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The academic year has wound to a close, but student activists aren’t slowing down. In order to keep attention on sexual assault policy reform — an issue that has recently captured national headlines and inspired White House action — graduating seniors at elite universities are using red tape to make a big statement.
Red tape isn’t a new symbol for sexual assault reform. But it’s made a comeback at several colleges this commencement season, where students are placing it on their mortarboards as a symbol of solidarity with rape survivors whose cases may have been mishandled by their administrators. Some students used the tape to spell out “IX” as a nod to the federal gender equity law Title IX, which requires colleges to maintain a safe environment for students by addressing sexual assault.
The visual tool first originated at Columbia University in 1999 and 2000, when the students there were attempting to pressure their administrators to update the school’s inadequate rape policy.
“Throughout that school year, hundreds of Columbia students started wearing red tape on their wrists, their backpacks, and any other items they’d carry with them frequently,” Tracey Vitchers, the communications coordinator for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), a group that was first formed at Columbia, explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “It was supposed to symbolize the bureaucracy of the old policy, to symbolize administrators really shutting students’ voices out of the reform process, and really call attention to the issue at hand — the college is putting all this red tape in front of students.”
Back then, “red tape won’t cover up rape” became somewhat of a rallying cry for student activists staging protests on campus.
This year, tensions over campus sexual assault came to a head once again. A group of 23 Columbia students filed a federal complaint against their school, accusing administrators of failing to address victims’ needs and doling out lenient punishments to rapists. Frustrated with administrators who didn’t appear to be doing enough to keep students safe, some activists started writing the names of accused rapists on bathroom stalls. An anti-rape group tried to protest at an event for prospective students and was quickly shut down.
According to Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a junior at Columbia and one of the students who participated in filing the federal complaint this spring, current activists wanted to figure out how to keep putting meaningful pressure on the university officials. So they went back and looked at the way that sexual assault reforms had played out in previous years — and decided to bring back the red tape.
“We wanted to really claim that visual symbol and capture the contrast between our goal, which is the safety and well being of the whole student body, and the administration’s approach, which is more red tape,” Ridolfi-Starr told ThinkProgress. “Even now, they’re forming committees to review the committees, and they’re writing proposals on how to reform the committee to reform the committee, and nothing is changing for students. You haven’t fixed anything. It’s frustrating.”
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Students started using red tape to hang up fliers with demands for administrators. They put up big red X’s in prominent places on campus. They taped over the mouth of the statue in front of the library. And then they put out a call for students to wear the tape on their graduation caps.
“By placing a piece of red tape on your cap (ideally parallel to the right side), you will demonstrate and signal to the University that you do not accept your degree lightly, that you understand the culture that they have been complicit in perpetuating, and that you will not stand for it, and that you demand justice and support for all survivors, even as a graduate of this institution,” student activists, who formed a direct action group called No Red Tape, wrote in an open letter to the campus last month.
Soon, activists at Brown, Harvard, and Dartmouth reached out to coordinate a media strategy for staging their own red tape protests. Hundreds of graduating seniors participated. Stanford University, which held its commencement this past Sunday, was the latest elite institution where seniors donned red tape. According to Miranda Mammen, one of the students who participated in the protest at Stanford, about 100 people put red tape on their caps and there was “a lot of student support even among those who didn’t wear red tape themselves.”
“People were really excited about it, and it was very cool to see that replicated at other campuses,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “I’m confident that red tape will continue to be a symbol.”
“We’re really excited to see that students are taking the steps at their graduation to have a silent protest,” Vitchers said, pointing out that the recent activism surrounding commencement ceremonies could signal some positive momentum for the sexual assault reform movement as a whole. “I think we’ll start to see some of these students who are graduating starting to engage more as alumni in this process, which we’re looking forward to seeing. Alumni can be really powerful in helping to support student advocacy on campus.”
“Even as graduates of this institution, everyone has a responsibility to continue to fight for a safe Columbia,” Ridolfi-Starr agreed. “Graduation is an important day for people, and I think some felt like this day is sacred and should be free from protest. But I actually think that it becomes even more important on special days, and on ceremonious days, to continue to fight for what we know to be right. It’s important that we do it even when it’s hard.”