This story was originally published in the November 2021 Sexual Health and Safety issue of The DN.

The first week of college, especially for freshmen, is often a hectic, yet enjoyable, time. It’s filled with buying mountains worth of school supplies and waiting in what seems like an endless line to pick up textbooks. 

It’s a week of mapping out where classes are and making sure to not be late for them. Students are able to personalize their dorms and try their best to meet new people. For many, it’s the start of a heartening and memorable experience where they take their first real steps into adulthood in a safe, fun environment. 

The start of the 2021 academic year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was anything but that.

Following a sexual assault allegation that spread on the second day of the semester, protests erupted outside the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and against the culture of sexual violence on campus in general.

Since those highly publicized protests, conversations around sexual violence, ending rape culture and how UNL will address sexual misconduct have become central to student life.

Since 2015, 48 cases of sexual assault have been investigated at UNL, with the most common location being residence halls, followed by Greek houses, according to UNL Police Department data provided by a university spokesperson.

These cases were reported to have occurred since 2015:

  • 24 reports in residence halls

  • Nine reports in Greek housing

  • Seven reports from locations that could not be identified by the survivor

  • Seven reports at support facilities, fields, parking lots or academic buildings

  • One report at a UNL apartment

After years of sexual assault cases building up, for many students who gathered outside the fraternity and joined in nightly protests in August, the Phi Gamma Delta — commonly known as FIJI — allegation was the last straw. 

Amid these calls for action, University Housing, Greek life officials and top administrators like Chancellor Ronnie Green began taking action to prevent further cases.

In September, Green announced UNL would double the number of advocates from the Center of Advocacy, Response & Education from two to four; repurpose Neihardt Hall with more accessible facilities for CARE, the Women’s Center and LGBTQA+ Center; hire a director of education on sexual assault; renew a partnership with Voices of Hope, a group that offers free and confidential services to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other forms of abuse; and establish a new, mandatory sexual misconduct training that would be live and run by peer mentors, among other changes.

“These actions I’ve outlined tonight are just the first steps based on what I've heard from students, as well as from faculty and staff,” Green said when announcing the commitments. “We are committed to doing more and having an ongoing dialogue with our students across the campus.”

In instances where sexual assault occurred within a residence hall, Dustin Rollins, the director of residential education at UNL, said there are “numerous resources available” on campus for survivors to seek support. 

“Survivors can start by contacting their [resident assistant] or residence director for assistance and support,” he said. “Our staff will connect the student to the university’s Center for Advocacy, Response & Education advocates and, if they wish, university police and the Title IX office. We can also connect them with community resources such as Voices of Hope and the Friendship Home.”

In addition to reaching out to residence hall resources, survivors can seek confidential support through the Women’s Center, LGBTQA+ Center, Counseling and Psychological Services or by talking to a Counselor-in-Residence. 

“I think the issue of sexual assault is so systemic and it’s just the reality of the Red Zone, but I think more educational resources going towards the Center for Advocacy, Response & Education from university administration is good,” Association of Students of the University of Nebraska external Vice President Patrick Baker said. 

According to the UNL Police Department’s Daily Crime & Fire Log, there have been four reports of sexual offenses on the UNL campus since the beginning of August. Two of those occurred at Abel Hall and the others occurred at the Sigma Chi and FIJI fraternity houses.

Rollins said he and his team are aware of the “Red Zone,” the timespan between the first three months of the fall semester and Thanksgiving where reports of sexual assault spike on college campuses, accounting for more than 50% of all college sexual assaults. He said UNL Housing is constantly working to support students and prevent further cases.  

“We know that the Red Zone is one of the most dangerous times for sexual assault on college campuses. Our goal is to educate students about sexual violence to help break that cycle,” he said. “Our current guest policies and educational strategies continue to reinforce how students can be safe in the residential community and off-campus. We remain committed to ensuring that all staff are trained to support survivors of sexual assault.”

While survivors of sexual assault within Greek housing have access to the same support resources as those in residence halls, Greek councils have taken a different approach to the prevention of sexual assault. 

“Many of our chapters have worked with the Center for Advocacy, Response & Education to include presentations in their chapter meetings,” Leigh Thiedeman, the director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said in an email. “CARE also presented to all incoming fraternity new members during the Interfraternity Council’s Huskerman program in August.”

In addition to how UNL will support victims and provide resources to prevent sexual assault on campus, another topic discussed during speeches given at the August protests was changing the culture surrounding Greek life. Some attendees felt the culture itself possibly creates a breeding ground for sexual assault.

When The Daily Nebraskan asked Thiedeman if she believes there is a cultural element to sexual assault in Greek housing, she said they don’t have enough data to comment.    

According to Thiedeman, Greek chairs are planning to continue their efforts to provide education surrounding sexual assault to new and current members of fraternities and sororities. In addition, the Greek office will implement new measures for prevention and education as the Chancellor’s Commission for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct releases new strategies. 

“We are committed to creating a safe campus environment for our students, faculty and staff,” Green said in a statement in August announcing the then-temporary closure of FIJI. “No one should be a victim of sexual assault or harassment, and we have taken a number of steps to provide additional support and reporting mechanisms for our campus.”

Baker said he believes that Greek life and residence halls are making real steps toward change but also feels there is room for future growth.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily been successfully implemented yet, but I think the trajectory that we’re on and where we’re going to be in fall 2022 compared to where our programming was in fall 2021 is going to be far better.”

News reporter and photographer