College Accused of Ignoring Threats Before Murder of Feminist Student 


A campus feminist group at University of Mary Washington has filed a federal complaint against the school, alleging that it ignored hundreds of violent threats against them on the anonymous app Yik Yak before one of their members, 20-year-old Grace Mann, was murdered in April. Mann’s 30-year-old housemate has been charged in the killing; there is, as yet, no evidence that the crime had any connection with the threats on Yik Yak.

Grace Mann, 20, was a member of the Feminists United Club and several other campus organizations; she was found dead at home April 17. Police say she died from asphyxiation by strangulation. Her housemate, 30-year-old Steven Vander Briel, has been charged with first-degree murder. Vander Briel fled the home after Mann was found unconscious. He surrendered to police after a two-hour manhunt, emerging from the woods near a local church. He remains in custody. Local reports say there was no romantic relationship between Mann and Vander Briel, who has been described in local news reports as an “on-again off-again” UMW student. He attended the school from 2002 to 2007 and had re-enrolled as a political science major for the spring 2015; he was briefly a member of the campus rugby team nine years ago, in 2006. .

The rugby part has become a large aspect of the story: as Jezebel’s Erin Ryan outlined in a March feature, UMW’s rugby team and the Feminists United Club have been embroiled in a bitter argument over a chant about having sex with a “dead whore” that some of the team members sang at a party (along with some female athletes and other non-rugby team members), and which FUC says made them feel unsafe. There were roughly ten rugby team members at the party, but the entire 46-person team was temporarily dissolved over the chant, which UMW’s president called “repugnant and highly offensive” in a statement to students and faculty.

Now, Huffington Post’s Tyler Kingkade reports that FUC members filed a complaint Thursday with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the school tolerated a sexually hostile environment against female students. (You can find the full complaint and its exhibits here.) As evidence, the complaint included some of the roughly 700 violent posts that FUC members say were posted on Yik Yak about them, including one that said, “Gonna tie these feminists to a radiator and grape them in the mouth.” (Yik Yak bans words like “rape,” but Kingkade observes dryly that its users seem to have found easy ways around that one.) Update, 11 a.m.: Several commenters have noted that “grape you in the mouth” is a reference to a really ridiculous Whitest Kids U Know comedy sketch,which gives it a different and much less threatening meaning here.

Kingkade writes that the online harassment started in November 2014, when FUC president Paige McKinsey criticized fraternities, and escalated after she publicly mentioned the rugby chant in a January op-ed, “Why UMW Is Not a Feminist-Friendly Campus.”

In March, McKinsey told Jezebel that she’d been approached by the president of the rubgy team and several of his teammates after the op-ed came out; the president, as she recalled it, said, “We’re open to chat whenever you want to,” and that she responded that she wasn’t interested in meeting. But Kingkade’s story has a different version of events, one where McKinsey says she explicitly asked them to stop using the chant and they ignored her: “When McKinsey replied that all she wanted was for the team to stop using the song, she said, he walked away.”

The question here is what—if anything—the Yik Yak threats and the rugby controversy had to do with Mann’s death. Although the two events are being rather sloppily connected in several media reports, Kingkade notes, “The complaint does not state the school is responsible for [Mann’s] death, nor does it explicitly connect the threats to her killing.” Sources close to the current UMW team members says none of them even knew Vander Briel: “Not a single one. Not a soul.” The person adds, “The guys are beyond ambushed by this.”

In the midst of this controversy and the shocking circumstances surrounding her death, everything that Mann accomplished in her life shouldn’t be forgotten. An obituary lists her as the beloved only child of parents Melissa and Thomas. A campus vigil celebrating her life brought out some 250 people, who spoke of her as a passionate activist for feminism and human rights, a staunch defender and advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and a devoted friend. In their obituary, the family asked that donations in her honor be made to the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault (RCASA), which has created a memorial page for Mann here.

Image via Wikipedia.

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