For the past year, the subject of sexual violence and harassment has loomed over our campus like a specter. Brought to popular attention by a chain of assault cases and acts of misconduct that occurred one after another early last year, it is has been an ever-present, urgent and scary topic that fails to avoid anyone’s attention. This year has seen the creation of two new student organizations (Dangers of a Single Narrative and Students Against Sexual Violence), and even a full-fledged investigation by the Department of Education into our college's adherence to federal funding policies.
Many students have spoken out about the sexual violence on campus, and many continue to do so. An overwhelming majority of interviewed students critiqued either the current policies of the administration or the way these policies are handled in our community.
One student, a survivor of sexual harassment and physical assault on campus who chose to remain anonymous, voiced her frustration towards the administration for what she views as caring more about prestige and reputation than the welfare of victims of sexual misconduct. She said, “I would like Sarah Lawrence to completely forget about protecting the name, forget about their ego, forget about how many people they want to apply and increasing those numbers, saying 'this is a wonderful place to be' while ignoring all the things that students can do wrong. I want them to focus on their students' health.” The same student also said that the school acted against its own policies of confidentiality by sharing a document directed at her with the accused. “The administration just had me fill out papers—there was basically no emotional support,” she added, again expressing her concern and frustration that, in her view, students didn't get enough emotional support from the school last year.
Another student had been assaulted before coming to Sarah Lawrence, and felt that this school does a far better job than the vast majority of liberal arts schools out there, particularly her previous college. “The reason I transferred here was because I heard that Sarah Lawrence handled these things better,” she said. “I was raped at my previous college and Sarah Lawrence was very sympathetic with everything that happened and my old school wanted me off school property.” The student voiced the need to realize that sexual assault on campus is a national problem, pointing out that she knew many others who have had similar experiences at other liberal arts colleges. She remarked, “At my previous college, I was not offered therapy, I was not offered a Dean to talk to, I was not offered police services, I was not offered anything. Sarah Lawrence has better policies in place for that, from what I've been told.” It is of note that she was sexually harassed this year by another student at Sarah Lawrence. She told us the harasser was dealt with immediately by security and her friends, as well as given a no-contact order, which she claims has been extremely effective. When asked if she felt safe on campus, the student replied that she felt relatively safe, but that, “there are certain people back on campus that make a lot of people very uncomfortable.”
The issue of sexual misconduct becomes even more daunting considering the Department of Education's investigation into Sarah Lawrence’s adherence to Title IX, a law passed in 1972 which requires “gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding.” The Dean of Studies and Student Life, Allen Green, reported that the investigation is still inconclusive, and that the administration expects a response from the Department next month. The Dean also said that even the complaint is unknown to the school, as the law does not allow it to be known if the administration even requested it.
Solutions to these problems are not so easy to formulate. The Dean expressed his deep concern about student-on-student violence in the Sarah Lawrence Community, and said that, “there are no clear cut answers,” to calls for a comprehensive solution. The Dean acknowledged that, at the moment, the school policy is not set to change, and that he and his fellow administrators want to “keep as many ideas on the table as possible” before considering making any decisions about modifying what's on the books. In other words, the Dean said, the students should be able to voice their concerns more effectively to the administration, and stated that “Asking students what they want is the best policy.” He also emphasized heavily that times are changing, referring specifically to “the changes of gender itself” and how we ought to think about gender differently in today's world, especially too when discussing the issue of sexual assault. “I want us to think critically about the different parts of our policy to see if they pass the litmus test,” he stated, “We should periodically look at policies and procedures to examine their relevancy.”
Two issues the Dean found especially in need of re-examination were the policy's application to grad students, about 99% of which live off-campus, as well as the treatment of transgender women who are victims of assault, considering having been assigned male at birth and potentially having male legal documentation only. Green stressed that “we need to do a lot of self-reflection” before any amendments are to be made, lauding open discussion and the critical thinking of students, faculty, and administration as a community.
In fact, the Dean and President of the College Karen Lawrence held a campus wide meeting on Sept. 18 in the Reisinger Auditorium. A handful of students, faculty, and administrators attended, but no more than thirty. The meeting was very much an open-forum where all members of the school, almost exclusively students, asked questions and made many suggestions. In particular, the Dean outlined the school's new online sexual violence and consent program mandatory for incoming freshmen. There was another all-campus meeting on Oct. 1. Fewer than 30 people showed up, including mostly students, but also faculty and administrators. The meeting was, again, an open forum, with Dean Green and Dina Nunziato of Health Services outlining Campus Alerts in particular, and attendees asking questions throughout.The next all-campus meeting will be on Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. in the Donnelley Auditorium.
The Dean expressed the administration's interest in having students bring forth as many suggestions as possible, especially students who “are aware of other institutions that may inform what we're doing.” Interestingly, he mentioned the importance of having “performances” and other “multi-media ways to address these issues”, stressing also the need for a faster form of communication, perhaps social media, to enhance students' role in making policies more effective and fostering a safe campus environment.
Some students, however, think the school should be focusing less on effectively implementing the official policy and more on dealing with those who have sexually assaulted other students. One student said that for those convicted of sexual misconduct or assault “there's no process in place to reform their behavior before they come back on campus; there's nothing they have to do in order to understand what they've done. Although I appreciate they're respecting the boundaries of the survivor, they're still letting someone who is unsafe back on campus...there's no rehabilitation of the perpetrators.” Another student noticed that while the school mandates programming for those who drink too much, there is nothing similar for those who have sexually hurt or harassed others on campus.
Despite these thoughts, the school may be doing more and considering more than at first glance. Health Services in particular has put up dozens of posters around campus outlining what to do if one is sexually assaulted, and has made information accessible by going to my.slc.edu/safe or even slc.edu/safe. Dina Nunziato, the Director of Counseling and Psychological services, addressed her own concern, and the concern of many other staffers at Health Services, that procedures meant to help victims are having a reverse effect. She stated, “We want listening meetings. We want to hear from students about how to receive and perceive alerts, which are really designed to make students feel safe, are actually raising anxiety, and misinformation starts to get communicated.” She also stressed that the sexual assault liaison, once distanced from victims seeking immediate support, now directs students straight to Victim's Services. She informed that rape kits cannot be provided on campus because it would be tampering with forensic evidence if any case were appealed to police. Dina Nunziato also said that the biggest complaint of victims was that they often had to repeat their story too many times, especially if going through the Yonkers Police Department.
Nunziato, much like Dean Green, spoke to the changes in society as initiatives to a new school approach to sexual assault. She observed, “Awareness has changed. There is an increase in awareness as to what constitutes sexual violence and what constitutes consent. Victim-blaming is shifting. Many victims are no longer blaming themselves as they used to.” The Director also said she is “hardpressed to say there is a decrease in safety. My sense is that this type of thing has been going on for a while among young people. But there is thankfully now a greater awareness of what constitutes as consent.”
Students Against Sexual Violence and Dangers of a Single Narrative, along with another unofficial student group, known simply as “the Green Guard,” have made impressive leaps and bounds writing documents, organizing marches, and sitting in on important administrative meetings to make their messages heard.
Unfortunately, most of the members of Students Against Sexual Violence have graduated and their meetings have been either absent or infrequent since the beginning of the summer. Most of the group’s meetings were of great help to survivors, who could report their stories to other students anonymously. Not to mention, the group acted as an organizing vanguard for student action related to changing sexual assault policies.
Dangers of a Single Narrative, on the other hand, still meets regularly. The Co-chair of this student organization, Nathara Bailey ‘15, said that the group was started because it was felt that the administration was ignoring the issue of sexual assault, or the intersectionality of identities within the framework of sexual violence, such as race, national origin, and sexuality. She told us, “There were times where I felt like I had to choose whether I was going to be black or I was going to be a woman, and that was disturbing to me because I can't rip the two apart. They inform each other.” She said she appreciates the meetings the school has undertaken to make more frequent, but that she, similarly to the majority of those interviewed, would prefer if these mandatory.
With one more meeting left and the conclusion of a federal investigation to go, we could not ask for a more inconclusive situation. Sarah Lawrence students, faculty, administrators, and general staff await the answers this semester is bound to bring, but those answers may not be as simple as they want or expect. Perhaps many are left with the sense that we all need to act as a community, as well as the feeling that this problem is larger than our campus. The Dean expressed this sentiment well, stating “We are striving to hold our students to higher standards than civil society, so that they can be models to change the paradigm in which we live.” Or perhaps as a student put it, “We should be focusing not just on education, but on how to make a decent person in society.”
by Aviya Eschenazi '15