By Sandi Villarreal 2-10-2016

On Feb. 9, the day after more than 200 Baylor students, alumni, faculty, and staff gathered in front of university President Ken Starr’s campus residence for a candlelight vigil honoring the community’s sexual assault survivors, Starr released a statement on the school’s website saying, “We hear you loud and clear.”

Starr was not present for the vigil — according to an inquiry to the media communications office, he was in Washington, D.C., on university business.

His brief statement read: “You want us to continue to improve. And you want definitive, responsible actions after we receive the insights and recommendations from Pepper Hamilton. You have my word on both.”

“He’s kind of sitting in a burning room saying everything is fine,” said Stephanie Mundhenk, a recent Baylor alumna who organized the vigil after publishing her account of campus sexual assault and subsequent circuitous journey through the school’s Title IX process — one she says has failed her and countless other students.

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Photo by Shehan Jeyarajah

“I’ve had so many people — current Baylor students — message me saying ‘hey, me too,’” Mundhenk said.

During Monday night’s prayer service, a friend of Mundhenk's, who had that day reported a sexual assault to the school’s Title IX office, addressed those gathered. From the Waco Tribune-Herald ’s report:

“Why didn’t I report it until now? I was afraid,” she said. “With the past treatment of assault victims, I thought I had reason to be afraid. ... I was scared no one would believe me.”

She said she faces panic attacks daily.

“I’m starting to think it doesn’t have to be this way,” she added. “I felt so relieved when I walked out of that office, that I don’t have to bear this alone. ... Baylor, please don’t let my case fall through the cracks. Please don’t ignore any more victims and show us how you, as a Christian university, are going to lead the way through this cultural epidemic of assault.”

Dr. Laura Seay, a Baylor alumna and current Colby College assistant professor, helped author an open letter to the school administration — one that has garnered more than 1,650 signatures since Saturday. Seay said she has received countless private messages from Baylor alumni going back 30-40 years who say they were raped as students.

“They talked about how ‘I want to sign this because I want these women to have the justice that I never had access to,’” Seay said. She added that the school has come a long way — creating a Title IX office and implementing bystander intervention and education trainings. But Seay said it’s clear there is still a disconnect between intent and application.

“One of the things that’s started happening in the last 24 hours is that we’re seeing a lot of young women who are current students come forward,” Seay said. “… At the end of the day, what parents are asking questions about and what alumni are asking questions about is — is my kid safe?”

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Students, alumni, and others gather for a prayer service following Feb. 8 vigil.
by Shehan Jeyarajah

Seay said the organizers of the open letter plan to close signatures at 12 p.m. on Feb. 10 and deliver it to the executive board of the university as well as the school’s Board of Regents — who are gathering for their spring meeting this week.

Among the group’s requests — which includes providing more student training, ensuring consistency of Title IX policy applications to all survivors, and providing adequate access to resources and security for students — is transparency from the administration on how it intends to improve the Title IX process and ensure a safe campus for students. In letters to the Baylor community over the weekend and again in his Tuesday letter, Starr reiterated that the administration would not comment on policies and procedures until after outside consultants Pepper Hamilton concluded its internal review of the program.

“I understand that it takes time,” Seay said. “At the same time there are students on the Baylor campus today. Sexual assault is a problem on campus today. … You can’t wait on an investigation to improve what you’re doing.”

Mundhenk said she’s made that clear what those improvements should be, and the questions she wants answered — chalking nine of them on the sidewalks outside administrative offices. She also shared those questions in a post on her Facebook page, including, "Why are you waiting for investigation results to take more preventative action?" and "Where is our apology?"

On Monday night, Mundhenk instructed those gathered for the vigil to light a candle if they were a sexual assault survivor, if they knew a sexual assault survivor, or “if the breach in justice at Baylor had affected you in any way.”

“The volume of light was meant to indicate just how much of a problem this was in our community,” Mundhenk said. “These are not isolated incidents … there are hundreds of people affected by them.”

Mundhenk said she saw some members of the Baylor administration in the crowd at the vigil — in fact the official university Twitter handle tweeted out a photo of the event Monday evening — but that she had mixed feelings about the administration’s involvement.

“It was meant for them to see. But at the same time it felt so wrong to be holding a candle next to the person who denied my appeal.”

Sojourners was denied a request to interview Title IX Coordinator Patty Crawford regarding the school’s Title IX process and was directed to Starr’s letters to the Baylor community.

Mundhenk said Starr’s letters are not sufficient: “I understand if you can’t fix this, but at least tell us ‘sorry, we failed.’”

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor and Chief Digital Officer for Sojourners. You can find her on Twitter @Sandi.

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