'You Let Their Rapists Go'

A vocal student has spurred a social media campaign against Indiana University, saying the institution violated Title IX after she was sexually assaulted.

July 3, 2018
 

Ellie Johnson has taken to Twitter every day for more than a week, raging at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Johnson, a student there, says she was raped, but the institution subsequently found the student she accused not responsible. She said the university violated its own policies on sexual assault and infringed on a key federal gender antidiscrimination law.

Her first tweet about her case June 25 (which racked up more than 2,000 retweets and 5,000 likes) snowballed into a massive viral social media campaign against Indiana, with students and activists local and beyond trashing the university’s policies and its handling of sexual violence.

Johnson hasn’t stopped what she called “the social media madness.”

"I just want to remind @IUBloomington that there are humans in grave suffering," she wrote on Twitter. There are humans standing on the line between life and death because YOU LET THEIR RAPISTS GO! Any crimes they commit in the future falls on your shoulders for not stopping it when you had the chance."

She listed the emails and some phone numbers of top administrators and the police department on Twitter and urged the public to contact them. Her daily tweets have spawned a hashtag: #WeStandWithEllie. Student organizations have tweeted their support at her. A Democratic candidate for state office reposted Johnson’s tweet and said if elected he would have sexual assault survivors from the university share their stories at the statehouse.

One woman wrote to Johnson and said she told an incoming Indiana student and her mother about Johnson’s story.

“They said if IU doesn't do anything about it then her daughter would not be attending the school,” she tweeted to the university. “Your negligence is driving students away.”

Johnson didn’t respond to request for comment, but she has detailed her fight with Indiana extensively online, often referencing the Me Too and Time's Up movements that have taken hold in the country.

She said she was raped more than 15 months ago but didn’t immediately report it to the university. After her case was investigated, the accused student wasn’t punished. Johnson appealed the outcome, but Indiana maintained its decision.

“They violated their own policies and Title IX with me,” Johnson wrote on Facebook, referring to the federal law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. “They pretend like there is a culture of care on campus, but according to the dozens of men and women in my direct messages across various platforms, IU couldn’t give a crap about anything other than keeping their numbers down. They have screwed over HUNDREDS of survivors for decades. I have proof. We all have similar horror stories.”

She said that she was drunk at the time of her assault, which she said wouldn’t be considered consensual under university policy.

For Indiana’s part, it posted a public statement on Twitter a day after Johnson’s initial tweet. The university's response was derided as generic and dismissive of systemic problems there.

In a follow-up statement, the university said it didn’t want to compromise student privacy but said that Johnson’s case was investigated thoroughly and in line with university policy. For Title IX cases, Indiana uses a three-person panel of professors and staff who are trained in sexual assault and adjudication, the university said. Officials estimated 75 hours of personnel work went into Johnson’s case, with cases averaging around 100 hours of work, but ranging up to 125 hours.

The university’s Title IX practices are sound and were followed, said spokesman Chuck Carney in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

“We appreciate the concerns expressed in this circumstance and recognize that this is a very difficult situation for all involved,” the statement reads. “IU remains committed to fostering a safe environment for all students, which is facilitated by its comprehensive processes for responding to reports of sexual misconduct, as well as its continued efforts to provide support and resources to all students, faculty, and staff in this regard.”

Navigating the court of public opinion can prove difficult for colleges and universities, as they must constantly bear in mind that these cases can easily move to real court or be the subject of a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, experts say. Lawsuits challenging colleges and universities on grounds of violating Title IX have increased in the last several years, brought by both survivors and accused students.

Notably, the tale of “Mattress Girl” at Columbia University went viral far before the institution was sued over it. A student, Emma Sulkowicz, carried a mattress around campus to signify the burden of her rape and in protest of the institution’s response. Eventually, the student Sulkowicz accused of rape filed a Title IX lawsuit against Columbia, which settled with him in 2017. While many publicly sided with Sulkowicz at first, as more information on the case emerged, some came to doubt her story, as it appeared the encounter was more consensual than she initially let on.

Institutions also want to balance privacy considerations and be sensitive in publicly rebutting a victim of sexual assault so as to not come off as defensive, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education.

“From a PR standpoint, it’s very difficult for institutions,” Kruger said. “They want to say as much as they can say publicly while being very delicate. The student who is making the claims is a victim of sexual violence, and they have to be very careful to not re-traumatize them by going after them and discounting what they’re saying.”

Kruger said that communications experts recommend that universities stand by their principles and make sure the campuses know that the proper processes are in place.

“But really, institutions just take it on the chin,” he said.

Indiana has been under scrutiny for its Title IX practices before.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the university after four separate Title IX complaints were filed against it, the earliest dating back to 2014. The university signed an agreement in February with the department, which cleared the university of those complaints.

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