UMKC students protest campus sexual assault policies

University of Missouri-Kansas City students, outraged over the way the university responded to an alleged rape in a campus dorm, stormed into a vice chancellor’s office Wednesday afternoon with a list of demands.

The protest, involving about 60 students and supporters, came several hours after UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton in a letter to students, faculty and staff promised a complete review of training and security measures in residence halls.

“We are aware, from your feedback, that some training and education gaps exist, in particular for faculty and staff, and will be working to address those,” Morton wrote. He did not offer details.

The alleged rape of a female student occurred Feb. 23 at Johnson Hall on the UMKC campus. A 22-year-old man, who was not a UMKC student, last week was charged with raping the woman.

Wednesday’s noon rally was in response to the university not immediately informing the campus community about the alleged rape. Several students said they were furious that university spokesman John Martellaro, in comments to the University News student newspaper about the incident, seemed to downplay the assault and told student reporters that an electronic campus alert was not made about the rape because it was not a security issue.

“We are all outraged that this happened,” said Ana Maldonado, a concerned citizen who attended the rally in support of students. Other students at the rally said they represented a variety of student groups on campus.

“We do think that this was a security issue,” said Helen Proctor, a UMKC senior and co-founder of Squad of Siblings, a group focused on combating sexual violence in Kansas City.

Martellaro came under criticism from students after he also told the student newspaper that the incident “is not necessarily a security issue because the victim went out willingly with the suspect. It was after socializing that she was taken advantage of, or raped, whatever you might call it.”

Martellaro, in a March 3 letter to the editor published in the University News, apologized for his comments.

In his letter, Martellaro said his wording was “clumsy,” and he had made “an unfortunate and inappropriate comment” about the alleged rape. “Let me be clear: rape is rape, and it is a terrible crime,” he said.

But some students at Wednesday’s rally said his apology was not enough.

Protestors marched across the campus waving signs and shouting, “Hey hey, ho ho, sexual violence has got to go,” along with other anti-sexual-violence chants.

They ended up forcing their way into the office of Mel Tyler, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment. Tyler was in a lunch meeting with one other person at the time.

When students, who had earlier staged a sit-in in front of Chancellor Morton’s office, appeared at Tyler’s doorway, someone inside the office attempted to close the door. Students pushed it open and packed his office.

Morton never emerged from his office to address students. Bridget Koan, a spokeswoman for the university, said she did not know if Morton was in his office. “I have not seen him today,” Koan said.

But a university statement handed out by Koan at the rally said, “UMKC supports the rights of students to express themselves and to demonstrate peacefully.”

Brennan Schartz, a rally organizer, said in a Facebook post announcing the event that “we are fighting a systemic plague of rape culture and it takes more then just town halls to talk about what the problem is.

“We know that rape culture is a problem. We need to start making changes that protect students and change failed UMKC administration policy.”

Schartz read a list of five student demands in Tyler’s office. Among them was a request for the required re-training of UMKC employees on rules and procedures regarding sexual assault and rape on the campus. They also demanded mandatory UMKC-specific anti-sexual-assault public service announcements for incoming students, and the creation and full funding of a student-led accountability board with authority to hire and fire administrators and university staff for lack of response or failure to enforce sexual violence policy.

Tyler said these were “fine demands,” and workable.

He apologized to students in his office “for the fact that we did not communicate in a timely fashion.” He said, “My job is to protect the students here at UMKC. ... I am very concerned about what happened.”

After about 20 minutes fielding a barrage of questions from students, Tyler agreed to meet with a group of them following a listening session on the issue scheduled for Monday.

Chancellor Morton, in his letter to the UMKC campus community, pledged to do more to better train faculty and staff in dealing with sexual assault issues at the school.

His letter went out after he heard from students, faculty and staff about how the university “might have handled some things better” in responding to the reported rape.

Morton did not list any specific changes or additions to the university’s existing Violence Prevention and Response Program, its Title IX Office or services at the UMKC Women’s Center. But he and Tyler did say that UMKC will “engage in a top-to-bottom review of security measures and staff training” in residence halls.

According to court documents, surveillance video from the night of the reported rape showed the 22-year-old man carrying the woman, who after drinking alcohol at a club in Lawrence was unable to walk into the dorm. Witnesses told police the woman was very intoxicated.

When the woman woke up, she noticed some of her clothing had been removed. Court documents said that when the woman asked the man — identified as Juan Contreras of Colorado — what happened, he reportedly told her that he had sex with her.

UMKC did not immediately notify students and faculty about the alleged rape.

The University News reported that Martellaro said that since the alleged crime was reported more than 24 hours after it occurred and the suspect had been identified, “the situation did not call for an alert to be issued.”

Martellaro did not respond to The Star’s telephone calls or emails sent to his office Wednesday. Those inquiries were forwarded to other members of the UMKC Strategic Marketing and Communications staff.

In a statement, UMKC confirmed Martellaro “is still employed.” The statement also said school officials could “make no further comment on any other personnel actions.”

But the university ended with this response: “As a university with a history of strong support for sexual assault survivors, we can’t help but be very concerned about a comment that can cause such pain to our campus community. At the same time, we believe that UMKC should be a place of learning from mistakes. It’s a core value for the university. When problems occur, we want to address them directly, seek to understand the context and provide specific remedies for learning and remediation.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc