The preliminary hearing in a case surrounding the death of a prominent college feminist began on Wednesday, the StarTribune reported.
Grace Rebecca Mann, a 20-year-old Mary Washington University student, was allegedly murdered in her home by male roommate Steven Vander Briel in April.
Kathryn Erwin and Holly Aleksonis were the other two roommates in the off-campus housing where Mann and Vander Briel lived. They provided chilling testimony about the day that Mann was killed, alleging they found Mann under the comforter on her bed with her hands bound with a sweater and a belt and a plastic bag over her head.
They also claimed that Vander Briel told them that he and Mann got into an argument that turned physical.
“I slapped her. She bit me and I strangled her,” Erwin quoted Vander Briel as saying, according to the Washington Post.
We reached out to Vander Briel’s lawyer and will update this post if we hear back.
Before Mann’s death, there had been months of mounting concern voiced by Mann and other female students who said they felt unsafe on the Virginia campus prior to her death. The group, called Feminists United, filed a disturbing complaint with the Department of Education asking it to investigate the college.
Mary Washington, a public liberal arts university with about 4,000 students, condoned a sexually hostile environment that disregarded students’ safety, the complaint says. It also says female students were abused over Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that lets people post, or “yak,” to people in a 10-mile radius.
Members of Feminist United allegedly received over 700 “yaks” about the group as a whole or individual members, many of which were threatening or overtly sexist.
And it claims that though the administration was alerted to the situation, nothing was done to protect students.
For its part, Yik Yak says the app isn’t intended for threatening or inappropriate statements and that the app guards against misuse.
A number of safeguards are in place, such as warnings and moderation, to guard against abuse, according to Yik Yak.
Feminists United allegedly became the target of vitriol on campus after a member of Feminists United wrote an op-ed for the school newspaper accusing the university of being an unfriendly place for feminists.
That op-ed cited the men’s rugby team at UMW as an example of her claims, pointing to a chant of the team’s that supposedly mentioned “violence against women, including murder and battery, sexual violence against women, including assault necrophilia, and rape.”
The rugby team’s violent and sexually explicit chant then leaked, exacerbating anger against Feminists United on Yik Yak, according to the complaint. The complaint also said Yik Yakers used racist epithets and told African-American students to “Go back to Africa.”
There’s evidence suggesting that members of Feminist United did indeed feel unsafe before Mann’s death. On March 23, the group posted this chilling message on its Facebook page:
To all of our members, if at any time you feel unsafe or threatened, or just need someone to talk or vent to, please feel free to reach out to any of e-board, or at least have someone you trust that you can talk to. If any of you receives any threats, however, please also make sure to contact the UMW police! No matter what happens, remember that Feminists United is here to support our members, and that your safety and well-being comes first.
The University of Mary Washington says that it has been actively engaged with members of Feminists United and other students to address issues of safety and campus culture throughout the year. It will cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights regarding the concerns in the complaint, a representative told Business Insider.
The members of Feminists United are continuing to grieve the loss of Mann, the daughter of a local judge. In addition to being on the executive board of Feminists United, she had been appointed to the university president’s task force on sexual assault, according to The Washington Post.
Feminists United is remembering her on its Facebook page.
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