Sexual harassment during Derby Days sparks new drama at Ole Miss

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Billy Schuerman, The Daily Mississippian

Claire (Kaelee Albritton), left, discusses a sexual encounter she had at a fraternity house party with her friend Monica (Reagan-Mary Walsh).

The college sophomore rips off his shirt. He’s muscular, compact. His date lies on the bed below him, nearly passed out. As he falls forward onto her, the cross on a chain around his neck catches the light, a not so subtle reminder of the promises he’s about to break.

“God,” he says. “You’re so hot.”

Underneath him Claire’s arms swat the air. She tells him to stop. Either he doesn’t hear her, or he chooses not to.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

University of Mississippi senior John Brahan, author of the play ‘IX.’

In IX, a new play written by University of Mississippi senior John Brahan, a routine fraternity hookup mushrooms into something far more destructive after a female student blacks out, has sex and her best friend reports it as a rape to the Title IX office, which is federally mandated to handle any allegations of sexual misconduct on campus.

Brahan, majoring in Theater Arts and Public Policy Leadership, wrote the play for his senior thesis. It is being produced on campus through Monday by the student-run Ghostlight Reperatory Theatre. Brahan also has written a comparative analysis of sexual misconduct policies among SEC schools.

Although the play is framed with he said/she said views of the night and its fallout, the meat of the drama, and the play’s title, come from the Title IX investigation and how it impacts each student. It is not a flattering portrait.

But it’s an experience that Brahan knows well. In April 2016, his fraternity, Sigma Chi, made national headlines when a Facebook post from a female sophomore accused the emcees at its annual philanthropic event, Derby Days, of sexually harassing female participants. The eloquent post went viral, and in the days that followed, Sigma Chi’s president, Clay Wooley, found himself answering questions about his fraternity’s role in promoting rape culture on the campus. Wooley, who like Brahan is now a fifth year senior at Ole Miss, designed the sets and served as a consultant on the play.

“It was a bad incident,” Wooley said. “But we saw it as a good opportunity for education, for changing the way, especially the way, people in the fraternity talked about respect and inclusivity.”

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Clay Wooley, left, and John Brahan on the set of ‘IX.” Wooley, a University of Mississippi senior, designed the sets and served as a consultant on the play, written by Brahan.

Wooley said he quickly embraced the Title IX investigation as an opportunity for education within his fraternity. But he said the investigation results, which at Ole Miss are handed out by the conflict resolution board, missed the point — going heavy on penalties and light on educational reforms that, Wooley said, he hoped would actually help change things.

The fraternity ultimately appealed the decision and the final result was something that Wooley said “both sides were happy with.” But for Brahan, who was not directly involved in the negotiations, watching the Title IX process was extremely frustrating.

“Title IX, conflict resolution, all of them will say that (education) is the primary goal, helping students learn from mistakes,” Brahan said. “But when (the decision) came back, that’s not what it did at all.”

In IX, the male protagonist, Tripp, seems lost after hearing he has been accused of rape for, as he puts it, “just (having sex with) a drunk girl.” Brahan said he saw similar reactions after Derby Days, with some of his friends not even recognizing the harassment until people outside the school pointed it out to them.

“So that struck me. A lot of people didn’t realize that this society that we surround ourselves with is rape culture.”

Education on this topic is important to Brahan. So while he said his play is in part a critique of the Title IX process, what he wants most is to get students on campus talking about sexual assault in a way that they don’t usually.

“Change isn’t not doing something because you don’t want to get caught,” Brahan said. “Real change is when you realize what you’ve been doing is morally wrong. And that comes from having conversations that, right now, we’re not having.”

Changing the conversation

But 18 months ago, in the wake of the Derby Days incident, many people at Ole Miss were having these conversations. And for a while, it seemed they might continue to have them.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

In April 2016, Alexis Smith, left, Abby Bruce and Clay Wooley discuss how to positively address sexual harassment on the Ole Miss campus.

Less than a week after the allegations of sexual harassment went viral, Wooley and the author of the Facebook post, Abby Bruce, began meeting privately, along with a handful of other students. Their goal, they said at the time, was to change the culture of sexual harassment on campus.

“It’s about keeping up the conversation, not letting it die, especially through the summer,” then-sophomore Alexis Smith, who worked with Wooley and Smith on ideas, said at the time.

But ultimately the conversation did die, and the status quo has largely resumed, according to several students who spoke with Mississippi Today.

“I don’t think things have changed,” said sophomore Andrew Newman. “They might even be getting worse.”

Some students said this hasn’t surprised them. But Carrie V. Smith, associate professor of psychology who teaches a class on gender and Greek culture, said she was hoping the Derby Days moment would have more impact.

Carrie V. Smith, Instructional Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Mississippi

“Derby Days happened and everyone was like, ‘This is the thing. This is going to change how we look at these incidents,'” Smith said. “Even I was. But I don’t think it was. I don’t think we’ve had that thing on campus yet.”

Part of the problem, according to Smith, is that the entire student body turns over every four years.

“So student memory is short. Half the campus wasn’t here for Derby Days. Faculty and staff have long memories but students do not. And that makes it hard to affect change,” Smith said.

Smith compares the Derby Days incident to the allegations of sexual harassment that erupted against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in 2016.

“And people thought the Fox News (allegations), that was going to change things, make women less afraid to come forward. And it didn’t. And who’s to say when that boiling point is. Fox News was bad. Derby Days was bad. And now with (Harvey Weinstein) there might actually be some kind of change,” Smith said.

In October, The New York Times reported numerous allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then scores of women have stepped forward to accuse the mogul of assault and rape. And similar accusations from hundreds of other women have toppled the careers of other media titans.

Like the allegations against Ailes, however, the complaints against Derby Days were also based on sexual harassment, not assault. So, Smith admits, the question then becomes what will it take to change the conversation at Ole Miss?

A preponderance of evidence

In the first two months of this semester, University police received five reports of campus sexual assault. In the entire calendar year of 2016, just six assaults were reported.

Lindsey Mosvick, a violence prevention coordinator at Ole Miss, said she doesn’t believe the increase in allegations of assault is an indication that these events are increasing. Rather, she believes students feel more comfortable coming forward.

Lindsey Mosvick, assistant director of the Office of Violence Prevention, University of Mississippi

Part of this, she says, is due to changes in the national conversation, with female students at other universities publicly acknowledging they had been victims of sexual assault. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men also have decreased the stigma against speaking out.

“The more aware students get about the issue, the more comfortable they feel talking about it with their friends, and that leads to more students then reporting it,” Mosvick said.

So while there’s little evidence that the culture itself may be changing at Ole Miss, Mosvick said she believes student reactions to it are starting to shift. Students may no longer be speaking about Derby Days, but she said the event was one of the first to “elevate the conversation.”

“Students started engaging in new conversations they hadn’t had before,” Mosvick said.

Although a Title IX investigation can run concurrently with a police investigation, the two are very distinct with their own systems and definitions of guilt. In 2011, the Obama administration ordered sweeping changes to the Title IX system, aimed at making sexual assaults easier to report and pursue. Colleges and universities were ordered to install an administrator, known as the Title IX officer, whose job is to investigate all allegations of sexual misconduct.

But the most sweeping change was the one that hinges on the threshold for guilt, or as it is understood in Title IX lingo, “responsibility.” In the legal system, evidence must conclude “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a person is guilty. The Obama administration dramatically lowered that threshold for allegations of sexual misconduct on campus.

Instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the conflict resolution board must conclude that there is a “preponderance of evidence” that the accused is responsible for the assault or harassment. In the play IX, the Title IX officer, Mr. Williams, explains it to Tripp as a threshold of just 50.1 percent.

Tripp is horrified that his college career could be derailed by a difference of “just point-two percent.” The move has proved controversial on the national stage as well. Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced plans to roll back some of the Obama-era Title IX mandates. One of the most important changes, according to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is dropping the directive that all colleges and universities must use the standard of a “preponderance of evidence.”

Billy Schuerman, The Daily Mississippian

Tripp (Joshua McLemore), accused of rape in ‘IX,’ meets with campus Title IX officer Mr. Williams (Sabastian Burks).

IX‘s author, John Brahan, paints the Title IX system as inherently flawed. At the end of the play, no one winds up better off. The process, which is supposed to be confidential, is anything but on a campus where, as one character puts it, “everyone knows everything.”

While Tripp is found not responsible, the stigma of the investigation gets him kicked out of his fraternity, and leadership positions that had seemed like obvious next steps are now far out of reach. Meanwhile, struggling to prove her own lack of responsibility costs Claire friends, and it seems, a level of self-respect.

Despite his criticism of the Title IX process, however, Brahan, who worked closely with Ole Miss’s Title IX officer while writing his play, is still an advocate of the system.

“I think Title IX speaks for itself in how (unintentionally harmful) it is. But I do think it’s the best thing we have.”

This is why he said he’s very concerned with the Trump administration’s decision to take the teeth out of current Title IX mandates. One of the reasons he believes Title IX is so unintentionally detrimental to students is that the investigation process is deeply at odds with current campus culture.

“They’re incompatible. The culture needs to catch up with Title IX. But when we have the system being changed at the upper levels so it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, how is the culture going to change?”