Caroline Sewell & Kiya Williams

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — A number of Winthrop University students have come together to form groups and organize protests to advocate for survivors of sexual assault, following allegations that at least two assault cases were mishandled by the university.

In March, the Johnsonian student newspaper published a story — by former Palmetto Reporter reporter Evan Santiago — detailing claims from two former Winthrop students who said their reports of sexual assault resulted in little action from the university.

One report, from the article, detailed an account from a former female student who said she was gang-raped by three Winthrop athletes in 2017, while she was incapacitated. The other came from a former female lacrosse player who said she received unwanted sexual contact from a Winthrop athletic trainer in 2018.

As a result, students have formed two groups — Winthrop Students for Survivors and WU Students for Change — intended to advocate for those who have experienced sexual assault.

“I started advocating for survivors after I read the Johnsonian (article). I already knew of a few people who had been sexually assaulted, specifically at Winthrop, and nothing had really been done, so that just really hit me hard, so I decided I didn’t just want to sit back, I wanted to get justice for people,” said Isabella Fleischer, a freshman early education major and organizer of Winthrop Students for Survivors.

“It happens more than you think, and you more than likely know at least one person who’s been sexually assaulted,” said Fleischer.

The Herald reported April 30 that cases of sexual misconduct on the Winthrop campus went vastly underreported during the 2016-17 school year, according to the results of a previously unpublished campus climate survey from April 2017, which the paper accessed through a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the anonymous survey, of the 130 students who reported they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact, only 10 said they ultimately reported their case to university officials.

“This needs to stop…we cannot be a campus that is a part of this,” said Rebecca Knockemus, a junior human nutrition major and organizer of Winthrop Students for Survivors.

“I wanted to join Winthrop Students for Change after seeing that it was being organized by some seniors at Winthrop and especially after seeing the Johnsonian article that came out a few weeks ago and how that was handled by (interim President George) Hynd and other higher ups, with just fluff emails and meaningless words rather than action. I knew that I wanted to get involved in any way possible,” Ainsley McCarthy, a freshman mass communication major and organizer of the group, said.

“I saw that nothing was really being done and I wanted to see change and when I was given the opportunity to make change, I jumped at it,” said Grayce Kellam, an art major and organizer of WU Students for Change.

The groups have organized a number of events to call for action from the university, including a sit-in April 7 on the campus green, a silent sit-in in front of Byrnes Auditorium April 27 and a march in front of the president’s on-campus home.

Ami Hughey, a freshman theatre major, has been active in organizing the group WU Students for Change.

“It wasn’t really an organization when I joined. I just saw the Instagram page and reached out to them and ended up helping lead the march that initiated Winthrop Students for Change becoming an organization. So now I’m here helping establish us as an official organization for campus,” said Hughey.

“Our plan is to make an official organization on this campus…led by students, for students, to come bring any problems they need,” said Kellam.

WU Students for Change has posted a petition on calling for a list of demands, including a formal apology from President Hynd to survivors on campus and an increase in funding to the Office of Victims Assistance, which handles cases of sexual misconduct.

“In order to see real change on the Winthrop campus, with regard to sexual assault, there needs to be several things done. Just as an example, making sure that the blue (emergency call) lights work, making sure that athletes are held accountable,” McCarthy said.

The actions from the two groups and the initial Johnsonian article have gotten the attention of university officials, including Hynd.

“Winthrop University takes seriously allegations of sexual misconduct involving any member of the Winthrop community,” Hynd wrote in an open letter to the campus community March 26, following the publication of the Johnsonian story.

“Winthrop officials took seriously the allegations of the two students interviewed. Both cases were promptly investigated by the university using protocols established as best practice for Title IX compliance,” Hynd said.

The president sent an update to students, faculty and staff April 14 to say the university was listening to student concerns and was open to suggestions about how to improve safety on campus.

“The issues raised deserve the attention of all of us on campus. As with our handling of the pandemic, student safety and security remains at the forefront of our efforts to provide a healthy, nurturing environment where students can learn, live and thrive,” Hynd wrote.

“We have listened to and will continue to listen to student concerns following the Johnsonian story. We are engaged in intentional discussion and planning at the highest levels of campus leadership. We have supported the student group that gathered on Wednesday of last week. Administrators were present, talked to students and are now reviewing results of a short survey this group circulated. We will continue to be responsive to student concerns.”

Two weeks later, Hynd announced a number of changes April 28, after hearing from students, including the creation of a new position at the university that will be dedicated to Title IX and plans to update the school’s sexual misconduct policy.

As the situation continues to unfold, a number of students said one thing that needs to change is how survivors are treated when they come forward.

“Victim-blaming is one of the most harmful things that you can do,” Fleischer said.

“Half the time when (survivors) get help, they’re victim-blamed and it’s so much focused on the victim aspect of themselves and I know that can make them feel bad. When I was in the meeting with President Hynd the other day, someone said ‘we need to quit victim-blaming them.’ So I guess…we need to get the word out that we need to stop victim-blaming,” Knockemus said.

Additionally, organizers of the advocacy groups say they hope their efforts will bring positive changes to Winthrop.

“Winthrop needs to do better, we all need to do better, the people doing the assaults, they need to do better. I feel like if we can educate people and we can get the word out now, hopefully this campus will be safer and sexual assaults and everything will decrease,” Knockemus said.

“I think I just have a really big heart for others and doing just as much as lifting my voice and other people’s voices and spreading the word. Doing the best I can is how change starts and…revolution begins,” Kellam said.