The first half of 2020 was a rough time for many college students. As the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, they had to deal with issues like housing insecurity and abruptly adjusting to remote learning. But for Caila French and Jazmin Johnson, two students at Trinity College in Connecticut, that period was overshadowed by an additional challenge: Johnson and French say they were both sexually assaulted by the same Trinity student-athlete during their freshman years, in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In the spring of 2020, French, who had already undergone an investigation through the school, learned that their alleged mutual assailant was coming back to campus, and reached out to Johnson to let her know. The two women had been recently connected by a mutual friend. After they delved further into their experiences, they realized that they wanted to speak out about a culture of abuse they believed was bigger than the two of them. This is what prompted them to start TrinSurvivors, an Instagram page devoted to sharing the experiences of survivors of sexual assault at Trinity.
TrinSurvivors now has more than 2,000 followers. The account has compiled nearly 300 posts from Trinity students talking about their experiences with sexual assault as well as additional resources speaking about a culture of sexual violence on college campuses, such as an explainer on the “Red Zone” — the first six weeks of the fall semester when students are most at risk for sexual assault — or a series detailing different trauma responses one can experience after rape. In addition to creating the Instagram page, French and Johnson have also filed a lawsuit against Trinity, arguing that both of their sexual assault cases were mishandled.
In an email to Teen Vogue, Kristen Cole, Trinity’s senior director of strategic content and media relations, said the school “cannot comment directly on an ongoing legal investigation” but “takes all reports of sexual assault very seriously.” “We are continually examining our processes and working to enhance them to reflect national best practices as part of our commitment to provide the safest living and learning environment for students. We support the rights of survivors to report anonymously, request confidentiality, file a complaint for a fair adjudication process, or pursue a criminal investigation with law enforcement when ready,” Cole said. Cole also noted that Trinity President Joanne Sweeney-Berger thanked and acknowledged the TrinSurvivors in a letter to the community.
According to data from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), over a quarter of female undergraduate students will experience rape or sexual assault in college. Many advocates believe there is a culture of normalized sexual violence that makes communities like TrinSurvivors important for college students everywhere. Teen Vogue spoke to French and Johnson about creating the page and why they felt it was important to speak up about their experiences with sexual assault.
Teen Vogue: How did you decide to create the Instagram page?
Jazmin Johnson: When we first made the account, there was another account that had just started at Trinity called BlackatTrin that had already gained some traction regarding the experiences of people of color at Trinity. So that's where we got part of the idea. When we started the page, we made an anonymous Google doc that people could submit stories through and we ended up gaining a lot of traffic really fast.
What I went through with sexual assault at Trinity was really traumatizing, but I kept it very personal. I hadn't linked it to the experiences of others yet. It was something I felt really silenced about in my first few years at Trinity. When Caila reached out to me and we discovered that there was not only a serial assailant on campus, but that he would be returning, that’s when I realized that this was a problem much bigger than the two of us. I think for both of us, meeting each other and being able to reassure each other that everything that we had experienced was valid and horrible made us want to do something about it. One night, we just had the idea to start this Instagram to give other people a voice and to actually be heard. Since we knew we had felt so silenced, I don't think we knew it was going to blow up like it did.
TV: What has the response been like to the IG page? Do you feel it allowed survivors to band together and talk about their experiences more?
Caila French: It was almost scarily easy to get stories, which was honestly startling at the beginning. We had to put together a whole little team because it was just like hundreds of stories of survival. It was like reading our story over and over and over again. And it was re-traumatizing, I would say. But we were on a mission to get the voices heard.
TV: How has the school — both the administration and the student body — responded to you both speaking out about your assault?
JJ: Obviously, I'm hopeful that they take us seriously and actually implement the changes that we've been begging for for years at this point. But I have felt our voices really being uplifted by the student body. [Recently] some students, a lot of whom we don’t even know, put on a march in support of us. And there was actually a pretty big turnout. Seeing that and having some friends who are still on campus contact me to tell me how much this is being talked about between faculty and students, and how many people are feeling uplifted enough to share their own stories that are similar tells me that at least I think we're backed by the student body and that it's more than just the two of us who really want Trinity to make these changes.
CF: I completely agree. It's nerve-wracking to do something like this, but people have reached out to us after things went public with such an amazing and warm response. To see that our stories touched people and that people related to us actually makes me really emotional. I feel really good that we’re able to shine a light on these experiences and make people feel less alone.
TV: Trinity is a pretty sporty campus. Do you feel like that leads to special treatment for student-athletes?
CF: One thing that we did with TrinSurvivors was we were able to [anonymously] compile abusers and assailants into different social groups and put them all on a stat sheet. It really illustrated the problem of social hierarchy on campus and how that contributes to assault. When you know that your team or your frat is going to be backed up by the school, there are fewer consequences for your actions.
JJ: I think personally and through TrinSurvivors, we noticed the trend of a lot of repeat assailants, especially being related to sports and Greek life. It’s definitely something that you can feel on campus. The social hierarchy and how certain groups just feel a little more protected and backed up by the school is really embedded into Trinity’s culture.
(In an email to Teen Vogue, Cole said, “All students are held to the same standards of accountability and receive the same consideration when allegations of sexual misconduct are made. All students receive the same training regarding sexual misconduct prevention and awareness. There is no preferential treatment to athletes or members of a Greek organization in our procedures.”)
TV: Do you or other Trinity students have demands for the university in terms of responding to and preventing sexual violence at Trinity?
JJ: When we created TrinSurvivors, we made a really specific list of demands in relation to Title IX. It was a pretty long document that laid out all the changes we were hoping to see. More generally speaking, our demand is for survivors to be heard and taken seriously and for the process in the aftermath of assault to be more streamlined with the intent of supporting the survivors. If you read our case, you can see all the specifics of the ways that we were failed by the system. And those are really the problems that we want to fix. Obviously, we understand and really hope that there can be an improvement to the culture at Trinity that causes these incidents to happen. But even if they're going to happen, we want them to be dealt with in the appropriate way so that the people who are hurt can get the support they need and have action taken quickly to protect them in the aftermath.
CF: We also want transparency in these processes and for assault to be addressed as a pattern and as an issue that's bigger than just a couple of people reporting their experiences. We believe that a lack of transparency is a big tool in silencing and isolating survivors and that sexual assault needs to be discussed more freely.
TV: What do you wish more people knew about the culture of sexual violence on college campuses?
JJ: I think in the past four years at Trinity and probably across the country in higher education, there have been a lot more conversations about sexual violence. It's kind of been a buzzword to talk about these things, but there have also been a lot of empty words. Yeah, there have been lots of training and discussions, but it doesn't feel like these institutions actually want to listen to the people who have gone through it. It feels like whenever survivors speak up and say, “There's a problem with how this is being handled, personally or systemically,” that conversation gets shut down. And that's the conversation that's actually important. Colleges need to actually listen to the people who are experiencing this trauma and be there to support them. We've already been traumatized enough by what happened to us. We don't need to be re-traumatized by the institution that's supposed to be protecting us.
CF: Sexual assault on college campuses is often discussed in almost a scientific way. There is no space for the humans that are actually being impacted to be heard and to fully feel what has happened to them on an emotional level. People need to understand that a survivor's journey isn't linear. Schools will often put crazy expectations on students to be able to just push through and keep their heads up no matter what. I think campuses would really benefit from a softer approach giving everyone a lot more room and grace when recovering from something traumatic.
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