Lady Gaga leads powerful Chicago voices against sexual violence

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The ABC7 I-Team tells how a powerful voice at this year's Academy Awards is empowering sexual violence survivors. (WLS)

ABC7 I-Team Investigation
The I-Team is uncovering new investigations into local colleges accused of mishandling sexual assault cases. For the University of Chicago, it is the third case opened in as many years.

Two years after the White House called on colleges to cut down on the number of sexual assaults on campus, experts say the numbers remain the same: one out of five women is raped before graduating college. Now, a powerful voice at this year's Academy Awards is empowering survivors to change those statistics.

"It was really powerful, it was probably the most powerful thing I've ever done after having my own children, very powerful," said Julie Smolyansky.

Five days before this year's Oscars, Smolyansky - the local CEO of Lifeway Kefir - was asked if she wanted to join Lady Gaga and other survivors of sexual violence on stage during her performance of "Til It Happens To You" from the film "The Hunting Ground." Smolyansky is one of the executive producers of the documentary about rape on college campuses.

"I had my own experiences that I survived. It's important for me to use my voice to try to prevent it, and help educate and change the statistics," she said.

Smolyansky has been an advocate for victims of sexual violence since she was 16.

"Here's my tattoo. It's a symbol of unity with survivors around the world. We made a pact to all go get these tattoos together," she said.

The mother of two hopes her voice will help lead to policy change and a better campus environment for her daughters when they go to college.

University of Chicago grad Veronica Portillo Heap shares Smolyansky's passion for supporting survivors.

"In the spring of 2014, I was assaulted while I was a college student by someone who was not a student," she said.

Portillo Heap said even though she had been an advocate for victims of sexual violence for years, she said she was unsure of what to do after her assault.

"Eventually a couple of months later I spoke to my academic advisor, who didn't help me. He just scolded me for not having called the police," she recalled.

The I-Team first met Portillo Heap during sexual assault awareness week at U of C. She was director of the Clothesline Project, a group that displayed shirts on campus - each one with a victim's story.

She says trying to get help from the university was a disaster, even though the school was already under investigation for allegedly mishandling another sexual assault case.

A month after graduation last year, Portillo Heap's attorney filed a complaint with the Department of Education. An investigation into how U of C handled the case was officially opened in February.

"My complaint is really trying to move the university to make changes for other students, not for me, because I had already graduated when it was filed," Portillo Heap said.

U of C tells the I-Team it has "taken numerous steps over the last year to enhance its compliance with Title IX and to prevent and address instances of sexual misconduct."

An e-mail from University Provost Eric Isaacs recently sent to students and faculty outlines sexual misconduct policies and procedures. Beginning in July, all members of the U of C community will receive mandatory training about sexual assault.

"I definitely think it was the student organizing that led the university to do this," Portillo Heap said.

"Culture is hard to change but it's possible, it's definitely possible. It takes a while but we can do it," Smolyansky said.

There are 219 sexual violence cases under investigation across the country, including recently opened ones at Columbia College in Chicago and Judson University in Elgin.

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newsI-Teamsexual assaultcollege studentslady gagaChicago - Hyde Park
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