Did Yik Yak threats foreshadow a student's murder?

Student group files Title IX complaint

Police have not yet announced a motive for the murder of Grace Rebecca Mann, a junior at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), but she and her friends had been threatened on Yik Yak for months before her assault.

Mann was killed April 17—and within hours, police apprehended Steven Vander Briel, a housemate of Mann's who has now been charged with her murder. But Briel's motive was not immediately clear, and police have not yet announced one.

'A state of fear'

Feminists United, a student group of which Mann was a member, is filing a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education, saying that Mann and her peers had been harassed for months on the anonymous social media platform Yik Yak.

In addition to profanity and rape threats, Yik Yak posts also included details about Feminists United members' movements around campus.

The abuse escalated—Feminists United counted more than 700 messages, some of which targeted Mann and other women by name—and many of the group's members to say they feared for their safety.

In its complaint, the group does not accuse UMW of being responsible for Mann's death. However, it does allege that the university should have taken stronger action in response to the Yik Yak threats. Debra Katz, a lawyer representing the group, says "[Mann] and the other women… lived in a state of fear." She goes on to argue that "there was a culture that was allowed to exist at the university."

Yik Yak users lashed out at Feminists United after several events in the last few months—including an article disparaging the rugby club for chants promoting rape and necrophilia.

Briel was a former member of the rugby club.

The student group's Title IX complaint will allege that UMW did not do enough to protect women on campus from a hostile environment, says Katz. The complaint also alleges that UMW officials said the school had "no recourse for cyberbullying" and directed the women to contact Yik Yak about the threats instead.

Most posts on Yik Yak are innocuous, but its anonymity seems to attract occasional outpourings of racism, misogyny, and cyberbullying. Over the last year, 13 students have been arrested for threatening bombings, mass shootings, or other violence on Yik Yak, according to the Washington Post.

The company says it has taken steps to moderate content and can and does provide identifying information about users to police when necessary.

University response

In a statement Wednesday, UMW said that "to [our] knowledge, no known reports of direct threats of violence and/or sexual assault have gone unheeded… The University of Mary Washington's No. 1 priority has been and continues to be the creation and maintenance of a safe environment where all students can learn and grow."

A UMW spokesperson, Anna Billingsley, also told the Washington Post that "if we receive any complaints, we investigate them and offer extra security as needed."

Billingsley also says school officials met with the state attorney general but had few options for responding. As a public institution, they believed they could not block the app without violating the First Amendment (Epps, Free Lance-Star, 4/17; Dewan/Stolberg, New York Times, 5/6; Jouvenal/Shapiro, Washington Post, 5/6).

The takeaway: A student group filed a Title IX complaint against the University of Mary Washington, alleging that the school should have taken stronger action to protect women from Yik Yak threats—and saying such action may have saved a member of their group who was murdered in April.


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