What Does the Trump Administration Mean for Campus Sexual Assault?

An It's On Us protest on campus last semester, covered by News 12: Westchester. Photo courtesy of News 12. 

An It's On Us protest on campus last semester, covered by News 12: Westchester. Photo courtesy of News 12. 

In 2011 the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released what is known as a “Dear Colleague” letter concerning Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX bans discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. This letter specifically concerned sexual harassment and violence, defining it as a form of sex discrimination and setting a series of guidelines for educational institutions to follow. These guidelines included holding perpetrators to the preponderance of evidence standard and the designation by schools of an employee as Title IX Coordinator, a position held by Dean of Equity and Inclusion Allen Green at SLC.

While the Obama Administration focused intensely on campus sexual violence through policy measures such as the Dear Colleague letter and through initiatives such as the It’s On Us campaign, the issue’s future in the Trump era is uncertain. The official 2016 GOP Platform states that progress made on issues of sexual violence by the Obama Administration “must be halted” and indicates support for rolling back the preponderance of evidence standard, so that educational institutions would have to hold alleged perpetrators of sexual violence to the same “beyond reasonable doubt” standard that a court of law upholds. 

If the Trump Administration were to follow through on the Republican Party’s stated goals, Dean Green said it would become more difficult for the College to hold people responsible for sexual assault and harassment. He defended the current preponderance of evidence standard. 

“We’re not a court of law,” Dean Green said. “It would probably make it much more difficult [if the College has to use] a standard of evidence that is used in a court of law. Might [that] make it more difficult for respondents to be found responsible? It may. Right now I think that our standard says something about the expectations of students on college campuses.” 

“Preponderance of evidence”, otherwise known as the 51% rule, means that the significance of evidence in a civil case is given priority over the amount of evidence. Part of what this means, Dean Green said, is that the survivor in any given case is taken seriously as someone capable of narrating something that happened to them.  

“[Sarah Lawrence] is a place where we think students can narrate an incident and be believable, and that we should be able to find an outcome based on that as opposed to saying ‘without evidence or without x, y, and z, we don’t have anywhere to go,’” Dean Green said. “I think that makes college into something less tenable; if we’re building the minds of the next generation then I would hope that we’re building the minds of folks who have the sensitivities and the intuition to create an environment that’s safe for everyone.” 

For on-campus sexual assault advocacy groups such as It’s On Us, communication between survivors and administrators is an issue of great concern. It’s On Us is a nationwide public awareness program initiated in 2014 by the Obama administration. Emma Heisler-Murray, a junior, created Sarah Lawrence’s chapter in 2016.

A document circulated by the group demands of the College a list of actions regarding sexual assault policy, including the clear definition of terms like “affirmative consent,” continuous consent training for upperclassmen, and prioritizing the needs of the survivor if a report or complaint is made.

“Survivors should not have to tell their stories to multiple people or multiple times,” reads one of the demands. “They should be able to choose one person within the administration with whom they trust to share this story. They should have the option of this person being a female.”

Dean Green said staff members are looking for ways to make campus safer and respond to the criticism and demands of students. Survivors can informally disclose that something happened to them without mentioning the perpetrator’s name or they can make a formal complaint in which someone is named. Either way, Dean Green said that he tries to minimize the number of times that someone has to tell their story, which was an early complaint about Sarah Lawrence’s Title IX policies. 

A more recent criticism is that there are no female Title IX agents on campus for students to talk to. According to a posting on Inside Higher Ed, Sarah Lawrence is currently searching for such an agent, and Dean Green confirmed that this search is ongoing. In the meantime, he said, there are temporary and admittedly imperfect solutions to the problem. 

“As much as I would like to think that I am sensitive and approachable, I know it’s very different for a woman to have to relive a story in front of a man, if that was the case,” Dean Green said. “And so what we’ve done in light of that is try to connect them with Victim Assistance Services, who can be victim advocates and who can also work with them through the process. [Victim Assistance Services] are a confidential resource off campus, though we work closely with them.”

Victim Assistance Services offers a 24/7 hot line, and confidential disclosures can be made to counselors at the Health and Wellness office. 

Dean Green acknowledged that talk around sexual violence often excludes people of non-binary gender identities, and said that preventative measures need to include them.

“It’s not just binary,” he said. “I wouldn’t want people to assume that this men/women binary is the only thing we’re seeing — I think we have to be very responsive to everyone in our community.” 

Despite the network of resources that Sarah Lawrence has related to sexual assault, the Sarah Lawrence Sexual Assault Task Force’s Biannual Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey found that only 11% of students who experienced sexual assault made a formal report while 92% of students indicated that they knew and remembered the reporting process. Dean Green said it is hard to interpret this statistic because the choice to report is so personal. 

The Task Force’s findings say, “We want all students to know that confidential support is available through the Health & Wellness Center. If you have experienced sexual violence, the decision to make a formal report with the College and/or contact the police is yours. Staff at the Health Center will support you in the choices you make. If you choose to make a formal report, campus officials are trained to help you navigate the process.”

Additionally, the survey found that 65% of students reported feeling safe at Sarah Lawrence, compared to 85% at peer institutions. Again, Dean Green said this is hard to qualify, but he did point to several efforts that the school has made to secure the campus. 

“Every campus is different,” he said. “Our campus is wide open, we have a thoroughfare that goes right through [it]. It’s hard for me to quantify what exactly that says about feeling safe. We’ve added more blue light phones, we’ve talked about using the inner routes around campus, we have the shuttles — so again I don’t know if it is a perception of when [students] are traveling around campus. It’s hard for me to read something specific into those statistics.” 

Dean Green said he wants students to know what resources are available to them. In addition to those resources that are already available, there are a number of proposals from students that are being reviewed and implemented into Sarah Lawrence’s sexual assault policy. Students have pushed for all students to take the Consent and Respect online workshop. Dean Green said next year will be the first that every student has taken it, as it is offered to incoming first-years. 

Information about Sarah Lawrence’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Support programs can be found at sarahlawrence.edu/svps. Dean Green said his office in Andrews is always open to students, and he can be reached by email at agreen@sarahlawrence.edu. 

Ricky Martorelli '19


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