American colleges have a rape and sexual assault problem. Thousands of kids living on top of each other in insular little communities, supervised only by small groups of adults who are expected to guard student welfare while simultaneously skirting liability and mitigating PR disasters? It's a recipe for unchecked, escalating predation and silenced, underserved survivors. It's a mess. But, thanks to survivor activists who are networking across the country to help each other speak out, some colleges and universities are taking steps to fix it.
A group of students, faculty, and alumni at Occidental College filed a federal lawsuit in April, arguing that the school violates Title IX by allowing "a hostile environment for sexual assault victims and their advocates" to persist on campus.
Via the L.A. Times:
The complaint comes two months after students criticized the college for not making public an alleged rape of a student by a fellow student near campus. Prosecutors reviewed the case and declined to file charges, police said.
"Some students were discouraged from filing a formal complaint, while others were not informed of their rights," said Caroline Heldman, chairwoman of Occidental's politics department, who joined Allred and the alleged victims at a news conference. "In some cases, the college chose to let perpetrators back on campus after they had been found responsible for non-consensual sexual intercourse."
Even when the school's investigations have found wrongdoing, punishment has been light, the complaint says. One student found responsible for raping a woman was given the punishment of writing a five-page book report, according to the complaint.
"I've seen some of the outputs of these so-called 'educational sanctions' like book reports and apology letters and they're abysmal," said Danielle Dirks, a sociology professor who specializes in crime and punishment and one of the women who filed the complaint. "The fact that Occidental has invited rapists back to campus and even told survivors not to worry because 'he's reformed now' after these types of inadequate sanctions is an abomination."
I graduated from Occidental College in 2004. I loved a lot of things about Occidental. It's the place where I discovered that I'm a feminist. But during my time there—anecdotally—I knew women who experienced sexual assault and felt unsatisfied with the administration's response. I knew others who were assaulted but never came forward because they'd seen their classmates' reports cause more grief and frustration than progress. The overall feeling (as I recall) wasn't that the administration didn't give a shit about sexual assault, exactly, it was more that they just wanted it all to go away. Clean it up, hush it up. But, of course, that attitude is as callous and damaging as outright hostility.
A person is not a "PR disaster"—a person is a person. And a person who's been sexually assaulted shouldn't have to wait for an embarrassing and potentially financially damaging federal lawsuit, a critical mass of outraged bloggers, and the threat of disgruntled alumni (alumni = $$$) to shock their college administration into taking them seriously. Care for victims should be a more powerful motivator than fear of bad press. Unfortunately, in our current culture, it's not.
So there's a bit of cold comfort in the fact that, this week, the Occidental administration released their preliminary response to the lawsuit—"a coordinated plan and concrete steps" to address "issues surrounding sexual assault"—via a very concerned and earnest e-mail to alumni from Jonathan Veitch, Occidental's current president. It smacks uncomfortably of "Plea$e don't be mad at u$, alumni!!!$!!!$$!" instead of "We fucked up for a long time and we are so sorry." Don't get me wrong—I'm extremely glad this is being addressed. I just wish it could have been addressed a decade ago, when I was there, when my peers were facing the exact same problems. Or a decade before that. Or a decade before that. Sexual assault isn't a new invention.
But, now that they've finally gotten the fuck on board, the administration's response does seem hearteningly aggressive and transparent. It is encouraging to see a college administrator speak as plainly as Veitch did in his e-mail: "I am convinced that we will look back on 2013 as the year in which there was a significant shift in the culture of colleges and universities across the country. Community members are challenging a culture of complacency toward sexual assault." That's as close to an outright acknowledgement of rape culture as I've ever heard outside feminist discourse. Up top, Veitch.
Occidental commissioned Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez, two Philadelphia-based lawyers, to conduct an independent review of the college's sexual assault policies. You can read their conclusions (sent to alumni yesterday) in full in the .pdf embedded below. Oxy also hired an on-campus advocate to "bolster support for sexual-assault survivors." And, based on Smith and Gomez's preliminary recommendations, Veitch says the administration will be taking the following actions:
- We have authorized the addition of a Title IX Coordinator as a full-time, professional position reporting directly to the President, effective immediately. Dean Avery, Senior Associate Dean O’Neal Howard and I all agree that a separate, independent position — as is found on other campuses — will provide the kind of oversight required. A national search begins immediately, with the goal of having a new person in place this fall. In the meantime, we will move quickly to name an interim coordinator who will lead the College’s efforts over the summer months.
- We created an anonymous suggestion box to solicit comments about sexual-assault issues from anyone in the campus community. Comments from the suggestion box will go directly to Gina and Leslie and will inform their review. We will continue to use the anonymous suggestion box as a platform for comments and feedback after the work of our consultants is completed.
- In light of recent concerns about the role played by legal counsel, Carl Botterud has voluntarily recused himself from providing advice or guidance on any matters related to sexual harassment or misconduct cases. I agree that this decision is in the best interest of the College at this time. The College will rely upon a local attorney who will serve as interim outside counsel with respect to these matters.
- We will create a structured sexual-assault program at Orientation that reflects our revised policies and procedures. We will incorporate the work of the Sexual Assault Task Force and solicit the active participation of our advocate, Naddia, OSAC, Occidental Men Against Rape (OMAR), Project SAFE and other groups.
- We will begin the evaluation of platforms for a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week sexual-assault hotline and an implementation plan to have it in place this fall.
- I will join members of senior leadership in Peace Over Violence training to improve our understanding of sexual-assault issues.
- We will complete a comprehensive revision of sexual-misconduct policies and procedures. This revision, which is already underway, will incorporate OSAC’s 12 Demands, the excellent research contained in its80-point matrix, as well as the work of Gina and Leslie. The goal is to have a new policy in place by the beginning of the fall semester. The campus community will then have the opportunity to offer feedback and suggestions.
- A standing committee of faculty, staff and students will start this fall to regularly review sexual-misconduct policy. Faculty Council has already agreed to select faculty members to serve on the new committee.
- We will create a comprehensive educational program that begins at Orientation and continues throughout each student’s entire experience at Oxy. Developing such a program will be one of the principal responsibilities of the new Title IX Coordinator in consultation with the new standing committee on sexual assault.
- We will recommit ourselves to a regular and consistent training program for everyone involved in the campus response to sexual assault – faculty, students, and staff – to be led this fall by the new Title IX Coordinator.
- Effective this fall, Project SAFE will have four programming assistants, double the current number.
Now, Smith and Gomez's recommendations are very cautious, very suggestion-boxy—a whole lot of "we understand that people are frustrated" and "we can't wait to listen to you," and very little "we will make rapists go to jail now." And, of course, there's no guarantee that any of the proposed actions will be executed satisfactorily anyway, or will yield concrete results for future victims. But I want to believe that there's good faith here on the part of the administration—that this isn't just a cynical attempt at saving face (and money). And, either way, the fact that bureaucratic bodies are thinking about these issues at all—let alone taking assertive, public action—is a start. It's better than silence.
Photo via Occidental College.