Like dozens of colleges across the country, Sarah Lawrence will soon be adopting an affirmative consent standard as part of its sexual assault policy. This change, which the college's sexual assault task force has been working towards for some time, will redefine the consent requirement as active agreement rather than simply the absence of a “no.” It will go into effect in the fall, and the college community will be officially notified in the coming weeks.
Dean of Studies Al Green, who also holds the position of Title IX coordinator, said that this addition is part of a larger initiative to improve the way the school deals with the issue of sexual violence and harassment on campus. Last spring, the college was one of about fifty institutions for higher education to be put under investigation for alleged mishandling of these cases by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. According to the Dean, since then, the school has been working to better respond to concerns from students about college policies and procedures and do a more thorough job of educating the campus around issues of sexual assault.
Early this year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo stated his intention to push forward legislation that would require colleges to incorporate affirmative consent into their sexual assault policies, going off of similar law passed in California in September 2014.
While similar policies have already been adopted by the SUNY system and the standard is on the road to becoming a state mandate, Dean Green commented on how he thinks the school has done "a lot of good work in terms of moving the affirmative consent forward before it was actually hoisted on us by the governor."
He pointed out that the issue is much more complicated than simply incorporating a state law into the college's regulations. "What we try to do is make sure that when we're developing policy and procedure, we can't just adopt something from another campus and [apply it] to Sarah Lawrence. Our students have certain kinds of sensitivities and we wanted to make sure that when we did look at this, we were able to tweak it a little bit to make it more consistent with how we think about these issues on our campus". He continued, "I think the real work will be doing more education among students and ways in which we help them understand what this is."
Along with planning to start an educational campaign to for the student body about the new policy specifically, the college has also been working to strengthen campus alerts when there has been an allegation of sexual assault and has established a threat assessment team “that we bring together when an allegation has been made to make sure that the alleged perpetrator is not a danger to the campus," Dean Green said. The school has also been in conversations with Lawrence Hospital about the needs of the student body and the task force, in hopes of "finding ways to reach out to students to further the conversation,” is thinking about how to create a program for the larger student community than complements the consent and respect workshops that first-year students are required to complete.
Kelly Gilbert ('15), who is a student member of the task force, said that she thinks the, "new definition, when coupled with the education stuff we're doing, which is all focused on verbal affirmative consent, will be really helpful, and I think give people a clearer understanding of what consent is." She added, however, on a more general note, "I still think that society has a long way to go.”.
In recent months, the issue of campus sexual assault has taken center stage in national discussions on the state of higher education, with countless voices advocating for colleges to take cases more seriously and many accusing institutions of sweeping incidents under the rug to save face. Various news outlets and other media such as the recent documentary, The Hunting Ground, have captured the negative experiences of victims, such as being ignored by college administrators in efforts to keep rape statistics low.
This has largely resulted in calls for stronger campus policies, but other commentators, such as Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times and Emily Yoffe in Slate, have argued for more integration between campus proceedings and local law enforcement as well as greater protection for the rights of the accused. In the same vein, in October of last year, 28 Harvard Law School professors came out in protest of the university's new sexual misconduct policy, claiming that the new rules violated the rights of accused students.
Dean Green responded to this debate, saying that while the college has a responsibility towards the safety of its students, being “mindful of the impact” of the decisions that are made is also important. He still acknowledged that the standard of evidence that campus hearings are operating on is very different than that of a legal proceeding. “It's not 'beyond a reasonable doubt', it's 'more likely than not',” he explained. He continued that for the college, the issue comes down to “trying to balance the safety of the campus with a student's ability to also continue with their education program, but we think that we want to err on the side of making sure the campus is safe”.
He added, however, on the subject of a zero tolerance policy, that oftentimes it can be difficult to find clarity in these cases, explaining that, "for some, [zero tolerance] means that if there is an allegation, that student should be expelled immediately. And I think that we [in the task force] wanted to take some time to think about that and think about how if it's an allegation, nothing has been proven, so is that a prudent way to proceed, where you're basically saying, you're guilty until proven innocent.”
Gilbert maintained that the the process of going through sexual assault cases should be made easier for victims, arguing that when the legal system consistently fails them, schools should take up this responsibility. She acknowledged that this brings up great challenges. “The problem that the task force faces is patriarchy,” she said. “We're trying to figure out how to make a model society about this while also adjusting to the fact that most people have grown up with rape culture and haven't been able to question it.”
On the campus climate in general, she commented, “I think it's maybe better than some parts of America, but I mean, we are definitely not immune.” She still gave the administration credit for taking this issue seriously, and added, “I think that people are galvanized and they want to do something about it, which is a lot better than being complacent and just accepting that sexual assault is a thing that happens, because it definitely doesn't have to.”