Student-run Instagram account prompts examination of sexual assault protection on campus

Thanks to the efforts of three brave students and the stories of countless others, the University of Denver is working hard to make significant changes to prevent sexual assault on campus. 

In January, DU students Madeline Membrino, Shannon Saul and Grace Wankelman started the Instagram account @WeCanDUBetter and invited students to anonymously share their stories of gender violence, sexual assault and harassment. In their posts, survivors detailed their experiences of rape, sexual assault at parties and partner violence. The posts also revealed the harsh reality of what follows for many survivors—the toll on their mental state, not feeling safe on campus and the lack of accountability for their perpetrators. 

It’s a problem that has plagued college campuses for decades: The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 20% of women and 6% of men are sexually assaulted while in college.

“We needed people to really start taking this issue seriously,” Saul says about the motivation to start the account. “We have heard from so many people that they feel less alone now that they’ve seen other stories on the page. This means the world to us. It is truly powerful — and crucial — for survivors to know they are not alone in their experience.”

What started with a few posts transformed into a platform that has triggered meaningful change. Chancellor Jeremy Haefner vowed that DU “cannot and will not tolerate a culture that accepts violence.” He increased trauma-informed training for campus safety officers and promised that the administration would quickly refine existing policies to promote a safer campus culture.

“I read all of the stories the students posted,” Haefner says. “They’re gut-wrenching. They run so contrary to what I envision the University of Denver experience should be like for our students.” 

 At the end of January, Membrino, Saul and Wankelman organized a silent protest on campus that drew hundreds of students, faculty and staff, who quietly stood side by side in solidarity with survivors. 

“The silent protest was very powerful,” Saul says. “As a survivor I felt validated, and like my community was finally taking the issue seriously. I know the protest was emotional for many people who attended. It was a moment of rawness and vulnerability for the DU community that I think has enabled further conversations and change to take place.”

Haefner has promised long-term change and says the path forward starts with speaking to the students who are living these experiences. He sat down with the leadership of the WeCanDUBetter movement during winter quarter and developed a detailed action plan for the University.

“Every one of these stories comes from a human being who deserves better,” Haefner says. “It takes so much courage to start a public conversation, especially after experiencing so much private pain. I’m proud of our students for pressing DU to pay closer attention to the problem and be more proactive about solutions.”

WeCanDUBetter’s founders say they know this challenge isn’t unique to the University of Denver. They say they appreciate DU’s administration’s commitment to addressing the issue.

“We have greatly appreciated Chancellor Haefner’s willingness to engage with us on this issue,” Saul says. “We continuously pushed for more during our discussions with him, and for the most part, he agreed. While there are a few things we still feel are missing from the administration’s commitments, we believe it is a great start.”

Now, the campaign is going national. The students started a new website and second Instagram account called @thedobettercampaign, highlighting the stories of students on college campuses across the country in hopes other universities will follow DU’s lead and take stronger steps to address the problem.

“The sexual assault problem is not going to end unless we commit to long-term solutions,” Haefner says. “We can’t just say DU is dedicated to the public good. We have to show that in our actions, in our policies and in the ways we hold ourselves accountable.”

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