Questions Continue Post Sexual Assault Survey

Posters meant to educate students on sexual assault on campus. Photo credit: Ellie Brumbaum

Posters meant to educate students on sexual assault on campus. Photo credit: Ellie Brumbaum

In the aftermath of the survey released this past January, SLC continues to deal with the issue of sexual assault and safety on campus. Recent events have been setting out to inform and promote communication within the Sarah Lawrence community, joining other efforts in the last few years since SLC went under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for a Title IX violation. 

At a Town Hall organized by the Sexual Assault Task Force earlier this semester, a small crowd gathered in the Miller Lecture Hall: the task force, some other faculty, staff and administration, and a few other students. The meeting was described in an email to students from the faculty as an opportunity to discuss topics related to the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault, the school’s “recent and forthcoming Sexual Violence Prevention & Support efforts” and “policy updates on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence & Stalking,” as well as “other topics raised by the community.” 

The survey, released in January, showed an 11% official reporting rate, and a lack of perceived safety at Sarah Lawrence compared to other participating schools. Discussion at the meeting focused on the results of the survey, what had been done to improve safety in the past few years, and what could be done in the future. Dean Allen Green, head of the task force and Title IX coordinator at SLC, said, “We have engaged in a very very rigorous educational campaign,” and that among other things, they have “been looking at our resources to make sure students have access [and] also been looking at the role of our investigator that investigates those cases; there are still a number of questions that we have on the table to look at.” 

Some suggested at the meeting that communication problems between students and school administration or staff might have a role in low reporting rates or students feeling unsafe. Genevieve Lamont (’18), a member of the task force, said, “One thing that we were discussing a lot is that everyone who took the survey who experienced sexual assault on this campus chose to tell somebody about it, whether it was a friend, a mentor, a teacher, an RA, health services.” She continued that despite this, only 11% of the students who experienced assault actually submitted a formal report, meaning they actually went to security, so the task force wondered whether this could be connected to “doubt in the institution, and relationships students might have to campus security and the institution.” 

She added that it would be most helpful to open that dialogue to the campus community, but this has been difficult to consistently enable. 

Student Carolyn Martinez-Class said, “I think most of us don’t read past the fourth paragraph of an email. So – the laws changed, and the police is no longer immediately involved. But people are still operating under the assumption that the police is immediately involved. So that’s part of the hesitancy.” Additionally, speaking on awareness of the many policy changes mentioned at the meeting, she said, “And there have been changes to the hearing process. My first year, that was part of the horror stories.” 

Nathan Naimark (’17), another student on the task force, explained that the survey showed that, “Generally students do feel like they are valued and respected in the classroom. And generally they do feel like they are treated fairly by the faculty, staff, and administrators. But also there are lots of numbers, lots of sections in this first part that point to the fact that students don’t necessarily feel listened to by campus staff and administrators.” 

There have been multiple programs recently at SLC to inform students about the resources and rights they have, and about assault prevention and the definitions of consent. However, the response from students has still been unclear. Students may not feel they will be listened to and respected, when discussing safety or when reporting violence. Hannaway explained after the meeting, “There are so many reasons a survivor might not report their assault, and those reasons will differ for every person. I can’t necessarily say why someone isn’t reporting. Everything possible should be done to make sure survivors know that they are safe if they do choose to report, but nobody should ever be shamed for not reporting.” 

She also advised that, “Changing the conversation, and making sure that discussion about sexual assault on campus is both informative and sensitive would help students feel more comfortable reporting.”  

The survey itself did not specifically address reasons for a perceived lack of safety or for low reporting rates. Cultural factors, not only lack of knowledge about school policy, can be part of what makes it difficult for victims/survivors to report violence. Shannon Ruth-Leigh, a member of the task force who is also part of the health-advocacy graduate program, referenced a study that found, “The number one reason that [students] didn’t report is because they felt that the incident was not serious enough to warrant a formal report. And then, for –particularly for LGBT students, the second main reason was because they feared they would be questioned for the assault.” 

Society’s messages about assault can affect victims/survivors’ decision whether to report, in complex ways. There are many factors, culture-based and not, that go into that decision. Discussion at the town hall meeting about education and policy change around sexual assault brought up questions of how to provide respect and support for survivors in whatever decisions they make. 

Martinez-Class elaborated on what she had said at the town hall, “I think part of the low reporting rate is the lack of support not just institutionally but also from students themselves that folks who have been assaulted face. I think another part is that folks really don’t know what happens if you do report it. The same bad experiences that were circulating when I arrived in 2013, are still circulating, and that bad image has persisted through policy changes.”

As discussed at the meeting, school’s efforts to better inform students have had some success. Students who participated in the mandatory ‘Consent and Respect’ course, in the past few years, were more likely to answer in the survey that they understood consent and how to report an assault. Hannaway and other students, however, think more needs to be done in the future. 

She explained, “I would love for the administration to emphasize the experience of students more. Talking about sexual assault absolutely requires sensitivity and understanding, especially when it’s coming from administrators. The tone of the most recent town hall definitely didn’t create a safe environment for discussion, but I think that’s something that they’re going to work on.” She added, “The emphasis should be on survivors and safety, not on numbers. I think there are different ways of communicating that would be way more effective. I would love to see more programming on sexual assault prevention, especially in FYS classes or in orientation. If we can get library info sessions in FYS classes, shouldn’t we be able to get something as important and necessary as sexual assault prevention?” 

Venika Menon (’18), a student on the task force, pointed out the need for communication with students through sources other than besides faculty; I don’t know if 100% of professors would be able to give the best information possible.” Even with future training for faculty about how to discuss sexual assault, other sources of in-person communication would remain important. 

VOX has been planning a program like what Hannaway suggested, to supplement the information campaigns and the few, optional in-person workshops the school has hosted so far. “VOX has been working over the past year to develop a small, discussion based workshop on affirmative consent. We have trained ten students in teaching these workshops, and we’re hoping to get the workshop out to as many people as possible soon. We designed the curriculum with Planned Parenthood with the hopes that it could be implemented as part of the FYS program,” explained Hannaway. There have already been test workshops, and Vox is now searching for the chance to implement the workshops. Hannaway said, “In our test workshops, the feedback has been really great. Taking the discussion about sexual assault back into the classroom was really impactful. The Sarah Lawrence education is all about discussion and critical thinking, so giving that same importance to sexual assault prevention was definitely our goal. Now, we’re just focusing on bringing the workshops to more classes.”

Workshops are being planned for faculty and administrators as well, not only students. Ruth-Leigh discussed workshops planned through the Capstone project, at the meeting. She is working with the Health Advocacy program on “developing a workshop for administrators and faculty around how to best support students affected by sexual and interpersonal violence. And that doesn’t just mean from the moment that somebody comes to you and says, ‘I think I may have been assaulted.’ I think most people on this campus have the awareness of how to get that person to resources right then. But I think that there is a need always for an ongoing conversation about how we can better support students who are coming in with a whole range of traumas, of experiences, that affect their ability to learn and develop here on this campus.”  

The discussion about sexual violence, at Sarah Lawrence and elsewhere, is not limited to the task force or to events such as the town hall. At the town hall, Menon said, referring to her and the two other students on the task force, “We are very aware of the fact that the three of us do not represent Sarah Lawrence.” Lamont said part of their goal is, “making sure that those conversations are spread throughout the campus.” She added, “We’re a campus that can talk about this and wants to talk about it. We don’t want to hide it. We don’t want to pretend like it’s not happening, or that there’s not something we can do. Because that’s not what this school’s about.”

J.M. Stewart '18

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