No More Empty Chairs

Just under two months since New York Magazine's groundbreaking cover story about the women who have come forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault, it seems as if there continues to be a steady beat of sexual assault stories that are gaining traction, especially those surrounding campus violence. Yet, we are ignoring a reality that makes us uncomfortable. We are failing to draw parallels between the haunting stories of the survivors who have come forward to accuse Bill Cosby, and those involving students at our alma maters.

But who are these students leaving behind the "empty chairs" in our classrooms?

Five years ago, in 2010, I began my first year at The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, a little over 700 miles from where Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg was a student at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Last week, on September 10, I visited St. Mary's and The University of Notre Dame to give a lecture on campus sexual assault, on the fifth anniversary of Lizzy's death.

Lizzy Seeberg died by suicide after reporting a Notre Dame football player for sexual assault at the start of the academic year, and subsequently endured repeated abuse at the hands of Notre Dame administrators who disbelieved her. We hear time and time again that many of the sexual assaults that are reported on campus occur within a "Red Zone," or the first few weeks of the Fall semester.

"It took one week, five hours and 44 minutes....Not fully eight days after the first Notre Dame freshmen began moving into their new homes, we received the year's first alert of a sexual assault on campus."

This is what the Notre Dame and St. Mary's student paper, The Observer, reported -- and unfortunately, this is not an anomaly. Yet, there is something very haunting about September, when you learn that something happens to students this month that leads to "empty chairs" the next semester.

Three years ago this month, when I was a junior at UNC, 19-year-old UNC student Faith Hedgepeth was raped and murdered, less than a month from the start of classes. I was sexually assaulted six months prior to her death. This month in 2015, the mother of Arya Singh, a University of Pennsylvania student who died by suicide in 2013, sued the Ivy League school alleging that it failed to adequately help her daughter, who sought support for depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after she was sexually assaulted.

After visiting Lizzy's memorial garden on a rainy morning at St. Mary's campus, it's impossible to not feel tied to the student body and be impacted by what's happening in Notre Dame, IN. When you visit college campuses and hear the stories of students who are afraid to go to classes alone, or whose stories of surviving violence are too similar to my own, the statistics become too real. Suddenly, the campus alerts don't involve Jane Does, but instead, they're your friends, and your classmates who, like Lizzy, might not be back in the spring.

There are literally too many empty chairs left behind each semester.

There are too many students who are sexually assaulted and abused and never come back to class, never graduate, or whose lives are cut short.

These now empty chairs once belonged to Faith Hedgepeth, Lizzy Seeberg, Arya Singh, Grace Mann, Trey Malone, Yeardley Love, Rebecca Eldemire, Annie Le, Tynesha Stewart, Laura Dickinson, Jeanne Clery and countless others.

How many of the world's next doctors, teachers, leaders are we losing because we fail them?

We are failing our students because we as a society, care more about headlines, and politics, and "school pride" than we care about the people who make up our student body.

We are failing our students because we care more about the number of touchdowns in a season than we care about the number of assaults in a semester - even if the latter is a higher number.

We are failing our students because we fail to acknowledge that we are another cog in the machine that continues to finance campus violence.

I didn't know Faith, and I didn't know Lizzy, but they could have been my friends, and I consider it my lifelong responsibly to not just remember them as headlines, and to not forget the empty chairs they left behind. They're too similar to the people I met in my classes, who lived in my dorm, and who stood next to me at graduation - except, they didn't get to wear their robes, or toss their cap in the air; they did not get to take graduation pictures with their roommates or hug their parents after commencement.

Too many students are taken by campus violence, and we shouldn't be numb to it.

There should not be empty chairs in our classrooms.