It's On Us Week of Action Prompts Campus Conversations On Sexual Assault

Keya Acharya giving her talk "Sexual Assault Trauma and Memory" during Spring Week of Action. Photo credit: Victoria Mycue

Keya Acharya giving her talk "Sexual Assault Trauma and Memory" during Spring Week of Action. Photo credit: Victoria Mycue

Earlier this month, the Sarah Lawrence chapter of It’s On Us participated in Spring Week of Action, a nationwide campaign to shift the way we think and talk about sexual assault. Events were organized by members of the chapter and were open to the entire campus community. The talks and workshops were meant to educate students on the nuanced issue of sexual assault, but there was another underlying issue in the dialogue: concerns over the way sexual assault is handled after the fact, not just legally but specifically on this campus.

At the end of Fall Week of Action in October, It’s On Us members and other protesters marched to the office of Title IX Coordinator Dean Al Green to deliver a list of 22 demands for change in policy regarding sexual assault on the Sarah Lawrence campus. Six months later, as Spring Week of Action was approaching, Green set up an official meeting with the chapter to discuss the demands in detail. The first thing Green said in the meeting, which took place Wednesday, April 11, was an apology for just how late the meeting was. He emphasized that he takes the matter as “nothing trivial.” 

The meeting covered the first ten demands and the discussion will continue in a second meeting scheduled for Wednesday, April 26. Green was generally sympathetic and open-minded to each demand, but noted certain challenges and limitations. 

One demand of the group called for no-contact orders to “be enforced fully,” as several survivors at Sarah Lawrence have brought up breaches in their no-contact orders and the school’s lack of policy for penalizing perpetrators who violate them. Green said these orders are “hard on a campus like this,” detailing a time when a perpetrator was inside the Blue Room and, because of the dark, was not aware that the survivor who had the no-contact order against them was in the room as well.

Also discussed during the meeting was that the school is working on hiring a second Title IX Coordinator. The group’s first demand asks that survivors have the option to tell their story to a female member of the school administration, so It’s On Us members asked that the new hire be female. 

The school recently completed their search and offered the position to a female applicant, one who some It’s On Us members had interviewed and found favorable. She turned the offer down, however, and Green said he will restart the process again this summer to have it filled by fall. But because of the time frame of the hiring process this time around, students in It’s On Us question how involved in the process the school will allow them to be.

Members also brought up concerns about the school’s philosophy on sexual assault allegations more broadly. During her talk on sexual assault and trauma memory given during Week of Action, It’s On Us member Keya Acharya (’20) mentioned that she participated in interviewing some applicants for the Title IX position, who all told her that the school administration wants the new hire to remain "neutral" in cases of sexual assault accusations. Acharya said she felt this approach was harmful when taking into account the statistic that only two to eight percent of rape accusations are false. “Most of the time people are telling the truth,” Acharya said. “People need to understand these statistics so that [...] they can make an informed decision.”

While discussing one demand, which asks that students "be informed of all of their options and what will happen in full detail if they choose to report sexual assault,” It’s On Us members added that the signs in the restrooms about what to do after a sexual assault are outdated and should be replaced. The group also discussed the need for better access to therapy and their demand to waive the limit on free Health Services appointments for assault survivors, but Green said this would be difficult because of the existing high volume of students requesting therapy at the Health and Wellness Center.

At a recent conference he had attended about Title IX, Green mentioned he had found that, “In some ways, our campus is behind the times.” 

Overall, Green found no demand unreasonable and noted that the school was already improving on some of those shortfallings detailed in the list. He described the process necessary to undertake each demand as well as any involved complications, whether legal or specific to our campus.

Green confirmed that the federal investigation into the college’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault and subsequent violation of Title IX, which began in 2014, has not yet concluded. In addition to this case, there is a slew of current Sarah Lawrence students who were sexually assaulted on campus and feel that the college’s response was far from ideal. In fact, this is precisely why Emma Heisler-Murray (’19) decided to start an It’s On Us chapter at Sarah Lawrence this past fall.

“I’ve always been passionate about sexual assault,” she said. “But after I was assaulted last spring, I was upset with the way it was handled and realized how much of an issue it was when I learned about other people who were assaulted on campus, and I really wanted do something about it.”

Spring Week of Action included events like a talk by feminist author Leora Tanenbaum, a self-defense class, a talk for male-identifying students, a dating violence workshop, an intersectional disability and sexual violence talk, an intersectional LGBTQIA+ and sexual violence talk, and a presentation on the neurobiology of sexual assault.

All members of the chapter participated in organizing, whether hands-on or by bringing up topics during meetings that eventually became too obvious of an issue to not include in an event. “I noticed that we make a lot of space in It’s On Us meetings for people to share their experiences, so certain things that they may be struggling with and what topics they care about, and we try to tailor the Week of Action to the needs that have been brought to our attention,” Heisler-Murray said.

As It’s On Us members noticed many students are not familiar with the laws and school policies surrounding sexual assault on campus, the Spring Week of Action also included an event called “Know Your Rights,” led by Caitlin McCartney, a Gender Justice Fellow at national non-profit organization Legal Momentum. “The law can be an important tool for victims of sexual harassment and violence,” McCartney said during her talk.

Legal Momentum recommends schools do a few things that they may not already be doing in cases of sexual assault, all based on the guidance that interprets Title IX. “The burden should be on the perpetrator when at all possible. It shouldn’t be on the victim,” McCartney said. She added, “If you’re in a class and someone cheats on your paper and you report it to your professor, it’s not going to be you proving why the student should be expelled.”

These recommendations also include providing safety and educational accommodations for victims, withholding a diploma from the accused perpetrator until the case is complete, and banning a non-student perpetrator from campus to prevent additional assaults.

Another event held during the week was called “Guy Talk,” and was only open to male-identifying students. As no male-identifying individuals attended any events in the Fall Week of Action, Heissler-Murray said the event was held to push for more male participation in the discussion on sexual violence. Talk leaders Andrei Dolezal (’19) and Caleb Wolf (’19) played a “consent playlist” and presented on the laws of consent in New York and more specifically at Sarah Lawrence, the definition of affirmative consent, their own personal experiences with it, and the related campus climate.

In further efforts to expand the campus conversation on sexual assault, Spring Week of Action introduced a number of more intersectional events than Fall. It’s On Us members Maggie Leppert (‘19) and Haley Bogdanoff ('19), who are also members of Disability Alliance, lead a talk on sexual violence in the disabled community. The comprehensive talk covered everything from able-bodied individuals taking advantage of the disabled in relationships, not only those of a romantic nature, to normalizing respect for all instead of considering respect towards a disabled individual a saintly act.

One attendee shared that because they are disabled and their previous partner was abled, people didn’t believe that the partner was capable of the abuse that this attendee came forward about. This is because people saw the abled partner as “gracious” for “dealing” with this attendee, a view that Leppert and Bogdanoff noted is unfortunately prevalent.

Heisler-Murray said that It’s On Us will continue to push for needed change at Sarah Lawrence, through events like Week of Action, through sub-committees with Dean Al Green, and through initiatives like the List of Demands. “I definitely hope that some of the policies at Sarah Lawrence change, and that sexual assault becomes something that’s more cared about at Sarah Lawrence,” Heisler-Murray said.

One student wrote Heisler-Murray a thank you card after Spring Week of Action, and another approached her about It's On Us, saying "I didn't know this existed before now—this is awesome." Ultimately, she is happy that the chapter and the Week of Action are starting more conversations about sexual assault, not just directly between It's On Us and administration through the List of Demands, but throughout the entire campus.

“I think more than anything sexual assault was a very quiet topic before, something very prevalent but very quiet, so I’m glad that at least it’s getting people to think about it and talk about it a bit more,” Heisler-Murray said.

Victoria Mycue '20