Everett Johns stood on the steps of the Main Hall of the University of Montana on Tuesday calling on President Seth Bodnar to resign Paul Kirgis, dean of Alexander Blewett III.
“At best, they’re incompetent leaders, and at worst, they’ve created and sustained a toxic culture in law school,” said Johns, a sophomore law student. “They reinforced the culture of rape, and they silenced the victims and retaliated against them.”
Johns put the demand in front of about 120 demonstrators, who regularly cheered and held up signs that read “Pack it out, Paul”, “Resign Now” and “Sayonara, Sally!”. He also urged the leaders to resign “immediately”.
The main hall address was followed by speeches from law school students and a march through the oval with members of the crowd chanting, “We’re Not Silenced,” “We Believe in Survivors,” “Take It Out, Paul” and “Show me what unity looks like. This is what unity looks like. “
Students began planning the strike to aid survivors of sexual assault and harassment about a month ago after hearing reports that Kyrgyz and Weaver ignored and mistreated, including rape reports.
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In their speeches, the students discussed the effects and prevalence of sexual violence, saying that law school administrations had tolerated sexual misconduct for far too long.
In the north square of the law school, Kyrgyz stood right outside a door, facing the students as they spoke, but he made no public comments himself. Neither did Weaver. Both have denied that they prevented students from filing reports of sexual assault and harassment.
Last week, the Daily Montanan published a story quoting women from law school who said they had been discouraged from submitting reports of sexual assault, including rape, to the Equal Opportunities Office and Title IX, which deals with sexual misconduct the campus.
In an email to the Blewett School of Law community on Thursday, Kyrgyz apologized for the students feeling unsupported and said media reports had made it clear to him that more is being done in addition to law school action got to.
Nonetheless, on Tuesday, students called for a change in leadership despite the dean describing the steps the school would take to move forward, including training.
Sammy Veneski, one of the freshman law students who spoke, said the 2024 class had only been in school for a few months, had already completed an education and was showing no signs of not keeping information. Veneski said it was the mandatory reporters that needed training.
“I think the problem is not in my class,” said Veneski. “It’s not with the 2Ls (sophomore law students). It’s not with the 3Ls. It’s up to the administration. “
Annie Holland, a sophomore law student, told the crowd that she spoke of survivors of sexual assault as a domestic violence survivor and, most importantly, as an ally. She said she was afraid to publicly admit she was a survivor because her parents might find out about her abuse for the first time and her abuser could take revenge.
“But what annoys me the most is knowing that people won’t believe me, that I have to keep telling my story and sharing the details of my abuse to justify my feelings,” said Holland. “If sexual assault takes place on campus and the university does not make a strong commitment to counter assault, the victims are denied an equal educational experience.”
In order to avoid perpetrators, the survivors no longer go to class, refrain from extracurricular activities and avoid social gatherings. Holland said schools should stop fearing lawsuits from perpetrators and stand up for victims who demand justice.
Bodnar did not respond directly to calls from students for Kyrgyz and Weaver to resign. However, in a statement, UM spokesman Dave Kuntz said the university takes reports of sexual assault and harassment seriously and is working hard to ensure survivors can act without fear of retaliation.
“UM has invested significant resources in responding to the law school allegations,” said Kuntz. “This research found that law school leaders did not violate university guidelines. But we take seriously the concerns raised by some in law school, and we take them seriously. In the future, UM will take further action by initiating an independent external review to assess the learning and working environment at the law school and the mechanisms in place to provide the best possible support for students. “
In his remarks on the square, Johns said he was raped when he was 15 and that his attacker told him to keep it a secret. Johns said he started isolating himself from family and friends and eventually decided to report as an adult, but the judicial system has failed him.
If someone intervened, Johns said his rapist might have received treatment and still could, but he fears the man will continue to victimize other children.
“I know my story isn’t unique,” said Johns. “I’m here with you today because I know firsthand what it feels like to be shut down, gas-lit and ignored by those in charge.”
He pointed to Weaver specifically because he doubted the students’ ability to accurately relate their experiences when they presented them with reports of sexual assault.
Comments Weaver had previously made in response to questions about her handling of student assault complaints were repeated on social media, and a protester posted one of her quotes on a sign on Tuesday: “I suspect it was because I was too walked quickly using terms and concepts that I mistakenly assumed you would understand and failed to test your understanding. “
Johns said the experience shows just how much Montana needs lawyers who are educated about trauma. Amid applause and cheers, he said that training courses and meetings were not enough and that “apologies are too little, too late”.
Not all participants were driven by the desire to oust the heads of the law school. Kalysta Fern, a PhD student in environmental science, said she came to the event more out of curiosity.
She said she wanted to know what was causing the mood in law school, but she believed she had more questions than answers after the speeches. Specifically, she wanted to know whether the school principals were being offered a “due process” by the students.
“I don’t know if Dean Kirgis and Sally Weaver will be given,” said Fern, who will be studying law next year. “It seems to be a mob process and that bothers me.”
Athena Waschke, a third-year law student, said she attended the event because she survived domestic violence and sexual assault. She said it was important to believe survivors, but the administration did not take reports seriously.
“You tried to silence people, and we deal with it in our society by talking,” said Waschke.
After the demonstration, a sign at the entrance to the Dean’s Office addressed the administration: “Dear ABIII Administrator & the repeat offender, You have robbed me of my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my trust, my education. YOU HAVE MY VOICE. But now I’m taking it back. ”A heart was drawn at the end of the message.
In separate statements, both faculty and law school staff signed letters of support for students. At least three faculty members, Andrew King-Ries, Monte Mills and Hillary Wandler, attended the demonstration, wearing purple shirts with the words “Solidarity” on them.
“We recognize the significant impact of the recent worrying coverage on our students, alumni, staff and the wider community,” the faculty statement said. “Like many of you, we were saddened to read about the worrying allegations and pain expressed in these stories.
“We love our school and our students – then and now – and we regret the damage that has been done to the learning environment and institutional reputation that we value and work so hard to create and maintain. We refuse to let these events or this moment rule our school.
“To all members of our law school community, especially those who are angry, hurt, discouraged, confused, or otherwise concerned about these events, we hear you. You are not alone. We are determined to work together to heal and build the transparent, safe, and inclusive environment we all value and deserve. “
The staff also made a statement: “We, the staff at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law, recognize the turmoil our school community is experiencing. As employees, we are called to work with students, faculty, administrators and the wider ABIII community. Our work is guided by an unwavering commitment to serve all students.
“This is a challenging time. Each of us is there for each of you to support the community we love and to show solidarity with it. “
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