Sexual Assault Survey Brings Up Questions About Safety on Campus

 Consent education posters on campus. Photo credit: JM Stewart.

Consent education posters on campus. Photo credit: JM Stewart.

Results from the Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey that began in February 2015 were published recently, and while Sarah Lawrence’s results were similar to other schools that participated in the survey, there were some important differences. One of the most notable differences was the rate of reporting—11%, despite 92% of students saying they knew how to report. The percent of students who felt safe on campus was also unusually low; 68.1%, while this statistic was 84.7% at peer institutions. 130 schools participated in the survey, and approximately 500 students at SLC. 

The Task Force was created in the fall of 2013. “It came after a major incident on campus where we wanted to take a look at our policies and procedures,” explained Dean Al Green, the leader of the task force and SLC’s Title IX coordinator.  Genevieve Lamont (’18), a student representative on the task force, said, “It’s very much an ongoing dialogue. We need feedback from students, because we – the three undergraduate students – make up a very small portion of [the student body]. All our narratives are very different...and they’re not conducive to getting the general climate of the whole campus.” Lamont continued, “We rely on feedback from students to kind of get the general understanding, so it’s very much an ongoing dialogue that is happening, and it is constantly changing, and it has different viewpoints, and it’s very complicated. But we’re doing our best.” 

There is a task force email, sexualassaulttaskforce@sarahlawrence.edu, but representatives of the task force say it has been underused. Another student on the task force, Venika Menon (’18), explained “We would appreciate if students wrote to us, because I know that it’s a conversation a lot of students have on campus.”

One of the most visible changes to SLC policy on sexual assault in the past few years is the Affirmative Consent policy. In July 2015, a higher standard for consent was established in New York state law. Sarah Lawrence’s definition of consent now echoes that definition. The school has publicized the updated definition of consent through a poster campaign. The posters are part of a larger effort to educate SLC students on sexual assault, particularly on sexual assault prevention in recent years. The mandatory Consent and Respect online course also began two years ago, for all new students and for students in leadership roles such as RAs. It appears to have been helpful; survey results indicated that first and second years felt they had more knowledge of how to recognize and respond to assault, compared to juniors and seniors (who did not all take the course). 

“Speaking from personal experience, when we did the Consent and Respect before coming to school and then after doing it as a student leader on campus here, I think it’s a good re-introduction to the concept that happens, [and] it makes a lot of laws clearer to you, about what your rights as a student are, so that can be very helpful,” Menon said. 

Michelle Guile, a Health Advocacy graduate student who recently joined the task force, partly agreed: “I definitely felt like the consent training was helpful, I mean it did give you the option to have the Title IX coordinator’s information texted to you, which I personally did so that I would have it.” However, she also felt more was needed, saying, “It’s helpful but it’s also lacking...I definitely feel like there needs to be more education and awareness of what’s happening. Especially for people who don’t live here, or are not on campus all the time, like you’re not going know [certain] stuff.” Guile also raised some concerns about the ‘Yes means yes’ posters around campus. “There’s probably just so much more to it that you’re not going to understand by just seeing that poster.” She clarified, “You have to actively educate people.” 

School procedure in cases of assault has also changed. The changes are based in an effort to make resources more accessible to victims/survivors, and to give them more control over the situation following an assault. Dean Green explained, “We have made a few changes in that we now kind of automatically call victims’ support for any victims; we also are working with Westchester Medical Center and a program there called FACT – Forensic Acute Care Team – which is, anyone who is sexually assaulted, they would go directly there [and] they could retrieve evidence and maintain it, and so that happens.” He continued, “The other change in policy is that we used to automatically call Yonkers police, and now it’s up to the victim to decide if they want the police called. 

He added the school has started doing threat assessments immediately after an incident is reported, to assess whether an individual should be allowed on campus. He explained, “We have to make that assessment based on the safety of the whole community. And so we’re really taking that very seriously as well. 

The reasons behind the low reporting rate, and the relative lack of a sense of safety, remain unclear. The perception of a lack of safety is likely part of a wider problem than that of sexual assault. Menon pointed out that “People feel more unsafe than the numbers would suggest they should, and that [is because of] a lot of factors including the perception about general school safety, and the question of ‘have you ever been attacked or sexually assaulted’ was a very specific question, so I think people might have come at those two questions differently.” She continued, “The example that I gave at the committee [was], I would feel unsafe walking from here to Hill House at night, for a very specific reason, that being that my friend has been egged on Kimball. It has nothing to do with sexual assault. But that would also play into my answer in the first part, the perception question, and not into my answer in the second part. There are specific things that have gone into people feeling unsafe on this campus.” 

Green continued, “And we’ve been thinking about what does that mean. We’ve got security around, I don’t know if the perception is that security’s not responsive… We just don’t know. We’ll continue to ask questions, but I don’t think we’ve had any hard affirmed conclusions yet.”

Possible factors may include a lack of perceived social support for survivors. 

Lamont expressed surprise that there is no dedicated student group to enable discussion and community for survivors; “There are typically things that have chapters across different schools ..That’s really surprising. I bet there would probably be a lot of interest in that.” An isolating culture at SLC could be part of it, as could certain classroom dynamics. On the subject of feeling triggered in a classroom setting, Lamont observed, “I definitely would not feel comfortable saying to the majority of my professors, ‘Yeah, I need to leave because this is upsetting’, even for like a few minutes. That definitely does not seem like the culture.” 

There has been a history of controversy over the school over Sarah Lawrence’s responses to sexual assault on campus. Sarah Lawrence was one of multiple schools placed under investigation for sexual violence issues by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, in 2014. That controversy is part of the reason for changes in the past few years. Dean Green said, “The other thing that spurred the organization of the task force was, we have also been looking to get a response from the Office of Civil Rights about the case, the allegation that we failed the complainant. It’s been over two years now, we haven’t heard anything. We don’t even know what the complaint is, what the basis of the complaint is, we’re not allowed to know.” He continued, “But the OCR came to campus, and had open meeting with administrators and students, and there were a select number of administrators that met one-on-one with them. And they walked away, and we just have to wait for, I think, a ruling. And then we’ll look at what they say we have to change. We may have already made some of the changes that they will recommend, because we have been changing our policy as we perceive things that aren’t working as well.”

There will be a Town Hall meeting tonight, tentatively schedule for 5:15 pm in the Marjorie Leff Miller lecture hall. Students will have the opportunity to share their perspectives with the Sexual Assault Task Force.

JM Stewart '18