Sarah King, Virginia Commonwealth University

This interview is part of our Activist Profile series, which documents the work of student activists and/or organizers in their own words. Email us at knowyourIX [AT] gmail [DOT] com (subject heading “ACTIVIST PROFILE”) to suggest the fab student we should profile next.

Also, be sure to check out our guide for journalists and editors on writing about Title IX.

Photo courtesy of Sarah King

Photo courtesy of Sarah King

By Anna Walsh

Sarah King is a sophomore with junior academic standing at Virginia Commonwealth University who is majoring in political science with a minor in philosophy of law. She is the news editor of her school’s independent student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times, which was named the best small non-daily newspaper in Virginia by the Virginia Press Association last spring. In September she wrote a news article that detailed the ways in which the university administration had mishandled a sexual assault investigation. Her work poignantly testifies to the power of student media in confronting Title IX violations and sexual assault in the campus setting.

“Student media has the ability to shape and create meaningful conversations in a way that national media doesn’t because the campus community is suddenly much more cognizant that this is not just a them problem; it becomes an us problem that can no longer be ignored.” –Sarah King

Anna Walsh: How did you get involved in investigating and reporting on Title IX?

Sarah King: The recent national media attention, on sexual trauma survivor narratives has catalyzed critical conversations about Title IX issues. As a survivor of rape and perpetual sexual harassment by a teacher in high school, I have never had the luxury of dismissing these topics as just another hot-button Facebook issue. My experiences with sexual assault and harassment have become woven into my self-identity, percipience, and grit. Evening news cycles and 700-word articles riddled with statistics do not begin to convey the daily realities of sexual assault. Ignoring these issues because they are inconvenient, difficult, or polarizing does not make them any less prevalent or important. Turning a blind eye does not make sexual discrimination, harassment, or assault go away.

I began reporting on Title IX issues because I feel morally obligated to ensure these topics do not dissipate from the public agenda as quickly as they became a part of it. I am not willing to passively slough off responsibility for this phenomenon by being silent or perpetuating the victim-blaming attitudes that permeate personal politics.

As a teenager I was unaware that I did not have to feed myself twisted rationalizations or muscle my way through my circumstances. I did not know that I was not alone, that I had rights, or that Title IX law even existed. I report on these topics because nobody should have to endure these traumas.

AW: What sort of response have you seen on campus so far to your work, both in the student body and the administration?

SK: I think my article, “VCU’s tenuous claim to Title IX transparency,” put a lot of contentious and uncomfortable truths in black and white for the first time. The story described the haphazard Title IX process a university employee had to endure while participating in an internal investigation of a tenured faculty member.

Before the story published, I had no idea what response to expect from the campus community. I was mentally prepared to face anything from the threat of a libel suit to complete indifference. Much to the surprise of everyone involved with the story, the article was well received. Two days after the article’s online debut, the editor of RVA magazine called me asking permission to republish my story on their website. A number of students and faculty also approached me and asked that I share their positive reactions and gratitude with the survivor/employee for bravely sharing her experiences. One professor even taped the story to her office door right after it printed.

In contrast, the administrative reaction was considerably less vocal or visible. University public relations never contacted me, which is a good thing. The original article was not linked to the VCU PR website’s “VCU in the News” tab, but the RVA magazine adaptation was included a few days later—a gesture that I think is noteworthy and humbling on the university’s behalf. The survivor/employee also informed me after the article published that, at the insistence of the Board of Visitors, she had met with the new university Title IX team to discuss the former team’s approach. She mentioned that among other modifications, the new Title IX team includes professionals who are experienced in working with sexual assault survivors, and the entire team has adopted a more victim/survivor-centered approach.

Furthermore, after the VCUPD recently issued a crime alert involving multiple sexual assaults at an off-campus party, VCU president Michael Rao personally issued a follow-up email pledging that the “strongest university sanctions will be imposed if wrongdoing is found.” It is the first time since I’ve been at VCU that the president has personally acknowledged a sexual assault in the campus community. Also for the first time this year, students are required to complete a mandatory online module addressing Title IX-related topics. The VCUPD has made small adjustments in their public outreach initiatives, including more survivor-centered rhetoric in the crime alerts they now issue involving instances of sexual assault.

Overall, I think the public reaction to the article was positive, and I’m proud to be in a community that is willing to take progressive measures to rectify shortcomings, even when that means embracing the difficult and uncomfortable.

AW: How do you think student media can shape and create conversations about sexual assault on campus?

SK: I think student media can be an incredibly powerful tool on campus because it is one of the most intimate platforms for the student voice. In contrast, I think one of the most common misconceptions regarding topics of sexual assault is that people don’t believe it will happen to them, or to people they’re close with, or on their campus, or that they might even be partially responsible for sustaining a campus culture conducive to these claims. I think student media has the unique ability to create conversations that debunk these notions because of the sheer proximity such publications maintain with their audience.

The narratives of sexual assault, the silencing of survivors, and instances of institutional wrongdoing are not limited to Rolling Stone and Washington Post articles. They are lurking everywhere. This is going to continue so long as silence permeates communities.

This is where I believe student publications have potential to institute change. Student media has the ability to shape and create meaningful conversations in a way that national media doesn’t because the campus community is suddenly much more cognizant that this is not just a them problem; it becomes an us problem that can no longer be ignored.

AW: What advice would you give to other student journalists who want to write about Title IX on their campus in a responsible, victim-centered way?

SK: I think taking a victim-centered approach should be their central focus. Ignoring this critical consideration completely undermines the premise and relevance of the topic. When I met with the survivor/primary source in my article I made it clear that I would not turn on the tape recorder until she felt comfortable, and anything she shared with me before I began recording was strictly off the record. Similarly, I let her know that she shouldn’t feel obligated to share anything she wasn’t comfortable with, and that if a particular question was too uncomfortable or triggering she had every right to tell me she did not want to answer. Furthermore, anything we talked about either on or off the record stayed strictly between the two of us.

The resulting interview lasted nearly four hours. For the first two hours she talked me through her experiences chronologically and off the record, including additional context and details she didn’t feel comfortable with me putting in print but thought I should be aware of. I recorded the latter half of our interview, and she again detailed her experiences chronologically while this time referencing the various official documents she had compiled for me.

I had also promised the survivor/source before our interview that I would fact-check anything directly pertaining to her or what she had shared with me before the article went to press. The Commonwealth Times prohibits any form of prior review, so I had to extract the portions of copy that were specific to the survivor and sent this to her in bulleted form via email, and she replied with any clarifications she thought might be necessary. While this process was extremely rigorous, I wouldn’t have been content, for her sake or mine, with approaching the article any other way. As a survivor myself, the last thing I wanted the survivor to feel was exploited in any capacity.