Fordham students rally for change against backdrop of sexual assault lawsuits

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The Bronx Times placed second statewide in education coverage in the New York Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. Included in the coverage was an off-campus protest of alleged sexual assaults at Fordham University.
Photo Aliya Schneider

F.U. Do Better, a group of students speaking out about sexual violence at Fordham University — and the institution’s response to such incidents — rallied together for the first time on Saturday.

About 30 students — most, but not all, young women — gathered at Fordham Plaza at 1 p.m. before marching to the university’s Southern Boulevard entrance. The group visibly grew over the next hour, at one point doubling, according to organizers.

“What do we want?” “Accountability!” “Who do we want it from?” “Admin!” they shouted together, along with chants about believing survivors and protecting students.

Throughout the march, organizers gathered signatures they plan to present to university administrators with a list of demands, largely about the university’s Title IX process. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — such as sexual assault — at educational institutions that receive federal funding. Group organizers said they are “disturbed by and frustrated with the consistent protection of perpetrators of sexual violence at Fordham University.”

Hannah Quinn, Maddie Newall and Ellen Sweeney, three Fordham University juniors, started F.U. Do Better less than a week before the rally, on Sunday, Nov. 28, after reading a Bronx Times article about Julianna Czernyk, 22, a recent Fordham graduate. Czernyk is suing 22-year-old Michael Bongiovanni, another former Fordham student now attending New York Law School, alleging he raped her in 2020. According to the civil complaint, filed in Bronx Supreme Court, the university’s response to her reported assault was severely inadequate.

The F.U. Do Better founders had also recently learned about a federal lawsuit against the university filed over the summer by Francis Austin, a former Fordham student who attended the university’s Naval Reserve Officers Training.

Ellen Sweeney (red jacket), motions toward Fordham’s fenced-in campus as she leads other students in Saturday’s march with Maddie Newall (front) and Hannah Quinn (right). Photo Aliya Schneider

In the lawsuit, Austin, who is gay, claims Fordham administrators and faculty members mocked and scorned him, called him a liar because he had previously complied with the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, threatened him with hard labor in military prison, made him pay back his scholarships and forged a psychological report about him after he spoke up about being raped by his sophomore-year roommate in February 2011.

According to the complaint, Austin’s alleged perpetrator, Patrick Sweeney — the son of an esteemed Fordham alumni who is a U.S. Military attorney and writer of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy — is serving in the U.S. Marine Corps without facing consequences for what the 171-page complaint describes as a brutal assault.

The university misrepresented an investigation of the incident and relied on fake documents in a byzantine scheme against Austin, the suit claims.

“Fordham University has robust and fair Title IX and sexual misconduct policies and procedures developed in compliance with relevant state and federal laws,” university spokesman Bob Howe told the Bronx Times. “Because the processes are confidential, the University cannot disclose the rationale for its findings in any given case. As an institution, Fordham must be directed by the law.”

While the two aforementioned cases inspired the formation of F.U. Do Better, organizer Sweeney — no relation to Patrick Sweeney — emphasized on Saturday that the rally wasn’t about one specific case, as the organizers believe rape culture is ubiquitous on campus. 

In fewer than five days, the group’s Instagram page received more than 400 followers.

“Where are your Jesuit values now?” one sign reads, referencing the university’s Jesuit label. “This is what you call good faith…? Yikes,” reads another. Photo Aliya Schneider

As the group’s followers continue to grow, students look to Fordham administration with ideas for change.

The first of the group’s demands are for students to have multiple options for the initial point of contact with the Title IX office, saying public safety is male-dominated and the current and former Title IX coordinators are men.

“Survivors of sexual violence by men are hesitant to be surrounded by men, alone with men, or in conversation with men about their experience of assault,” according to the demands. “We also recognize that men are not the only perpetrators of sexual assault. Therefore, we demand that there be multiple options for the first point of contact within the Title IX office so that survivors can choose the point of contact with whom they feel safest.”

The organizers are also asking for the Title IX office to expand to have Title IX officers, crisis advocates and support groups focused on the reporting and healing processes for survivors — independent from the university administration. Fordham University would not provide details of the makeup of the Title IX office.

The demands also request students have unlimited access to trained crisis advocates that specialize in healing for sexual assault survivors, and improved academic accommodations for survivors of sexual violence, as the traumatic experiences can lead to mental health conditions that impact academic performance. Czernyk, for example, told the Bronx Times that being raped as a Fordham student caused the spiraling of her mental health and delayed her education by a year.

In hopes of improving the process, the students want survivors to have the opportunity to give feedback about their Title IX experience at Fordham.

The group is also demanding that the university teach all students about Title IX, and believes there should be mandatory training for everyone accused of sexual assault, regardless of whether they are found responsible.

Sweeney said helping people understand what needs to change for survivors “will create a safer environment that’s both preventative and provide restorative care.”

Pedestrians stopped in their tracks to show support for the students on Saturday, Dec. 4. Photo Aliya Schneider

“We just hope that the university recognizes us and tries to work with the student body to create long-lasting change,” she added.

Howe declined to share whether the university is open to the demands.

“We know so many stories that are different than [Czernyk’s] but also eerily similar,” Quinn, one of the organizers, told the Bronx Times. “And we know so many people that chose not to report because of the university’s procedures, and they don’t want to go through the process of dealing with the people involved or the kind of invasive nature of it all, so we want to create change. We want the victims of sexual violence at our school to feel safe and supported by the university administration and the Title IX policy is just not doing enough for our students.”

Throughout the march, some onlookers cheered and chanted along and drivers honked in support.

A handful of local high school students joined the stream of college protestors and asked them afterward how they could improve the culture at their own school.

Fordham freshman Mary Routh holds her sign after the rally. Photo Aliya Schneider

Fordham Freshman Mary Routh carried a sign that read “Justice for Julianna Czernyk.” The other side said “Justice for Francis Austin” and “Fire Dean Rogers.”

Another student’s sign simply read “F*** Dean Rogers.”

Rogers is the assistant vice president and dean of students at the university’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. In 2017, he was under investigation for comments he made during a Title IX training he facilitated, as the deputy Title IX coordinator, politicizing sexual assault. The lesson left dozens of female students in tears, according to a senior residential assistant at the time.

The investigation found that Rodgers did not violate any university policies, but university leadership acknowledged student concerns. More than 1,000 students signed an online petition a year ago to remove Rogers from his position at the school.

Roth said she was disheartened by the stories about Czernyk, Austin and Rogers.

“It’s really sad,” the first-year student said. “Especially when I’ve gone through similar things and everyone knows someone who has gone through similar things and there’s an obvious issue and the school doesn’t respond the way you think it would, humanity-wise.”

Czernyk, who is being represented by  Crumiller P.C., told the Bronx Times on Monday that seeing her name on Routh’s sign left her speechless.

“When I came out and filed a lawsuit against my assailant, I had no idea what would happen,” Czernyk said. “I never imagined that I would receive such an overwhelmingly supportive response, with so many people advocating not just for me, but for all survivors.”

She wasn’t able to attend the rally but said she hopes she can continue to be “a voice of empowerment for survivors who may not yet have the strength to come forward themselves.”

Reach Aliya Schneider at aschneider@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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