Dozens of protestors at the University of Southern Mississippi took to the front of the campus on Oct. 1 to protest the university’s policies on sexual assault and lack of action on claims of alleged sexual assault by the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEP). Protestors will take to the campus again at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 15.
Protests initially began over the 2021 Labor Day weekend when messages started to circulate on the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak about alleged sexual assaults by SigEP members. These allegations caused a spontaneous protest to erupt in-front of the Sigma house. Protestors at the demonstration demanded that USM hold the fraternity accountable.
Bella Brocato, president of the student organization Sexual Assault Prevention Ambassadors (SAPA), said that representatives from the student affairs office were present at the protest, but they never issued any formal response.
Representatives from SigEP responded to the protests on their Facebook page with a general statement condemning sexual violence. They pointed to a 2017 Title IX investigation that resulted in the fraternity removing a member after he was found responsible for sexual assault as an example of how they do not tolerate sexual misconduct within their membership.
The case in question involved the rape of then sophmore Adia Reed, who was not contacted prior to the fraternity using her case as an example. The assailant in question was punished with two years suspension, and he was allowed to re-enroll at USM this fall. According to Reed, the university did not notify her that her assailant was back on campus. She found out through a friend who saw him.
Reed later said in a TikTok video that she felt like an “anonymous poster child” and that it “re-traumatized” her all over again having her assault used by the fraternity without her permission.
“The (fraternity) completely ignored the other allegations and past cases,” Brocato said. “It was a really big day for a lot of people. A lot of survivors were re-traumatized because nothing was being said. It was very spur of the moment, and there was a lot of anger, rightfully so.
“There was a lot of expectation for the university to say something. Yet, two weeks later the student affairs office still hadn’t said anything, and then they posted on Facebook congratulating the fraternity for their academic achievement, saying ‘This is what it means to be golden.’ It really sparked anger among victims and their supporters.”
Deciding to take back ownership of her story, Reed took to social media. She made a TikTok (bit.ly/3DwzBRq) on Sept. 21 expressing frustrations over USM’s sexual assault policies and “lack of care for victims” that quickly garnered thousands of views.
“He just got a slap on the wrist ...Why should I report?” - Adia Reed
Senior English major Rebecca Fish was one of those viewers, and she wanted to help organize a bigger protest with clearly defined goals. Fish partnered with Selma Newbill, a USM alum and founder of SAPA, to learn what offices she needed to contact for the proper paperwork to hold a larger campus demonstration. Newbill also connected Fish with the current SAPA members and Reed.
Together, the team of students reached out to Dean of Students Sirena Cantrell and Vice President for Student Affairs Dee Dee Anderson to voice SAPA’s concerns and the protestors’ demands. Cantrell and Anderson agreed to meet with the team, along with representatives from the Title IX office, prior to the protest.
“In that meeting, we talked about everything that happened (on Labor Day weekend) and addressed how they messed up and what they needed to do differently going forward,” said Brocato. “Our first concern was that (Reed’s assailant) was back on campus. We wanted to know what we could do to make him leave. We understood that at the time he was only given a two-year suspension. That should have never been the result, but here we were now so we wanted to know how we could fix it.”
The administrators informed the students that the 2017 case was closed, and there was nothing they could do about changing the punishment at this time.
“Okay,” Reed said. “Then how do we make sure that no other victim has this happen to them?”
Brocato said that she believes Anderson was the first to mention a zero-tolerance policy — where anyone found responsible of sexual assault under Title IX would be banned from campus.
Until an incident at the 2019 homecoming football game, Reed said that she’d always assumed a zero-tolerance policy was already in place.
“He was found responsible for sexual assault, an act of sexual violence, on campus,” Reed said. “He definitely shouldn’t be allowed on campus. I just assumed that, but now I know that I shouldn’t have assumed that. About a month and a half into his suspension, it was homecoming weekend and a really good friend texted me to ask if he was allowed on campus. I said I didn’t think so. Well, she had seen him at the student tailgates. What if I had seen him? How would I have reacted seeing him?
“When I asked the school if he was allowed on campus, they sent me a generic copy and paste of the policy. That felt like another slap in the face. I’d just found out that my rapist was allowed back on campus, and not only was I not warned about it but they also weren’t giving me any support.”
Reed and the student team immediately supported the idea of implementing a zero-tolerance policy. Brocato, however, said the administrators immediately began to backtrack as soon as they had mentioned it.
“We were told (by the administrators present) that we didn’t understand that cases could be muddy sometimes,” Brocato said. “All three times, we responded that if someone is found responsible of sexual assault through a Title IX investigation — after looking at evidence from both sides and being given the chance to prove they are innocent — then they need to be removed from USM’s campus. I don’t know why that’s such a hard thing to understand.”
Anderson and Cantrell allegedly agreed to setup a meeting with the USM legal team and general counsel after representatives from the Title IX office agreed to help discuss the development of a zero-tolerance policy.
“They looked at Adia, the survivor of the case and who they have failed and re-traumatized over and over again, in the face and told her that they would begin to develop a zero-tolerance policy,” Brocato said.
According to Brocato, Anderson also agreed for the Student Affairs Office to send a formal statement to all USM students via email taking accountability for how the current policies have failed to protect survivors and outline how they will improve in the future. Student affairs, as of the time of publication, has not sent an email. They did, however, issue a general statement of support for sexual assault prevention on their social media platforms that included a re-statement of the existing policy.
SAPA also hasn’t heard of a date for the promised zero-tolerance policy discussions. Support for the policy has been growing across campus and online since the Oct. 1 protest, said Brocato.
Following the meeting with Anderson and Cantrell, SAPA created a graphic that reads, “I support zero-tolerance.” It’s been circulating online at an exponentially growing rate. With the graphic, several survivors also began sharing their stories of sexual assault online.
Reed, Brocato, Fish and their team hope the protest on Oct. 15 will help push the USM administration to move quickly on the promised zero-tolerance policy discussions and build further support for the policy within the campus community.
“I think my case has served as an example of why people don’t report (sexual assaults) because they see how my case was handled,” Reed said. “I think the students of Southern Miss really look at how he just got a slap on the wrist and think ‘Why should I report?’
“What I want is for students on this campus to genuinely believe that if they are assaulted that their administration will take all necessary steps to getting them justice and helping them mentally. I think one thing that has been really ignored by the administration is how much of a toll this takes on our mental health. The events of this semester have re-traumatized so many of us. That needs to stop. I want students to feel safe and taken care of.”
The Pine Belt News reached out the Office of Student Affairs at USM for comment, but there was no response at the time of publication.
On their Instagram, student affairs posted, “The University of Southern Mississippi is committed to providing a workplace and educational environment, as well as other benefits, programs and activities that are free from sexual harassment and retaliation. We do not tolerate sexual assault or misconduct and take allegations of violations of our policy very seriously. We support and join our students in advocating for prevention of sexual assault on our campus. Student Affairs and the Title IX Office will continue to work with our students through education, policy review and implementation of our policy to create a safe campus culture.
“Their robust policy provides for prompt, fair and effective investigation and determination of allegations of sexual harassment. The policy also conforms to the extensive federal regulatory framework and complies with all state and federal laws. Persons who may have experienced sexual harassment may also access supportive measures and other helpful resources through the TitleIX office.”
For more information about the protest or SAPA, visit their Facebook group: bit.ly/3iUdeNV.
For more information about Title IX or to file a sexual harassment claim, visit bit.ly/3BypcUW.
For more information about USM’s sexual harassment policy and procedures, visit bit.ly/3v1QTmA.