happen in my backyard. It reminded me of my college roommate who was raped over 30 years ago who routinely woke up at 4 am screaming in fear, or a good friend that was assaulted after meeting a charming man a college bar off I-75 sending her into chronic depression causing her to drop out three times until finishing 6 years later. They happened in my backyard then, and these incidents still take place today. According to Huffington Post on May 19, 2015, there are 143 postsecondary schools under Title IX investigations by the federal government due to concerns with how their college mishandled sexual harassment cases. The number of schools under investigation is not indication of an increase of assaults but instead of the actions being taken to stop them.
I will admit that I was nervous to write this article. I was nervous to tarnish the name of the elite liberal arts school whose reputation would to some degree determine my daughter’s future. Hearing of Yenli’s bravery and collective action of the Class of 2015 student body has forced me to see that some injustices simply cannot be kept quiet. My daughter’s future is no more important than the futures of others whose mental and emotional well-being have been damaged due to instances of sexual assault and assailants who face no repercussions.
However, the burden should not be on the survivors to push for change. For them, taking action is potentially traumatizing and unsafe. As parents, as peers, or as bystanders, we are responsible for pressuring authorities to support the victim by getting help and resources needed, as well as stronger sanctions to punish the assailant for committing violent acts in our backyard or anywhere else.
(Sue Helmy is a regular contributor to the CityWatch Deals and Discounts column. She is currently providing superb concierge duties at the Building and Safety Division of the City of Beverly Hills. She is active in countless church and civic organizations and spends every minute she can spare dancing to the Zumba beat. She is also the proud parent of two Pomona College graduates as well as a grad from UC Davis.)
Vol 13 Issue 46
Pub: Jun 5, 2015