CARS-V and SAGES Demand Change at Fordham


ANDREW BEECHER/THE OBSERVER Students protest Fordham’s handling of sexual assault


On the evening of April 18, a small but impassioned group of students gathered on the Lincoln Center campus plaza to protest sexual violence, campus assault and Fordham’s mishandling of sexual violence committed within the Fordham community. The protest was organized by the Coalition Against Relationship and Sexual Violence (CARS-V) and the Students for Sex and Gender Equity and Safety (SAGES). This was the first protest to take place on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus this year, and was approved by Fordham as a part of CARS-V’s week of action.

CARS-V gained official club status this year, though not easily, according to club president Dia Kefalas, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’19. Kefalas stated that the process to be officially recognized took longer than it needed to, which affected their programming.

Dissatisfaction with Fordham’s handling of sexual assault cases was echoed throughout the protest, which opened by providing statistics drawn from Fordham’s 2016-2017 Campus Climate Survey. The survey included the finding that 92 percent of students who experienced sexual violence while at Fordham did not report their case to administration, as well as that 22 percent of Fordham students stated that they would not report a friend who had committed rape.

The organizers held handmade signs with statistics related to Fordham’s handling of sexual assault cases, as well as statements that expressed solidarity with survivors of sexual violence. One sign simply read, “STAND WITH SURVIVORS,” while another stated, “We need consent bystander education NOW.”

Organizers of the protest took turns sharing personal testimonials about their own experiences with sexual assault, and voiced their discontent with Fordham’s handling of their cases, eliciting tearful responses from many of the onlookers. Many of the protesters also claimed that Fordham had failed to follow through on their promises to penalize abusers.

Lis Ortiz, FCLC ’20, gave a testimony about their rape, and later expressed their personal experiences with Fordham administration. According to Ortiz, Fordham refused to let them remain on campus for fear that they would commit suicide due to their history with anxiety and depression. In regard to Public Safety, Ortiz said, “they called me hysterical, they said that they were going to have to restrain me.”

“This school didn’t protect me ― they victim-blamed me, and blamed it on my mental illness, and utilized that stigma around mental illness to label me as hysterical, which is so inappropriate, and so uncalled for,” Ortiz said.

After reporting their case to both Public Safety and the police, Ortiz’s mother received a call from the Director of Residential Life, Jenifer Campbell. Ortiz recalled the conversation between Campbell and their mother. “I really need to learn better coping mechanisms, because people’s parents were going to get mad that their children were spending more time with me than doing their own work and then eventually they’re going to get sick and tired of taking care of me, and eventually leave me — those were her words” Ortiz said in reference to Campbell’s message to their mother.

Campbell could not be reached for comment on the subject of the call.

Ortiz expressed concern with what they called “invalidating language” used by the administration when speaking to victims of sexual violence. “I urge them to educate themselves, and learn how to communicate effectively and make students feel safe. Even if it’s through something as simple as diction, changing their language, but then you can’t change your language, unless you change your mindset,” said Ortiz.

The speakers were unified in the belief that Fordham has not fulfilled their responsibility to protect their students and provide them with the resources necessary to feel safe in their learning environment.

“To hear that the people who are supposed to be taking care of us feel that way, it makes complete sense that people don’t want to report their cases to these people which is not the culture that you want to be promoting here, as common as it is; Fordham can do better,” protestor Margaret Cohen, FCLC ’20 said.

Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Keith Eldredge arrived to the protest before it started, but was asked to leave after a number of protesters voiced their discomfort with his presence. “Some people who planned to speak at the protest felt unsafe because of his presence, and they felt that if they were going to be surrounded by peers and community members who care deeply about this issue, they did not consider Dean Eldredge to be among them, and they asked me to ask him to leave,” explained Eliza Putnam, FCLC ’18.

Dean Eldredge originally requested to elaborate on this matter, but has not yet responded to multiple inquiries since.

Putnam, one of the members of SAGES, discussed student activism efforts at Fordham, stating, “the challenge is that, at Fordham, when students raise concerns about the wellbeing of their peers, and raise concerns about administrative policies, practices, programs or even individual administrators, instead of their voices being heard, and a conversation being opened up, those students tend to feel very — either actually invalidated and told that they shouldn’t be talking about this at all, or they’re just ignored.”

Student-run groups like CARS-V and SAGES feel that they are having to take on the job of the administration when it comes to creating a safer campus. “At a Jesuit school, when we say that we care for the whole person, when people are being harmed, we should be able to fill in, and try to help them, and that that’s not the case here is so disturbing. But we are just trying to fill in the needs at the most basic level,” Putnam said.

While some view the prospects of Fordham changing as dismal and demoralizing, many of the students in attendance have faith that their work will produce change, including Putnam. “I so much want Fordham to be a better place, and I believe that it’s going to happen. And everything that they’re doing in the meanwhile is hurting the school, and they’re going to realize that it’s not in their interest,” she said.

As the protest came to a close, the president of CARS-V, Dia Kefalas, FCLC ’19, asked the crowd, “When survivors are under attack, what do we do?” to which the group chanted in response, “Stand up! Fight back!”

The crowd gathered at the protest may not have been extraordinarily large in number, but their energy was abundant. They made their message clear: they are dissatisfied with Fordham’s handling of sexual violence cases, and they are not backing down until changes are made.