Group Meeting on Sexual Assault Grows Tense

It's On Us members accepting a  Student Leadership Award. Photo by: Dana Maxson

It's On Us members accepting a  Student Leadership Award. Photo by: Dana Maxson

Last week, the Phoenix reported on the first meeting It’s On Us, a student organization focused on sexual assault, had with the Title IX Coordinator Al Green to discuss demands the group had presented to administration in the fall. The conversation of the first meeting with Green and members was fairly tame in comparison with the second meeting, which took place last Wednesday. 

That is not to say Green opposed the second half of the demands after conceding to the first half discussed two weeks prior. Rather, he acknowledged that most issues students have are valid, though he noted repeatedly that he would have to seek legal counsel before making any official changes. The tension appeared to come out of a sentiment members shared: it’s possible that Green may not recognize the gravity of these issues, even as students make effort to explain them. “It’s really hard to feel like we’re not being listened to,” It’s On Us member Abbey Serafin (‘19) said.

While discussing a demand on how “sexual assault” and related terms should be “clearly and concretely defined to the student body,” a discrepancy arose between Green and members about what constitutes a sexual assault.

Green told members that the school indicates degrees of the incident by using specific terms like “forcible touching” in campus alert emails instead of using “sexual assault” in all cases. This is because, he continued, “Sexual assault assumes penetration.”

It’s On Us leader Emma Heisler-Murray (‘18) immediately proceeded to read aloud the exact legal definition of sexual assault, which includes any non-consensual sexual touching of a person. 

After the meeting, Serafin told the Phoenix that comments like Green’s are fairly common misconceptions about sexual assault that can invalidate the trauma many survivors go through. She added that misdefining sexual assault in this way erases assaults in LGBTQ+ relationships.

“Hearing comments like that can be hurtful and invalidating, but are even more of reason to advocate for changing the way the school handles and talks about sexual assault,” Serafin said. “It also enforces the idea that our actions and efforts need to be directed at not only students, but also faculty, staff, and administration.”

It’s On Us members spoke to Green in this meeting about introducing a Peer Educator program to the college to educate the campus on sexual assault. Some of the It’s On Us members see discussions with Green as part of this same teaching process.

“Al Green thinks he’s completely educated on issues of sexual assault, but that’s not possible for someone who isn’t a survivor,” It’s On Us member Keya Acharya (‘20) said. “We are willing to teach you, even though that’s not our job.”

She added that in her view, Green did not always treat sexual violence with the seriousness it deserves, such as when members explained their own difficulties with the reporting process.

While discussing the lack of therapy sessions available for sexual assault survivors on campus, Green told members that therapy, in general, is in demand. He spoke about his son who, at his own college, is going through an issue, unrelated to sexual assault, and is having trouble getting therapy appointments at his school.

The purpose of his story was to point out that therapy shortage on college campuses is common. But It’s On Us members worry that the comparison signifies that Green may not be as informed as a Title IX Coordinator should be about the severity of sexual violence.

“His comparison between his son and being a survivor was utterly disgusting and unacceptable,” Acharya told the Phoenix. “It makes me so uncomfortable that this is being said by the Title IX coordinator.”

Therapy is one of It’s On Us’s demands, because they believe that limits on therapy at Health Services should be waived for survivors and that a trained therapist in trauma therapy, such as EMDR, should be hired. Green said that while, to his knowledge, the recently hired therapist does not have such training, she was the best for the position, since she had already worked for the college in the past. He added that current clinical social worker, Stephen Gadischkie, does have trauma training. Heisler-Murray pointed out that Gadischkie was trained in EMDR 16-years-ago, specifically at the time of 9/11. According to Heisler-Murray, Gadischkie told her he does not feel equipped to treat sexual assault trauma using the EMDR psychotherapy technique. Green said, in response, “I can follow up with that, see if that’s correct.”

It’s On Us members want institutionalized change at the administrative level. One of the group’s demands even directly asks the administration to “focus on the safety of the student, not the image of the college.” During the meeting, Green maintained that the school already does this.  He continued that if anyone feels otherwise they can report to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which a student did a few years ago and led to an ongoing federal investigation into the college’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault.

To clarify how the school, its administrators, and even Green specifically, may not be as sensitive as they could be to survivors on campus, It’s On Us member Maggie Leppert (‘18) explained that reports should be taken more seriously, throughout the reporting process, during and after the hearing, or even if the survivor chooses not to hold a hearing. Though Green has maintained that legally the school must be fair, equitable, and unbiased towards both parties, Leppert holds this is not an excuse to invalidate survivors’ stories.

“I think one of the things we need to talk about is the way that we use the word ‘unbiased’ to actually mean questioning survivors,” Leppert said in the meeting. “Because I think that when you say, ‘Because they were not found responsible, then it didn’t happen,’ or ‘Because we didn’t go through a hearing, then we don’t really know if it happened’ is saying that unless we have physical proof and physical evidence, then your word isn’t good enough.”

Leppert continued that not only should the school be more respectful and less suspicious towards the reporting individual during the reporting process, but they should also do more for the reporting individual in general. She said that this should be the standard of respect, even when the reported perpetrator is found not guilty in a campus hearing, which Leppert said is how the majority of hearings go despite, sometimes, a good deal of evidence indicating otherwise.

“We need to validate and say, ‘Well, legally we can’t expel them because they weren’t found guilty, but we can protect you this way, and we can do this, and we do believe you, and we are not going to allow this person to come near you, and that’s not going to be your responsibility,’” Leppert said.

Green responded that he would talk about this with his colleagues. “There are a number of things that I personally think we need to talk about, and then we will send to legal counsel and say ‘Are we correct? and ‘Do we have legal standing to make certain decisions?’”

Many of his responses similarly involved approaching legal counsel and discussing matters relating to policy with his colleagues more over the summer. Acharya said that, because of this, she thinks It’s On Us and Green “have been running in circles” during these meetings.

“Al says that he will check on things, change things, etcetera, but he never says ‘By this date, this policy will be changed,’” she said. “It seems like nothing is going to change.”

Serafin, however, is hopeful that discussions like these between It’s On Us and Green do prompt real action on the part of the administration and that the changes discussed come to fruition soon.

“As students of Sarah Lawrence College, it is our right to feel safe and secure on the campus, but unfortunately that is not the case for a lot of people,” Serafin said. “Sexual assault is happening on our campus, and as a result of the betrayal of safety, the school could at least better try to listen to survivors and actually hold the assailants accountable for their actions.”

Victoria Mycue '20

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The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.