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USF president launches inquiry after allegations of sexual violence on campus

Steve Currall said he is "deeply troubled" by a flood of allegations on Twitter describing multiple attacks in recent years.
Students walk near the reflecting pool at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where president Steve Currall is reviewing university procedures following allegations of sexual violence on campus.
Students walk near the reflecting pool at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where president Steve Currall is reviewing university procedures following allegations of sexual violence on campus. [ Times (2016) ]
Published Jul. 2, 2020
Updated Jul. 3, 2020

University of South Florida president Steve Currall on Wednesday moved to address mounting allegations on social media this week that numerous current and former students have suffered sexual violence in recent years and found little help when they complained to school officials.

In a statement issued on Twitter, Currall said he was “deeply troubled” by the accounts and has directed “a review of our internal processes to reinforce what we are doing well and identify where we can improve.”

USF president Steve Currall said the allegations made by current and former USF students are “under review by the university offices that are best positioned and trained to respond.”
USF president Steve Currall said the allegations made by current and former USF students are “under review by the university offices that are best positioned and trained to respond.” [ PENDYGRAFT | Times (2019) ]

The university, he said, also will move on several fronts to engage with fraternity and sorority leaders, as well as those in Student Government and the athletic department “to reaffirm our expectations and our goal to have campuses free of sexual violence.”

He said the allegations made by scores of women are “under review by the university offices that are best positioned and trained to respond.”

The announcement follows a series of events that escalated June 23 on Twitter, when Chelsea Engel, a 23-year-old former USF student, recounted a 2017 sexual assault. She named her alleged attacker and invited others to share similar stories.

Her post was retweeted hundreds of times, which led to others coming forward in tweets that were shared thousands of times. Engel’s direct messages were flooded with people saying they had experienced similar attacks.

A few days later, a USF Survivors account had been set up on Twitter and organizers had created a Google document listing more 200 men accused of sexual violence, some with multiple instances.

Engel said she has learned of at least 30 women who said they had been raped by the same man she accused of raping her, a fraternity member with the Theta Alpha chapter of Sigma Nu. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the man because he has not been charged with a crime related to these allegations.

A statement from Sigma Nu’s national office stated the organization was working with USF to investigate the chapter and invites anyone with related information to contact headquarters@sigmanu.org or USF’s Title IX Office.

“Sigma Nu Fraternity denounces violations of human dignity, including sexual assault, as the antithesis of its principles of love, honor, and truth and its mission to develop ethical leaders,” the statement said.

In interviews with the Times, some of the women recounted a pattern: An attack followed by denials from the accused, attempts by the accused to characterize the interaction as consensual, a failure of sororities to stand by their own members, and, in some cases, a failure by school officials to act.

Some tweets included screenshots of group chats with men sharing videos and bragging about what happened to their other fraternity members. Two women said they became depressed and suicidal after finding little to no support after the attacks.

Engel said she did not think her tweet would have such an effect. But she said it was only the beginning of a cultural change that needs to happen on a campus that emphasizes Greek life.

Engel said she was lying in bed June 23 when she was listening to an interview with someone who had accused a celebrity of rape. The girl was apologizing and crying. Engel felt like she was having a panic attack.

She said she thought she had healed and moved on from the 2017 incident, which occurred shortly after she had joined the Tri-Delta sorority at USF. She didn’t feel like she had been making friends easily, and a popular fraternity member reached out to her on Twitter.

She said he would flirt with her online, but she would shut it down, telling him she had a boyfriend. The night she broke up with her boyfriend, he messaged her. She told him she was going out with friends and he showed up. She told him she didn’t want anything to happen and that she just wanted to drink with friends. She said he told her he understood.

He and all her friends went back with Engel to her apartment that night. She said she can’t prove she was drugged, but believes she was. At one point in the evening, the friend raped her, she said. The next morning, she drove everyone home in silence. She said she told her friends what happened, and they were supportive, but her concerns were dismissed by her sorority sisters.

“I felt like I was being ostracized,” Engel said. “People don’t want to believe that someone they like would do something like that. They prioritized their relationship with his fraternity over my experience.”

Engel tried to continue at the sorority, but said watching the people she called sisters continue to socialize with the man she told them had raped her stung. She thought about reporting it officially, but didn’t think it would do any good. If her sisters didn’t believe her, no one else would, she reasoned.

“It would be ‘he said, she said,’” she said. “And he had so much influence. He would have people to say I’m a liar. I just had my two friends who were with me.”

Her decision also was influenced by a previous experience, when she reported a USF classmate who had been stalking her. She reported it through the university’s Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention.

They asked her if she had told him clearly to stop. She said she didn’t feel comfortable engaging someone who might have violent tendencies. They told her they couldn’t help her unless she did. She confronted the student, who screamed at her in class and she ended up having her professor escort her to her car after class for the rest of the semester.

The university “didn’t do anything,” Engel said. “I felt very let down by the system (that was) supposed to protect me.”

Engel said she eventually dropped out of the sorority and grew increasingly isolated.

However, last week, as she listened to the interview about the celebrity case, she felt compelled to let her emotions out and wrote it all down. Then she tweeted it.

One woman who came across Engel’s tweet said she felt a flood of emotions: rage and then guilt for not speaking up earlier. Because of the nature of the allegations, the Times agreed to quote her using her first name and last initial. Hailey P. posted her own USF story, which was retweeted more than 2,000 times.

The same man had raped her in 2016, she said. So did another member of a different fraternity.

“I felt very alone and scared to speak out,” Hailey P. said. “I know how many cases that are brought further never find justice. It just felt impossible. And both of those men were wealthy. It just felt like I was up against the world. ... I certainly didn’t feel support from my sorority.”

Others who shared stories said the issue extends well beyond Greek life.

Payton Booker, 24, shared her experience as a 19-year-old student at USF. She had been an resident assistant who was mandated to report instances of sexual violence, but many didn’t know her own story. She felt a duty to share it as a woman of color, whose voices, she said, are often overlooked in movements like #MeToo.

“I wanted people to know that these kinds of things happen to people,” she said. “People have said you look bubbly and happy, but you never know what someone has been through.”

Booker said she hopes movements like this will normalize talking about sexual assault for everyone, including men and LGBT communities. She said she has sought therapy since then and lives in Los Angeles. She was struck reading an instance of someone who shared an experience from 11 years ago.

“It affects people more deeply than people think,” she said. “To a perpetrator, it may be one night, but that person is wearing the scars with them for the rest of their life.”

Another woman said many Black and brown women feel erased from the conversation, which they say they started on a private GroupMe chat before it picked up momentum on Twitter. Taliya A., a USF senior, said a Black woman started the chat almost a month earlier, sharing names of alleged rapists. The group was meant to stay private, she said, but screenshots were leaked and shared with abusers. The chat was shut down and the conversation moved to Twitter, where Taliya A. and other Black women shared their stories as victims of sexual violence.

Her full name is not being used because of the nature of her allegations.

“It took white girls coming out to gain traction, but it was being talked about before,” she said, adding that social media is a valuable tool for elevating conversation. “If social media has to be the way it gets talked about, that’s the way.”

In response to the swell of allegations, USF’s Panhellenic Society tweeted a statement saying it stands with victims and pledged to do better. “We hear you, we believe you, and stand with you,” the statement said.

USF’s Intrafraternity Council tweeted a statement saying victim blaming would not be accepted.

USF’s Sigma Nu, the chapter whose member was one of the accused, tweeted it was shocked and condemned the allegations.

Engel said the statements from the Greek organizations were not enough.

“I have constantly felt as though the university prioritizes their reputation over the safety of students when it comes to this,” she said.

USF’s Dean of Students Danielle McDonald said the university takes the allegations seriously and had not heard of many of the instances until they came to light online.

“It’s disheartening to know students had these experiences and felt like they could not be supported or report them and that is something that will be addressed,” she said.

All student leaders, faculty and administrators are required to report to the Title IX Office when someone discloses an instance of sexual violence, with the exception of employees deemed confidential that work in the Center for Victims Advocacy, the Student Ombudsman’s Office and Counseling Center on campus.

Students can also directly report instances of sexual violence online to the Title IX Office.

Both the accused and the accuser have rights, said Araina Muniz, Title IX coordinator for USF. Cases can be referred to Student Conduct, where repercussions range from warnings to expulsion. But even if the case results with no finding, Muniz said the office can take measures to help victims, such as helping with their course schedules or residence hall placements to avoid interaction with the accused.

Victims may also directly report to law enforcement. The University Police department said they had three instances of reported rape last year and nine in 2019. Cases investigated by the department that end in arrest or a warrant pursued are then turned over to the State Attorney’s Office.

The office’s spokesman, Grayson Kamm, said the office currently has two open cases involving USF. Sexual violence cases, he said, are often challenging to prosecute given the time lapse in reporting an instance that often offers evidence but can be an emotionally turbulent time for a victim. Finding corroborating evidence to prove an act was nonconsensual, he said, can also be difficult.

“It’s difficult, but not impossible,” he said. “...We don’t shy away and just say ‘Ok, bye bye.' There is a special victims unit that knows this law better than any attorney.”

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Need help?

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.

Other resources:

USF Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention: Phone: (813) 974-5756; Crime Victim Helpline (813)974-5757; Email: va@admin.usf.edu

USF Counseling Center: (813) 974-2831.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).