A group of students at the University of Kansas (KU), one of 76 higher education institutions under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations, is using video to advocate for an overhaul of the university’s sexual assault policies. The group, known as the September Siblings, recently created a video stating their list of demands, including a request to stop using the term “non-consensual sex” in place of “rape” in university proceedings and communications and to stop issuing harsher sanctions to students found guilty of plagiarizing than to those found guilty of sexual assault.
The video targets prospective students, telling them that the group “cannot in good conscience encourage prospective students to attend KU” until the demands are met. Using the hashtag #aGreatPlaceToBeUnsafe, the September Siblings are spreading the word about their advocacy efforts.
To learn more about the video, WITNESS spoke with Katherine Gwynn, a KU student and member of the September Siblings.
Who are the September Siblings?
According to Gwynn, the group began organizing in early September after a Huffington Post article revealed details of the university’s alleged mishandling of a 2013 rape case, which led to the filing of a Title IX complaint. “When the article came out we saw that the extent of the mishandling was greater than we realized and that the process was completely screwed up,” said Gwynn.
As anger over the revelations in the article grew, a diverse group of students began organizing on Facebook, calling themselves the September Siblings. The name is a reference to the February Sisters, a group of feminists that lobbied for equal rights for women at KU in 1972.
The September Siblings is currently made up of group of about 50 students, many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and/or have experience working on issues surrounding sexual assault and gender-based violence.
[pullquote]Interviewing survivors of sexual violence? Check out the WITNESS “Guide to Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence”, and watch the complementary Guide videos. [/pullquote]
“For the past year, many people in the group have tried to work alongside the university to overhaul their policies, but going through these official channels clearly wasn’t working,” Gwynn explained. The September Siblings wanted to provide a space for survivors to tell their stories, and knew that video would be an efficient and effective way of bringing these testimonies into the public eye. “We wanted to let the survivors speak for themselves,” Gwynn noted. “We thought that video would be better medium than an article written through the filter of a journalist.”
While a number of survivors in the group volunteered to share their stories, they wanted to do so anonymously. “The driving force behind this decision came from the survivors themselves, and the group never questioned otherwise,” said Gwynn. “Anytime you’re working on an issue about a group of people, they should be at the table.” In order to protect the identity of the survivors, several journalism students among the September Siblings provided guidance on obscuring identities in video.
How is the video being used? What other advocacy tactics are being used?
“Fall is peak recruitment season for prospective KU applicants,” Gwen explained, “and bad publicity is the last thing any university wants to deal with. We felt that acting on this would be timely and that the administration would need to respond.”
The September Siblings’ video was screened to nearly 300 students, faculty, and advocates during an open forum held to discuss concerns and share stories about sexual assault. Prior to the forum, the September Siblings began using the hashtag #aGreatPlaceToBeUnsafe to share information and updates on social media. The hashtag was trending in the Kansas City area on the night of the forum. Also being shared online is an online petition to the chancellor of the university, reiterating the demands stated in the video.
The campus group, Students United for Reproductive and Gender-Equity, has provided the September Siblings with advice and training on developing a media strategy. Gwynn noted that the campus press, the University Daily Kansan (UDK), has done a great job covering the issue, and both the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera have featured articles about sexual assaults at KU. “We’ve been strategic about working with the media to get the word out and make sure this issue remains relevant in the news,” explained Gwynn.
How has the university responded to the group’s demands?
Following the open forum, the KU chancellor sent a letter to students stating that all students, faculty and staff will be required to attend sexual assault training and those who do not comply will be reprimanded accordingly. The letter also states that a new campus-wide sexual assault task-force has been created to review the existing policies and offer recommendations for improvement. Gwynn emphasized that there are ongoing efforts to ensure that students have a voice in this process. While the chancellor’s letter is a step in the right direction, it addressed only two of the September Siblings’ demands, so much work remains to be done.
Featured Image: James Hoyt/KANSAN