Editor’s note: This story contains an account of sexual misconduct.
President Paul J. Fitzgerald S.J. was last week’s guest speaker at ASUSF Senate’s weekly general meeting. This was the first time Fitzgerald faced the student body since the release of the Sept. 30 Sports Illustrated story. The hourlong session was an open forum accessible to the public, and students were encouraged to attend. Attendees were also allowed to ask Fitzgerald questions during this time.
When asked to respond to the lack of proper consequences given to student perpetrators of sexual assault in the past, Fitzgerald said, “I do not personally participate in the disciplinary process.” Later on, when a student asked about a possible shutdown of the men’s soccer team, Fitzgerald stated that “there are no complaints against any current soccer player.”
A senator then asked Fitzgerald to address what the University is doing to mitigate this issue without placing the responsibility solely on students. Fitzgerald said, “It’s okay to trust the folks in Counseling and Psychological Services, it’s okay to trust Student Conduct or Title IX.” He emphasized that students needed to trust campus resources to resolve issues, but many students in the room voiced their opinion that there was not much confidence in those resources after past failures.
Sage (a pseudonym), a third-year student, attended the meeting and expressed their dissatisfaction with Fitzgerald’s remarks. “I’m not sure what I expected from Father Fitz, but the meeting was wholly disappointing.” Sage added that their disappointment with Fitzgerald’s address of this issue mirrored the students’ faces throughout the meeting.
“You could feel the collective frustration throughout the atmosphere,” said Sage, “Father Fitzgerald was very deflective whenever he was asked about the sexual assault issue on campus.” According to Sage, Fitzgerald offered mere lip service and an illusory listening ear, instead of truly listening to the concerns brought up by students and senators alike.
“A lot of what the administration is offering places the responsibility of resolving this issue squarely on the students,” Sage said. “They spend a lot more time marketing these resources to students [rather] than ensuring that there is trust between students and faculty, and that we actually feel safe enough to come forward.”
Alana Harrington, the executive assistant to the vice president of Student Life, also attended the meeting with Fitzgerald. When asked about her reaction, she said, “Based on the discussion tonight, we have a lot of work to do.” Harrington added that this is a responsibility that falls on the entire community, “I don’t think one person can do this work. I believe in circular leadership and we as a community need to address it.”
The following day, a vigil was held outside the President’s office at Rossi Wing on Lone Mountain. The community vigil, organized by It’s On USFCA, an organization that advocates for survivors of sexual violence at USF, was one of two events held Oct. 7. After beginning at Rossi Wing, the organizers led attendees in a candlelit march down to Gleeson Plaza, while distinct chants such as “student survivors over investors and buyers” and “student survivors over rapists and liars” rang from the crowd.
When the march arrived at Gleeson Plaza, the organizers engaged the crowd with the installation of red pickets in Gleeson Library’s front lawn, in order to represent the impact of sexual violence at USF. “These pickets represent a small portion of the many survivors to come through USF in the last decade and who attend currently,” the organization stated.
The vigil also included religious leaders from the University Ministry to help create a space for grounding and centering, and religious sermons were also given. Senior politics major Alana Beltran-Balagso, who is one of the student organizers, believed that while their sermons were well-intentioned, they did not present words of comfort to survivors. “If anyone was triggered by those words, know I was too,” said Beltran-Balagso. “At the end of the day, we all have unlearning to do regarding rape culture, but we all should acknowledge it instead of perpetuating it.”
When asked why she had participated as one of the organizers, Beltran-Balagso shared her own story of sexual violence. She had been at USF for two months as a freshman when she was raped in Toler Hall. “I chose my college by printing out a list of all the universities in the country that had high rates of sexual assault on campus. In the schools I was applying to, I crossed out every school that was on that list. And it still happened.” She added that before her assault happened, she had felt safe on campus because she thought she’d chosen “a school that was going to ‘change the world from here.’”
Beltran-Balagso’s view of USF changed after that. The culture on campus, fueled by the actions of the soccer team, became observably clear. “Once that door had been opened, I looked at the school differently, and suddenly I could see it everywhere,” said Beltran-Balagso. “It took me a long time to be able to walk on campus again and speak to people.”
She affirmed that her story propelled her into speaking out and becoming more involved in this issue. “I have everything I lost back and more. I just want to put that energy into making sure that as I leave this campus that more people don’t have to face this issue. And I know they will, but if we can even reduce it a percentage, that would make all the difference.”
Beltran-Balagso emphasized her group’s demands to the University and Father Fitzgerald, “Our demands are base level, but there needs to be more. Father Fitzgerald needs to apologize, but that can’t be the only action he takes.”