At Case Western, Sexual Assault Survivors Band Together To Push For Change
Zoë Büki was a freshman at Case Western Reserve University when she was assaulted. She was hanging out with a group of students and ended up alone with one of the guys in her dorm room.
“I told him directly ‘I don’t want to have sex.’ But we made out a little bit, and we still had sex,” she said.
Her tone belies the pain and anguish she’s experienced since that happened in October 2018. Now, Büki is one of three survivors who has started a group with the goal of helping other sexual assault victims through the Title IX process – the federal law that addresses gender equity and governs reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses.
Students are accusing Case Western Reserve University of mishandling serious allegations of sexual misconduct, saying their assaults have not been properly investigated and they feel dismissed by university officials.
At Case Western, Büki says going through Title IX was like pulling teeth.
“The school just really doesn’t support you, so we want to be that support system. And we don’t wanna have to need the school to feel supported. We have each other,” she said.
Büki and other survivors aren’t alone in feeling like this. Stories like theirs blew up over the summer with the creation of an Instagram account called CWRU Survivors, which began posting anonymous stories of sexual assault on Case Western’s campus in July. In less than two weeks, they received more than 600 submissions.
“I genuinely didn’t think that there were going to be this many stories,” Büki said.
Büki says her experience with the Title IX process was overwhelming. She originally did not want to file a report, but an adviser filed one for her per Title IX regulation. From there, her case was muddied.
Büki’s perpetrator hired a private investigator and even attempted to sue Case Western over the investigation.
“I did get a lawyer though, because obviously I was in way over my head when it came to him suing the school like first reaction,” she said.
Survivors of sexual assault on college campuses having to hire lawyers to get through the Title IX process is not uncommon these days. Teresa Stafford, the chief advocacy officer at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said she's seeing more and more survivors engage with attorneys, in part due to an increase in offenders hiring attorneys.
“The power dynamics at play for that survivor put that survivor in a situation where nobody is speaking up for them, and that survivor might not be able to put forth the best case in that situation, unless she has legal representation,” Stafford said.
Another survivor of sexual assault at Case Western, who did not want WKSU to use her name, agrees.
“I do believe that the other party had the upper hand throughout the process, because I did not have a lawyer,” she said.
The student was sexually assaulted in April 2019. She filed a Title IX report in October 2019, and her investigation, which per Title IX was supposed to last 60 days, went on for eight months.
Title IX requires reporting to police, but both she and Büki said they were urged by Case Western police not to press charges.
At the Case Western disciplinary hearing in May—even after she hired a lawyer—her alleged perpetrator was found not responsible. She says it was absolutely heartbreaking.
Since then, she has been working with Büki on the group for survivors.
“People don’t even really talk about sexual assault, because it’s such a taboo topic already, that people don’t know other people that have gone through the same thing," she said. "And it can be very therapeutic to, I guess, connect with other survivors."
Although Büki’s perpetrator was ultimately found responsible and suspended from Case Western for two semesters, she was angry with how the university handled the investigation. She says her lawyer was the only person who truly advocated for her.
"It sucks that the person who advocated for me the most cost me $10,000,” she said.
Büki’s perpetrator can return to campus this semester. Case Western is supposed to provide her assurance that nothing will happen again, but when she brought this up with Darnell Parker, senior associate vice president of the Title IX Office, Büki said he just made a joke.
Büki says it’s painful to talk to him. “He was just so invalidating,” she said.
No one from Case Western would agree to an interview. In a statement, the university expressed sympathy for students who experienced sexual assault and announced the creation of a university task force to advance a “broad culture of respect on campus.”
The students don’t feel that’s enough.
Not all of what Büki and other survivors experienced through their investigations are unique to Case Western. And as difficult as things are, they may get worse. Changes to Title IX by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are making sexual assault cases harder to pursue by narrowing the scope of complaints colleges are required to investigate.
These changes also give more rights to perpetrators accused of sexual assault and fewer rights to survivors.
Although Büki knows the possibility of changing Title IX at the federal level is slim, she hopes creating the support system for other survivors, which she never had, will make a difference.