History demands students Take Back the Night

By Melissa Pisarski

Contributing Writer

It was a Monday night in January of 1993 when 21-year-old UWF student Susan Leigh Morris went missing. On that same foggy night, she was raped and murdered by a man who frequented the same hangouts in the University Commons that Morris enjoyed, and who was sleeping among on-campus residents in the building then known as Dorm 68.

Morris was a commuting Communication Arts student and sister of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority who flaunted the title of Sigma Alpha Mu Sweetheart and lent her time to Campus Activity Board. She was like so many of us.

The pages of The Voyager that week were heavy with outrage, fear and sympathy. Details of the crime colonized the front page while student-submitted editorials demanding campus safety reform awaited readers on page four.

University administrators and campus police responded with plans to tighten security in light of the tragedy. Plans to “consolidate night classes into one area of the school, increase lighting throughout campus, and educating students about safety” were all outlined measures reported in the Jan. 19, 1993, Voyager article written by Robert Powelson and Bob Mason regarding security concerns.

Other ads and articles in the Voyager advertised self-defense classes or encouraged students to sign checks made out to “Adopt-a-Light” that would benefit efforts to illuminate the poorly-lit campus.

defend

This advertisement ran in the Jan. 19, 1993, edition of The Voyager following the murder of Susan Leigh Morris.

At the time, the blue lights that pepper our grounds were a new development. They had only been installed the year before, and technical kinks were still being worked out by campus authorities. The blue light in the area where Morris was attacked had not been working that night.

Though the murder of Morris shocked the university, it demonstrated the severity of a violent trend.

In 1992, just a year before Morris was raped and killed, a fraternity had named one of their parties after a notorious incident of mass sexual harassment of more than 30 victims. Even after the jarring reports of sexual misconduct that characterized Morris’ murder, similar behavior still prevailed in the years that followed.

Stories of sexual assault again stained the pages of the Voyager in 2000. A student was a walking to her car when she was approached by a masked assailant. She was forced into the vehicle at gunpoint and robbed. After telling his captive to remove her clothes, the attacker proceeded to molest the student.

In that same year, a female student reported suffering unwanted sexual advances from two men she knew, which she was unable to resist as a result of intoxication. She indicated that the men had encouraged her to drink beyond a safe limit before assaulting her. Both men denied the use of force described by the victim. One of them went on to say, “She was moving around, talking, never hesitated. If I had ever thought she did not want to do anything, I would have not done it.”

 A quote that appeared in the Voyager from a male student accused of sexual assault in 2000.

A quote that appeared in the Voyager from a male student accused of sexual assault in 2000.

The female complainant eventually stopped pursuing charges after police ruled there had been no crime due to a lack of evidence. It is documented that the “victim [had] decided not to take further action due to the lack of judicial support and general fatigue.”

Both incidents prompted increased security and heightened awareness, sentiments that still echo all these years later as we fight the trend of sexual assaults on university campuses.

Stories like these are why UWF needs to Take Back the Night.

Described in ArgoPulse as “an international event to create safe communities and respectful relationships,” Take Back the Night accepts the challenge of combatting rape culture and embracing hope for victims of sexual assault.

take back the night

A banner hanging near the John C. Pace Library advertised Take Back the Night last week.
More than 450 people attended the event on April 7.

A dessert bar provided by Housing and Residence Life welcomed the more than 450 guests who packed the Commons Auditorium for the April 7 event led by Wellness Services and UWF Peer Educators, with the help of several other organizations. The event boasted a “Hotline Bling” theme complete with a cardboard Drake cutout and free T-shirts embellished with a helpful acronym:

Believe and support survivors

Listen and respect the answer

Intervene in risky situations

Never victim blame

Get consent

Creativity for a Cause performers kept attendees aware of the heartbreaking spirit of the evening. A dance piece by Leonie Dupuis to “If You’re Out There” by John Legend reminded the audience that it was high time to defeat sexual assault.

“John Legend ends this song by saying ‘the future started yesterday,’” said Dupuis prior to her performance. “It has been time to make a change.”

While the song Dupuis selected for her presentation inspired hope, UWF Peer Educators used the event to draw attention to music that demonstrated an acceptance of forceful sexual misconduct. A video compilation of popular songs that flaunted lyrics with sinister intentions left many students glancing around the room with wide-eyed looks of overdue recognition, likely because, as one Peer Educator pointed out, “you have probably sung some of these songs in your car.”

This cultural acceptance of sexual violence made another painful appearance as poet Lauren Morrison took to the podium. In reference to the common victim-blaming strategy of calling into question a victim’s attire at the time of assault, Morrison revealed in a quaking voice that she had been wearing jeans and a hoodie when she was attacked.

Morrison was forced to pause to compose herself as she was overcome with tears. Upon completion of her recitation, she was met with an auditorium-full of standing ovations as the audience cried alongside her.

Timothy Jones’ story elicited a similarly fervent response. A Navy veteran raped by a fellow serviceman, Jones admitted that he developed substance abuse issues to cope with the discrimination and lack of support he encountered after being victimized. He reported finding a comfort here at UWF.

“I wanted to lend my voice to male victims and male survivors,” Jones said before the event. “I wanted to say thank you to a community that has really been responsible for my transformation.”

Jones credits the availability of resources at the university for the progress it has made as an institution working to eradicate sexual assault.

In a statement of unity, students were given glow sticks and asked to illuminate them if they were victims of sexual assault, knew someone who had suffered from dating violence, or supported those who faced these plights. The auditorium was quickly illuminated by an infectious glow of green.

The event concluded when the Argonettes Dance Team led a parade of students into the darkening night, chanting “We are women. We are men. Together we fight to take back the night.”

The procession fell silent as they reached their destination: the bench dedicated in Susan Leigh Morris’s honor.

some people

Students gathered around the sign and bench near Building 13 dedicated to Susan Leigh Morris. Morris was the victim of a violent sexual assault and murder in 1993.

As is tradition, Sigma Alpha Mu sang their Sweetheart Song in memory of the Sweetheart they lost in 1993. The sisters of Alpha Gamma Delta followed by lending their voices to a haunting tribute song of their own.

The University of West Florida has come a long way since the rape and killing of Susan Leigh Morris, but in the words of Vice President of Student Affairs Kevin Bailey: “Taking back the night is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Melissa Pisarski is the editor of Her Campus at UWF, where this article first appeared.