As the administration vows "zero tolerance" of sexual assaults, students continue to protest – and clash over the school's response

By K.C. Baker
Updated November 26, 2014 04:15 PM
Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/AP

It was quiet Tuesday night on Rugby Road, the stately street lined with University of Virginia’s imposing red-brick fraternity houses.

In years past, fraternity members who hadn’t yet left for Thanksgiving would usually celebrate the night before the upcoming break. But since Nov. 22, the fraternities have been closed in the wake of an alleged gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi that came to light in a Nov. 19 Rolling Stone article.

As UVA officials vowed to put in place a zero-tolerance approach to sexual assault at the elite school, the community is in turmoil over what students and faculty say is a longstanding problem that has never been properly addressed.

“There’s a mix of emotions on campus,” says sophomore Defne Celikoyar, 19, co-founder of Alliance for Social Change, created just after students learned of the alleged 2012 gang rape and the lack of an adequate response from the administration.”There’s anger, shock, frustration, disappointment but also unity. People are coming together to change things.”

“We were sort of aware that some sort of rape culture was part of UVA.,” Celikoyar tells PEOPLE. “But I guess for the sake of having a good college life, some people chose to ignore it for so long.”

On Nov. 25, in response to mounting pressure from students, faculty and alumni who say officials have swept past campus rapes under the rug, the university’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, held a special meeting to discuss how to better address sexual assault on campus.

This type of conduct will not be tolerated at the University of Virginia, rector George Keith Martin said at the meeting. The status quo will no longer be acceptable. I am appalled, simply appalled.

University president Teresa Sullivan has asked Charlottesville, Virginia, police to investigate the alleged gang rape of a woman called “Jackie” in the Rolling Stone article, who says she was assaulted by seven men at Phi Kappa Psi. In his remarks, Martin apologized to the former student, who was a freshman at the time.

To Jackie and her parents, I say I am sorry,” he said. “To the survivors of sexual assault and their families, I am also sorry.”

Meanwhile, students kept up their protests, some spray-painting the front of the Phi Kappa Psi house with the words, “UVA Center for Rape Studies. Suspend us!”

“During one of our protests, one guy claiming to be part of a fraternity started yelling saying it made no sense that we were protesting because only seven guys allegedly did it,” Celikoyar says. “Someone was holding a sign that said, ‘Blame the system, not the victim!’ He said we couldn t hold the entire system accountable for it. We weren’t blaming the Greek system for what happened, because it’s not just seven guys who have raped a girl. So many people have been sexually assaulted not just at UVA, but everywhere.”

Still, closing the fraternities, potentially for the rest of school year, “is a harsh measure,” another female student says. “It’s punishing an entire system for what individuals have done. It isn’t fair to take this away from innocent people.”

But, she adds, “I would love to have a fraternity culture that is about friendship, support, and service, not about protecting members’ secrets. If a member commits a crime, why would we protect that person? Rape is a crime.”

“It’s upsetting to have this happen here,” one sorority member says. “We have such a great school. A lot of people are focused on how can we make it a better school in light of what happened.”

Other female students are saying they will just stay away from the fraternities altogether. “I don t feel safe here,” one 20-year-old student says.

Reporting by SUSAN KEATING

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