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

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

Keya Acharya giving their 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 what prompted the creation of a Sarah Lawrence chapter of It’s On Us.

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

SLC Phoenix

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.

Student Senate Works on Bringing More Gender-Neutral Bathrooms to Campus

All gender bathroom signage in Esther Raushenbush Library’s downstairs restrooms. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

All gender bathroom signage in Esther Raushenbush Library’s downstairs restrooms. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

Whenever  Micha Dugan (‘19) begins to approach the nearest restroom, before swinging open the first door that they see is labeled as such, they halt before it. Looking at the sign on the door, Dugan, who identifies as non-binary and genderfluid, thinks: “Am I welcome here?”

After years of dialogue on the lack of gender-neutral restrooms on campus - and years of students like Dugan, a co-chair of TransAction, expressing their concerns - it seems progress might be on the horizon. Senate chair Leonardo Rocchiccioli (’18) introduced the issue at a Student Senate meeting on Sept. 22. The executive committee identified six crucial, “overarching goals,” one of which was to make all, or at least more, restrooms on campus gender-neutral. Student Senate continued to discuss their plan to achieve the objective throughout the fall semester.

“As a first step we want to make the bathrooms that work effectively as gender-neutral bathrooms, that are single stall bathrooms, make those officially and formally gender-neutral,” Rocchiccioli said. “After that we want to have a conversation about increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.”

The library, MacCracken, the Science Center, and the Pub, among other buildings, have single occupancy restrooms with gender-neutral signage. Titsworth Lecture Hall was designed to have two ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) UNISEX restrooms and ADA compliant signage. According to Assistant Vice President for Facilities Mo Gallagher, as the college moves forward in new construction or renovation, the feasibility of ADA accessible bathrooms will continue to be considered.

As students have expressed that the gender-neutral signage may be not be as clear as it could be (Rocchiccioli noted that the existing ones were made “ad hoc”), one goal that Student Senate is discussing with Gallagher is sign redevelopment.

“Mo suggested that we come up with signage that seemed to be the most inclusive and replacing those bathrooms that are essentially gender-neutral right now with the new signage to make it formally more inclusive,” Rocchiccioli said.

Though the aforementioned buildings do have gender-neutral restrooms, other buildings that do not include Heimbold and Westlands, the latter of which Rocchiccioli said he finds especially concerning.

“Westlands is so important because it is our flagship building,” he said. “It is the first thing people see when they come to campus and it is so odd that we pride ourselves as a queer-friendly school and then they see ‘men, women.’  That was one of the big reasons I thought this was important, because people walk onto this campus and we say ‘We have a place for you here,’ but then it is like ‘Yeah, right, I don’t even have a place to go pee.’”

A concern that came up from some senators in actualizing the proposal was hesitation in abandoning all single-gender restrooms for fear of increased risk of sexual assault. Senators discussed this and similar concerns at meetings, according to the senate minutes.

Rocchiccioli clarified this concern, saying, “What they were talking about was that some people find a safe space in the bathroom and that they wouldn’t want to disturb that, and by safe space I mean if it is someone who has been assaulted, they don’t want to encounter the assailant in the bathroom."

The problem may be curtailed with implementation of single occupancy gender-neutral restrooms, but such would be difficult in buildings where single occupancy restrooms are not already existent.

Rocchiccioli said he believes that senate’s collaboration with the college to achieve this goal will turn into “tangible work in the next semester.” Dugan noted they are hopeful that the college and senate will succeed in their work.

“Changing signage and taking steps to make Sarah Lawrence a more gender affirming space will take time, effort, and likely some money,” Dugan said. “But this is a small, small cost in comparison to the gain.”

Victoria Mycue '20 and Andrea Cantor '17

John Jasperse: Gracing the Stage as New Dance Director

 The new director of SLC’s dance program, John Jasperse. Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

 The new director of SLC’s dance program, John Jasperse. Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

John Jasperse, new director of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence, has not retired from his acclaimed role in the world of dance. “This idea of doing more than one thing has kind of always been how I’ve progressed through my career,” he said.

Still, he admits his new position as director is “a very large job.” The dancer and choreographer who graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1985 began this fall as director of the dance program, replacing Sara Rudner who has been director since 1988 and will continue to teach in the department.

Though Jasperse has taught as a guest artist and has intermittently taught seminars and workshops at institutions including Hollins University, University of California–Davis, and P.A.R.T.S. (Brussels, Belgium), relatively this will be his first long-term position at an institution. 

“Dance is not an easy economic climate, so I’ve been very privileged to be able to focus in that way primarily or solely. Now as I’m aging, I could continue that, but that might create more challenges for me as an older person,” Jasperse said. “So there’s a little bit of long-range planning, thinking about what’s the way in which I can remain vibrant and connected as I age.”

Just as Sarah Lawrence prides itself on faculty who are actively working and contributing to their field while concurrently teaching at the college, Jasperse assures he will continue to work in choreography and performance in the living world of dance, as that type of connection has always been integral “for the vibrancy of this program.” However, Jasperse said taking this position was certainly a career shift.

“It’s a little bit challenging to figure out how to balance all of that, obviously because I am now a director of a program as an added responsibility,” Jasperse said. “I’m sure that my creative practice will change.”

Jasperse follows an impressive lineage of dance directors beginning with Bessie Schonberg, the founder and director of the program from 1938 to 1974. In recognition of her prominent presence in the New York dance scene, the New York Dance and Performance Awards were nicknamed “the Bessies.” Jasperse won one such award in 2014 for Outstanding Production for his work Within between.

“After Bessie was Viola Farber, who was another really celebrated dancer and performer, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Company, and then Sara Rudner, founding member of Twyla Tharp Dance Company,” Jasperse said. “You’ve had these very strong women, who were major forces in the field of dance, associated with and directing this program.”

According to Jasperse, the program has largely evolved by the agency of its directors, a practice which he intends to maintain during his tenure.

“At Sarah Lawrence there’s something very visionary and very different over the various iterations of the program that has happened, so that was appealing to me,” Jasperse said. “Hopefully I will be able to keep all the strengths that are there and adapt it in a way that it continues to respond to the changing world.”

Among his anticipated developments, one of Jasperse’s foremost objectives is the promotion of community. He plans to establish programs accessible to all Sarah Lawrence students, not just those taking dance classes, as a means of engaging all in the artform in order to encourage group empathy.

“We do have a practice of building proficiency in relationship to embodied experience through movement practice, but is that the only way? And my notion would be: What are the experiences of dance and movement that can bring to the college that are immediately accessible to anybody?”

Inspiring expansive ideas of dance is just part of Jasperse’s larger aim: to inspire students to expand beyond the self, beyond the “solipsistic space of ‘my voice, my vision, my way, my identity, my projection.’” Jasperse wants students to consider that, “‘What do I get?’ is not the only driving question.”

Embracing community is especially important at an institution like Sarah Lawrence where collaborating is crucial to a well-rounded, liberal arts education, Jasperse said, noting the concept’s feasibility with interdisciplinary courses and projects.

“How does my work talk with politics, or with ideas from other artistic disciplines, or with social culture?” Jasperse asks himself in developing his work. “While I have really worked abstractly, I see those connections as really active and informing the choices that I make as an artist. So it seemed like an interesting kind of institution to be inside.”

Noting subjects which can be integrated into dance making—political science, literature, history, LGBTQ studies—Jasperse said he admires Sarah Lawrence’s encouragement of such interdisciplinary study and aims to grow it within the dance program. He also expressed that his admiration for this model of education was part of the reason he decided to take the director position at Sarah Lawrence specifically.

“I’m a very particular kind of artist,” Jasperse said. “In some institutions that are more traditional conservatories, I’m an odd fit, because I’m working at a high level professionally, but some people might find my work ‘weird’ or not subscribing to some more traditional value systems.” 

Although Jasperse had been well-received at some traditional institutions, others have not been so welcoming. He explained, “When you’re cast as the freak, you have a very difficult position in trying to actually activate students.”

Just as dance at Sarah Lawrence is far from a conservatory-style program, Jasperse emphasized that it is also in no way an isolated program. It does not exist “just as professional practice that is in its own corner,” he said. As director, Jasperse maintained that he will grow and expand the interdisciplinary mentality.

“I’m looking forward to digging in and really not getting too daunted by the challenges that I see, and really focusing on the opportunities that are very real here and building on the kind of strengths of that this program historically has.”

Victoria Mycue '20

SLC Phoenix

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.