UW sexual assault survivors meet with AG, seek meeting with UW system leaders

A number of sexual assault survivors from four University of Wisconsin campuses and their lawyer are asking UW System officials for an opportunity to share their concerns about how they were treated and to provide ideas on how future cases should be handled. So far, their request has been denied.

The women and their lawyer met for more than two hours last week with Attorney General Brad Schimel, R-Wisconsin, and attorneys with the Wisconsin Department of Justice in an effort to lobby for legislation that required campuses to provide written material that is easily decipherable to students who come forward with reports of sexual violence among other suggestions.

“Survivor stories are being silenced by the universities and they’re being swept away,” said Maricruz Sanchez, a student who says she was sexually assaulted at UW-LaCrosse. “They’re dealt with quickly and not well. I struggled through the process of reporting my assault and I’m still not receiving adequate support from my university.”

The standard policy of News 3 is not to name survivors of sexual assault, but Sanchez, Lauren Olson from UW-River Falls, Alexandra Arriaga from UW-Madison and Raechel Liska from UW-Whitewater all asked for their names to be used. In addition to wanting more understandable information for survivors given to future students, they also want UW institutions to allow for their processes investigating assaults to be reviewable and transparent. They also encouraged the Justice Department lawyers to press campuses to provide legal and advocacy services to survivors.

“I’m not alone and that’s comforting but that’s also very disheartening,” said Olson, who is considering a Title IX lawsuit against her institution for the way she said it handled her assault that happened during a study abroad semester in Europe. “This is not something that any of us should have to be standing up and fighting for. It’s something that should have been handled right the first time. We should have received justice the first time. It’s hard to know it’s happening to so many other people.”

The women all described scenarios where they were confused rather than supported by university officials upon filing their allegations of sexual assault. Each said they wanted to share their stories with UW System representatives, so changes could be made to help others in the future. A spokesperson from the UW System however would not commit to a meeting.

“Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of students in the UW System is one of our most important responsibilities. Demonstrating that commitment means that administrators, students, staff, and faculty at our institutions and within UW System Administration accept their individual and collective roles in promoting cultures of support and understanding for survivors of sexual violence and harassment,” wrote Alexander Hummel, associate vice president for communications for the UW System, in an emailed statement to News 3.

Hummel said potentially pending litigation means UW System officials cannot meet with the survivors.

“We understand that some may interpret this as a lack of responsiveness, and that is regrettable,” he wrote. “Those who are familiar with the continuing efforts at the UW System and its institutions to raise awareness about and prevent and respond to sexual violence understand the University’s strong commitment.”

He said the commitment entailed creating a task force on sexual violence and harassment a year ago that has heard from students who identified themselves to members as being survivors. Changes being recommended included procedures “whereby both the complainant and the respondent will have the right to receive notice of disciplinary proceedings throughout the process, up to and including any appeal by either party or any request by the respondent to return to campus after a disciplinary period expires,” according to Hummel.

“The task force will continue to meet and solicit more feedback from students, faculty, and staff in the future,” Hummel said.

The women’s lawyer, Laura Dunn, a UW-Madison graduate who said she was sexually assaulted when she was on campus, called the system’s response “not surprising.”

“The sad reality is the UW system has not listened and will not listen to survivors and that’s why we were at the Deptartment of Justice and the Attorney General’s office,” said Dunn, who runs a group called SurvJustice. “(The UW System) has not offered us a seat at the table. They have not invited us to give feedback on how they can improve and quite frankly, it’s because they’re scared.

“I think every single survivor here has wanted the university to listen and that offer has never been rescinded. We’ll give them that opportunity and every opportunity but they need to come ready to listen. To hear. Not to excuse. Not to justify. And I think when they come in that spirit, I think change can happen and we can move forward together and actually make Wisconsin a state we can be proud of.”

Liska, who was invited by UW-Whitewater to be its spring commencement speaker after she’d reported her assault, criticized any campus’s delay in addressing the issue.

“How long is this really going to take because this is something that can’t wait,” she said. “It just can’t. It’s too traumatic. It’s too scarring and you can’t just keep putting this off. It’s something that needs to be dealt with and it needs to be dealt with now.”

The attorney general said he took the meeting because his office has been in “vigorous conversations” with University System leaders about how to make Wisconsin’s campuses safer and he walked away feeling the issue was even more important.

“(The Department of Justice) is passionate about creating a victim-centered solution to dealing with sexual assault,” Schimel said in a statement emailed to News 3. “We have to start by believing victims when they have the courage to come forward about details of their sexual assault and treat them with dignity and respect. I was so impressed with the courage of this group of survivors of sexual violence during their college years to come forward and share their experiences with us. Until we listen to the experiences and challenges victims have had navigating the University and Criminal Justice systems, we will not know the best way to break down barriers to reporting, prosecute offenders, and give victims resources to begin the healing process.”

Schimel’s Sexual Assault Response Team has been sponsoring training for campus law enforcement around how to create safer environments for Wisconsin students.

That’s a goal the survivors embraced as well.

“When are we going to see actual change, actual accountability from the university,” Arriaga said. “I would hope to see an invitation from the UW System where there’s listening and responding to what we think should be happening and changing.”