Members of the Feminists United group on the Fredericksburg campus say they faced hundreds of anonymous harassing messages, including rape threats, after protesting a lewd chant by the rugby team and questioning whether Greek life exacerbates sexual assaults.
They filed a complaint with the Department of Education in May saying the university did nothing to protect them from the harassment that left them feeling unsafe on campus.
University officials have previously denied ignoring their complaints and said Wednesday they welcomed guidance from the Department of Education on preventing sexual misconduct.
Debra Katz, an attorney for the Mary Washington students, says the case presents an opportunity to make clear that an university’s federal obligation to provide a safe campus environment for students goes beyond dorms and classrooms and into the digital world of social media.
Yik Yak is a social media outlet popular on college campuses that allows users to browse anonymous posts within a 1.5-mile radius, but has gained notoriety for enabling offensive messages and violent threats.
Katz was joined by advocates for women in a Wednesday press conference calling for new federal guidelines on how higher education institutions should protect students from threats based on their gender, race and sexual orientation.
“The responsibility is to eradicate the threat and to make sure it is a safe environment for students to go to school,” said Katz, who said the university should have more aggressively monitored and reported Yik Yak posts to law enforcement or barred access to the app on campus when presented with evidence of a clear disruption to students’ learning.
In a letter earlier this year, Mary Washington University President Rick Hurley said it was “demonstrably false” that concerns about Yik Yak messages were ignored. He pointed to a police escort for the president of the feminist group and a campus-wide e-mail warning authorities would take threats seriously.
Attorneys for the students say members of the feminist group faced additional harassment after the university publicized and distributed the president’s letter, which dismissed other complaints as exaggerated and inaccurate.
The Department of Education is also investigating whether the president’s actions amounted to retaliation for filing the complaint. University spokeswoman Marty Morrison says the letter was responsive, not retaliatory.
A spokeswoman for Yik Yak said in a statement that the company is taking steps to weed out abusive language, including better technology to flag and prevent threatening language from being posted. Authorities have arrested more than a dozen students for threatening mass violence on campuses in the past year.
“The only time that the police get involved is when yaks say things like we are going to go shoot up the campus and then they can find with record speed who is doing the posting, and they should,” said Katz. “But they should also find with record speed who posts things like ‘Gonna rape that student.’”
A spokesman for the Department of Education declined to comment on the Mary Washington case, but said the agency has made it clear that schools must respond to harassment of students based on sex, even if it happens online.