Students Say University Of Mary Washington Failed To Address Yik Yak Threats

May 7, 2015
Originally published on May 8, 2015 6:07 pm
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A university in Virginia faces allegations that it failed to protect students from sexual harassment online. The complaint was filed today with the Department of Education. It accuses the University of Mary Washington of violating Title IX. It comes weeks after a female student was killed, although it does not link her death to the cyber attacks. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Students say the problems began last fall. The campus was debating whether to sanction fraternities. Members of the group Feminist United suggested a link between frats and sexual assaults. Soon after, the group denounced a sexually explicit and derogatory chant by members of the school's rugby team.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Knocking on every door. Knocking on every door. We're going [bleep] turn the [bleep]...

LUDDEN: The response both times was intense. Hundreds of vitriolic comments and some threats against Feminist United and its members. They were posted on Yik Yak. That's a social app that lets smartphone users in a small geographic area post instant messages anonymously. Julia Michels is incoming president of UMW's Feminist United.

JULIA MICHELS: It was really scary because I'm sitting in class, and I don't know if the person next to me threatened to kill me or rape me. And because it's anonymous, you cannot tell how serious they are.

LUDDEN: A member of Feminist United was killed last month by a roommate, though police have not determined a motive. Michels says she and others complained to school officials several times.

MICHELS: In response, they said they were sorry and how disgusted they were. And then they essentially said that they had no recourse because it was anonymous and that there was nothing they could do.

LUDDEN: University of Mary Washington says free speech concerns make cracking down difficult. But in a statement, it says it takes all allegations of gender-based violence seriously and shares the goal of a safe environment. Debra Katz is one of the lawyers who filed today's complaint. She says the school could have done much more.

DEBRA KATZ: Yik Yak is not impenetrable. If there are threats being made, the University had an obligation to report this and get the identities of the people who are making these threats. They should have done that and turned it over to law enforcement.

LUDDEN: People threatening mass violence at other schools have been arrested that way, but absent a direct threat of imminent harm, analysts say it's legally difficult to find out who's behind questionable comments on Yik Yak. Some schools have blocked the app from their server. Those students can still get around that on their smartphones. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.