Community, Features, Impact

BU student activists reflect on Sarah Everard killing, ask for more consideration in conversation

“Text me when you get home.”

sidewalk along commonwealth avenue at night
Sidewalk along Commonwealth Avenue at night. The recent death of Sarah Everard has sparked conversations among activists about the safety of femme-presenting persons walking home at night. HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The parting phrase is second-nature for many woman and femme-presenting people, a promise to ensure a loved one gets home safely — a routine that current events have only reinforced.

Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old London woman, walked home from a friend’s house on a Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.. She chose a path with well-lit streets, wore colorful clothing and called her boyfriend on the walk home — doing everything “right” — but she disappeared.

She was walking home.

Allegedly killed by a police officer, Everard’s death has incited a movement in Britain and beyond about the safety of femme-presenting persons walking home and how best to tackle these conversations.

Boston University activists agree that the conversation is necessary, but argue it must be done in the correct way.

It’s On Us Boston University, a nonprofit organization on campus, aims to support survivors, educate the BU community about the prevalence of sexual assault and provide resources.

Kristen Schallert, a College of Arts and Sciences junior and the organization’s vice president, is a survivor of sexual assault — an experience she said has shaped her life permanently.

“It’s a life sentence,” Schallert said. “It’s a really hard thing to deal with.”

Schallert said she was an ambassador through BU’s Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center and started this chapter last year to expand on their efforts to support survivors. She said It’s On Us offers training, survivor support groups with peers, meetings and guest speaker events.

She said she co-founded It’s On Us to give students the support she didn’t have.

“I really want to offer people the resources that I never had,” she said, “because I feel like had I had those resources, it would have drastically changed my situation.”

Julia Ramsey, a freshman in the College of Communication and the director of public relations for the organization, joined the chapter last summer before even starting college — it’s a cause she’s cared “deeply about.”

Before coming to BU, she said she had to have conversations with family and friends about safety on campus.

“Preventively up until college, especially being a young woman, you’re told to prepare yourself and just be a little bit on edge about certain things,” Ramsey said, “which is an upsetting experience.”

Though people in her life expressed this common concern, she said the University did not communicate similarly, save for the mandatory online sexual assault training.

Another issue with University policy, Ramsey said, is its ban on pepper spray on BU property, despite the Commonwealth of Massachusetts rule allowing legal adults to carry “pepper spray, mace or other ‘self defense spray,’” according to the State website.

“Women aren’t allowed to carry around pepper spray, but you’ve put us in the context where we feel the need to have pepper spray,” Ramsey said. “For people who even just say it’s not a big deal where we are [in] the context of Boston University, that’s another issue that hits closer to home.”

Though Everard’s death has pushed the conversation about sexual violence into the national arena, Schallert said it’s important for the community to know these conversations can often feel triggering for survivors, such as with the sexual assault protest in February.

“It is an important issue to talk about,” she said, “but I feel like there are certainly trigger warnings that need to be said.”

What Everard’s killing brings up, Schallert said, is the necessity of preventative efforts to stop sexual assault before it happens, which is “really hard to tackle.” However, one way to approach change is to encourage greater informed conversation.

“We need to do more than just having those mandatory sexual assault trainings at the beginning of your freshman year,” she said. “I feel like a good place to start again is by having those conversations that people don’t want to have.”

In terms of resistance from the “#NotAllMen,” a social media hashtag pointing to a phrase some men use to assert that not all men are perpetuators of sexual assault, Schallert said she found the analogy of ticks and Lyme disease helpful for understanding the situation.

“Not all ticks carry Lyme disease, but enough ticks carry Lyme disease to the point where you know to avoid ticks,” she said. “When you are a woman and you’re walking alone at night, the person walking alone behind you might not be dangerous … but from the statistics you’d never know.”

She said the organization has recently teamed up with SARP to host a training with all Greek Life as a response to survivors coming forward on @campus.survivors Instagram about sexual assault involving Greek Life members. Schallert said It’s On Us and other sexual assault organizations on campus are talking with the administration on having these conversations too.

She also said it’s essential survivors know to prioritize self care over activism through these conversations, as talking about sexual assault can sometimes be retraumatizing.

“If you’re a survivor, take care of yourself, that comes first,” Schallert said. “While it is important to get involved and to amplify your voice and to fight for these changes, you also do need to take care of yourself as well.”

The conversation around sexual assault needs to be more inclusive, she added, as the issue has largely been framed as one only affecting white women.

“It doesn’t only happen to women,” she said. “Whatever you identify as, sexual assault does not discriminate, and I feel like it’s important to start changing the conversation that we have about that.”

An American is assaulted every 73 seconds, according to RAINN, a national network against sexual violence. Nearly half of transgender individuals have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, according to a 2015 survey from VAWnet, a branch of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, and the number of transgender people killed in 2021 — at least 11 — is up 266% from this time last year.

Annie Mayne, a sophomore in COM, is a co-chair of 16,000 Strong, a Student Government committee working to end sexual violence on campus and support survivors.

Mayne said the organization’s name comes from the total number of undergraduate students at the time it was created, to demonstrate that all students are against sexual assault. She said she joined because she knows sexual harassment and assault has “pervaded” many people’s lives, including her own.

Personally, Mayne said she does not always feel safe on campus.

“Most women would probably agree that anytime they’re alone at night, they’re going to be hypervigilant walking down the street,” she said. “Whether they’re in their hometown or a big city or anywhere, I’m always going to be on high alert.”

She said she was “devastated” to hear about Everard’s death, but not surprised it had happened because of the repeated violence and harm women have faced.

“Her story is not that unique, unfortunately,” she said. “It definitely represents a culture of violence against women and entitlement.”

Mayne said it’s also important to note Everard was a white woman, and the conversation around her death must recognize that marginalized groups often face higher rates of violence.

In terms of approaching these issues, Mayne said adding a larger police presence is not necessarily the answer, because that can often make people feel more unsafe.

What could help, she said, is greater transparency from the University about the rate of sexual violence on campus and honest conversations about how to address the problem, which they have already begun.

“We’re really optimistic with our conversations with the Provost [Jean Morrison], I would say so far,” she said. “We haven’t had any concrete changes yet and these are ongoing discussions, but she definitely is open to all of our demands.”

In April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the committee plans to host informational events in collaboration with other campus and Boston-area survivor groups.

It’s On Us has several executive board member positions open for the 2021 to 2022 school year, including vice president, treasurer, secretary and director of logistics, due April 4.

Schallert said the organization’s ultimate goal is to end campus sexual assault. As they work to reach that goal, she said she hopes the community can learn to become better active bystanders and supporters of survivors.

Though sexual assault can seem like an overwhelming issue to address, Mayne said the most important way to begin defeating it is by opening up the conversation.

“There is an overall rape culture in our society,” Mayne said. “People coming together and banding against this issue, I think, is the first step.”

Boston University’s SARP is a free, confidential resource for students who have survived traumatic events.

Crisis response intervention counselors through SARP can be reached 24/7, every day of the year at 617-353-SARP (7277). Outside office hours, press 2 to speak with a counselor on call.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.

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One Comment

  1. To compound the problem, the university protects students (such as Kevin Rivlin, Questrom ‘19) who commit assault, by discouraging survivors from pursuing cases and illegally denying them access to information about such cases.