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USF responds to allegations of sexual violence

Posted at 12:33 AM, Jul 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-03 00:33:43-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- Concerns are being raised about sexual violence at the University of South Florida.

People are posting story after story on social media, describing experiences with sexual assault, while the university is responding to the allegations.

“Recently, there have been multiple posts on social media alleging incidents of sexual violence involving former and current University of South Florida students and some of our student organizations. I am deeply troubled by these serious allegations and have personally confirmed that these cases are under review by the university offices that are best positioned and trained to respond. Our processes are intended to provide support and resources to victims and also the level of due process rights all of us would expect to receive,” wrote the school’s president, Steven Currall.

Late June, Hailey Pendergrass said she saw a post involving the same person she says assaulted her while she attended USF several years ago. She said she felt she had to share her own story, which received thousands of interactions with the post online.

“I didn’t really think that my story was going to get so much attention, or that so many women would relate to it but I decided it was time to bring light to what I felt like was a misogynistic, racist, and even classist environment that was created by Greek life on college campuses,” Pendergrass said.

Pendergrass said she feels this should bring a call to action at USF, including in monitoring organizations more closely and in educating students about sexual assault, including coercion and consent. She also said that families also need to have conversations at home.

“I think there needs to be a conversation about what constitutes sexual assault and I think women need to feel more confident coming forward with their sexual assault cases. It’s also been shown that many women who do report their cases are put through a really difficult process of having to recount their experiences with sexual assault over and over again. And a lot of times in the justice system, we don’t see justice being served in these cases because of just all of the things that surface there’s not a lot of proof to show,” she said.

Pendergrass said she did not file a report in her case at USF.

Other people have also spoken out and ABC Action News is looking into their stories as well.

USF police said at last check, they haven’t had anyone come forward in the last couple days to start an investigation.

“I saw one of the first letters and then more students coming forward from there. At that point, we started looking at the names to see if we had had investigations if we had had processes and to analyze to make sure we had addressed appropriately. Some we had never had a report on and some were at different stages of processes and so I started notifying different offices on campus,” said Dr. Danielle McDonald, the assistant Vice President and dean of students at USF’s Tampa campus.

To start, Currall said he’s asked for a review of the school’s internal processes to see where they’re doing well and where they can improve. He said the Office of Student Success would be reaching out to students groups to reaffirm their expectations, that the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity will be in contact with the Greek Life system to collaborate on a climate assessment and that the vice president of athletics is committed to seeking proactive measures and training opportunities with students-athletes, coaches and staff.

“For me, it’s working with the student organizations, student leaders, student government to hear from the students about what their experiences are to be able to take that information and include that in some of the work we’re doing environmentally and across campus,” said McDonald.

McDonald said there are different opportunities for students to find support and resources.

“When we get that information, we don’t judge one way or the other, but that’s for a conduct process to deal with to find out whether somebody’s responsible or not. And just because somebody has been found not responsible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen either. It just meant there was not enough information or evidence to be able to come to that finding,” she said. “So I think it’s important for students to be able to know that no matter what we are believing that they have been through an experience and that they need support in that experience.”

The university said anyone can reach out to the Title IX office, including anonymously. The school’s Title IX coordinator said they’re conducting outreach to people bringing forward concerns, and providing support services.

“I think with the reports and the information that we’ve received, it helps to say maybe these are the specific areas we need to be doing something different and more work. And I think also that it’s brought to light to the students at USF that this is really an important issue. Again, we all take this very seriously from an administrative level and I think everyone at USF takes this very serious. But I think now that peers have the pressure of holding each other more accountable so showing up to these workshops, participating and engaging and acting as good bystanders in interrupting any of the potential instance of violence,” said coordinator Araina Muniz.

Pendergrass said in the wake of other stories shared, she feels obligated to make sure real change happens.

“I just hope there’s more action that comes from it I think that it’s important for them to look into it but I think it needs to be taken a step further, it’s not just we’ll look into this and we’re taking this seriously because anyone can say that but we want to see the actions of how are you going to put things into place,” she said.

The university president's full letter can be read here.