Sexual Assault Survey Brings Up Questions About Safety on Campus

Consent education posters on campus. Photo credit: JM Stewart.

Consent education posters on campus. Photo credit: JM Stewart.

Results from the Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey that began in February 2015 were published recently, and while Sarah Lawrence’s results were similar to other schools that participated in the survey, there were some important differences. One of the most notable differences was the rate of reporting—11%, despite 92% of students saying they knew how to report. The percent of students who felt safe on campus was also unusually low; 68.1%, while this statistic was 84.7% at peer institutions. 130 schools participated in the survey, and approximately 500 students at SLC. 

The Task Force was created in the fall of 2013. “It came after a major incident on campus where we wanted to take a look at our policies and procedures,” explained Dean Al Green, the leader of the task force and SLC’s Title IX coordinator.  Genevieve Lamont (’18), a student representative on the task force, said, “It’s very much an ongoing dialogue. We need feedback from students, because we – the three undergraduate students – make up a very small portion of [the student body]. All our narratives are very different...and they’re not conducive to getting the general climate of the whole campus.” Lamont continued, “We rely on feedback from students to kind of get the general understanding, so it’s very much an ongoing dialogue that is happening, and it is constantly changing, and it has different viewpoints, and it’s very complicated. But we’re doing our best.” 

There is a task force email, sexualassaulttaskforce@sarahlawrence.edu, but representatives of the task force say it has been underused. Another student on the task force, Venika Menon (’18), explained “We would appreciate if students wrote to us, because I know that it’s a conversation a lot of students have on campus.”

One of the most visible changes to SLC policy on sexual assault in the past few years is the Affirmative Consent policy. In July 2015, a higher standard for consent was established in New York state law. Sarah Lawrence’s definition of consent now echoes that definition. The school has publicized the updated definition of consent through a poster campaign. The posters are part of a larger effort to educate SLC students on sexual assault, particularly on sexual assault prevention in recent years. The mandatory Consent and Respect online course also began two years ago, for all new students and for students in leadership roles such as RAs. It appears to have been helpful; survey results indicated that first and second years felt they had more knowledge of how to recognize and respond to assault, compared to juniors and seniors (who did not all take the course). 

“Speaking from personal experience, when we did the Consent and Respect before coming to school and then after doing it as a student leader on campus here, I think it’s a good re-introduction to the concept that happens, [and] it makes a lot of laws clearer to you, about what your rights as a student are, so that can be very helpful,” Menon said. 

Michelle Guile, a Health Advocacy graduate student who recently joined the task force, partly agreed: “I definitely felt like the consent training was helpful, I mean it did give you the option to have the Title IX coordinator’s information texted to you, which I personally did so that I would have it.” However, she also felt more was needed, saying, “It’s helpful but it’s also lacking...I definitely feel like there needs to be more education and awareness of what’s happening. Especially for people who don’t live here, or are not on campus all the time, like you’re not going know [certain] stuff.” Guile also raised some concerns about the ‘Yes means yes’ posters around campus. “There’s probably just so much more to it that you’re not going to understand by just seeing that poster.” She clarified, “You have to actively educate people.” 

School procedure in cases of assault has also changed. The changes are based in an effort to make resources more accessible to victims/survivors, and to give them more control over the situation following an assault. Dean Green explained, “We have made a few changes in that we now kind of automatically call victims’ support for any victims; we also are working with Westchester Medical Center and a program there called FACT – Forensic Acute Care Team – which is, anyone who is sexually assaulted, they would go directly there [and] they could retrieve evidence and maintain it, and so that happens.” He continued, “The other change in policy is that we used to automatically call Yonkers police, and now it’s up to the victim to decide if they want the police called. 

He added the school has started doing threat assessments immediately after an incident is reported, to assess whether an individual should be allowed on campus. He explained, “We have to make that assessment based on the safety of the whole community. And so we’re really taking that very seriously as well. 

The reasons behind the low reporting rate, and the relative lack of a sense of safety, remain unclear. The perception of a lack of safety is likely part of a wider problem than that of sexual assault. Menon pointed out that “People feel more unsafe than the numbers would suggest they should, and that [is because of] a lot of factors including the perception about general school safety, and the question of ‘have you ever been attacked or sexually assaulted’ was a very specific question, so I think people might have come at those two questions differently.” She continued, “The example that I gave at the committee [was], I would feel unsafe walking from here to Hill House at night, for a very specific reason, that being that my friend has been egged on Kimball. It has nothing to do with sexual assault. But that would also play into my answer in the first part, the perception question, and not into my answer in the second part. There are specific things that have gone into people feeling unsafe on this campus.” 

Green continued, “And we’ve been thinking about what does that mean. We’ve got security around, I don’t know if the perception is that security’s not responsive… We just don’t know. We’ll continue to ask questions, but I don’t think we’ve had any hard affirmed conclusions yet.”

Possible factors may include a lack of perceived social support for survivors. 

Lamont expressed surprise that there is no dedicated student group to enable discussion and community for survivors; “There are typically things that have chapters across different schools ..That’s really surprising. I bet there would probably be a lot of interest in that.” An isolating culture at SLC could be part of it, as could certain classroom dynamics. On the subject of feeling triggered in a classroom setting, Lamont observed, “I definitely would not feel comfortable saying to the majority of my professors, ‘Yeah, I need to leave because this is upsetting’, even for like a few minutes. That definitely does not seem like the culture.” 

There has been a history of controversy over the school over Sarah Lawrence’s responses to sexual assault on campus. Sarah Lawrence was one of multiple schools placed under investigation for sexual violence issues by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, in 2014. That controversy is part of the reason for changes in the past few years. Dean Green said, “The other thing that spurred the organization of the task force was, we have also been looking to get a response from the Office of Civil Rights about the case, the allegation that we failed the complainant. It’s been over two years now, we haven’t heard anything. We don’t even know what the complaint is, what the basis of the complaint is, we’re not allowed to know.” He continued, “But the OCR came to campus, and had open meeting with administrators and students, and there were a select number of administrators that met one-on-one with them. And they walked away, and we just have to wait for, I think, a ruling. And then we’ll look at what they say we have to change. We may have already made some of the changes that they will recommend, because we have been changing our policy as we perceive things that aren’t working as well.”

There will be a Town Hall meeting tonight, tentatively schedule for 5:15 pm in the Marjorie Leff Miller lecture hall. Students will have the opportunity to share their perspectives with the Sexual Assault Task Force.

JM Stewart '18

Issues surrounding sexual violence and misconduct persist on campus

Dean of Studies and Student Life, Allen Green, led the first sexual misconduct meeting on Sept. 18. Photo by Anthony Magana '17

Dean of Studies and Student Life, Allen Green, led the first sexual misconduct meeting on Sept. 18. Photo by Anthony Magana '17

For the past year, the subject of sexual violence and harassment has loomed over our campus like a specter. Brought to popular attention by a chain of assault cases and acts of misconduct that occurred one after another early last year, it is has been an ever-present, urgent and scary topic that fails to avoid anyone’s attention. This year has seen the creation of two new student organizations (Dangers of a Single Narrative and Students Against Sexual Violence), and even a full-fledged investigation by the Department of Education into our college's adherence to federal funding policies. 

Many students have spoken out about the sexual violence on campus, and many continue to do so. An overwhelming majority of interviewed students critiqued either the current policies of the administration or the way these policies are handled in our community. 

One student, a survivor of sexual harassment and physical assault on campus who chose to remain anonymous, voiced her frustration towards the administration for what she views as caring more about prestige and reputation than the welfare of victims of sexual misconduct. She said, “I would like Sarah Lawrence to completely forget about protecting the name, forget about their ego, forget about how many people they want to apply and increasing those numbers, saying 'this is a wonderful place to be' while ignoring all the things that students can do wrong. I want them to focus on their students' health.” The same student also said that the school acted against its own policies of confidentiality by sharing a document directed at her with the accused. “The administration just had me fill out papers—there was basically no emotional support,” she added, again expressing her concern and frustration that, in her view, students didn't get enough emotional support from the school last year.

Another student had been assaulted before coming to Sarah Lawrence, and felt that this school does a far better job than the vast majority of liberal arts schools out there, particularly her previous college.  “The reason I transferred here was because I heard that Sarah Lawrence handled these things better,” she said. “I was raped at my previous college and Sarah Lawrence was very sympathetic with everything that happened and my old school wanted me off school property.” The student voiced the need to realize that sexual assault on campus is a national problem, pointing out that she knew many others who have had similar experiences at other liberal arts colleges. She remarked, “At my previous college, I was not offered therapy, I was not offered a Dean to talk to, I was not offered police services, I was not offered anything. Sarah Lawrence has better policies in place for that, from what I've been told.” It is of note that she was sexually harassed this year by another student at Sarah Lawrence. She told us the harasser was dealt with immediately by security and her friends, as well as given a no-contact order, which she claims has been extremely effective. When asked if she felt safe on campus, the student replied that she felt relatively safe, but that, “there are certain people back on campus that make a lot of people very uncomfortable.”

The issue of sexual misconduct becomes even more daunting considering the Department of Education's investigation into Sarah Lawrence’s adherence to Title IX, a law passed in 1972 which requires “gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding.” The Dean of Studies and Student Life, Allen Green, reported that the investigation is still inconclusive, and that the administration expects a response from the Department next month. The Dean also said that even the complaint is unknown to the school, as the law does not allow it to be known if the administration even requested it. 

Solutions to these problems are not so easy to formulate. The Dean expressed his deep concern about student-on-student violence in the Sarah Lawrence Community, and said that, “there are no clear cut answers,” to calls for a comprehensive solution. The Dean acknowledged that, at the moment, the school policy is not set to change, and that he and his fellow administrators want to “keep as many ideas on the table as possible” before considering making any decisions about modifying what's on the books. In other words, the Dean said, the students should be able to voice their concerns more effectively to the administration, and stated that “Asking students what they want is the best policy.” He also emphasized heavily that times are changing, referring specifically to “the changes of gender itself” and how we ought to think about gender differently in today's world, especially too when discussing the issue of sexual assault. “I want us to think critically about the different parts of our policy to see if they pass the litmus test,” he stated, “We should periodically look at policies and procedures to examine their relevancy.” 
 

Two issues the Dean found especially in need of re-examination were the policy's application to grad students, about 99% of which live off-campus, as well as the treatment of transgender women who are victims of assault, considering having been assigned male at birth and potentially having male legal documentation only. Green stressed that “we need to do a lot of self-reflection” before any amendments are to be made, lauding open discussion and the critical thinking of students, faculty, and administration as a community. 

In fact, the Dean and  President of the College Karen Lawrence held a campus wide meeting on Sept. 18 in the Reisinger Auditorium. A handful of students, faculty, and administrators attended, but no more than thirty. The meeting was very much an open-forum where all members of the school, almost exclusively students, asked questions and made many suggestions. In particular, the Dean outlined the school's new online sexual violence and consent program mandatory for incoming freshmen. There was another all-campus meeting on Oct. 1. Fewer than 30 people showed up, including mostly students, but also faculty and administrators. The meeting was, again, an open forum, with Dean Green and Dina Nunziato of Health Services outlining Campus Alerts in particular, and attendees asking questions throughout.The next all-campus meeting will be on Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. in the Donnelley Auditorium. 

The Dean expressed the administration's interest in having students bring forth as many suggestions as possible, especially students who “are aware of other institutions that may inform what we're doing.” Interestingly, he mentioned the importance of having “performances” and other “multi-media ways to address these issues”, stressing also the need for a faster form of communication, perhaps social media, to enhance students' role in making policies more effective and fostering a safe campus environment. 

Some students, however, think the school should be focusing less on effectively implementing the official policy and more on dealing with those who have sexually assaulted other students. One student said that for those convicted of sexual misconduct or assault “there's no process in place to reform their behavior before they come back on campus; there's nothing they have to do in order to understand what they've done. Although I appreciate they're respecting the boundaries of the survivor, they're still letting someone who is unsafe back on campus...there's no rehabilitation of the perpetrators.” Another student noticed that while the school mandates programming for those who drink too much, there is nothing similar for those who have sexually hurt or harassed others on campus. 

Despite these thoughts, the school may be doing more and considering more than at first glance. Health Services in particular has put up dozens of posters around campus outlining what to do if one is sexually assaulted, and has made information accessible by going to my.slc.edu/safe or even slc.edu/safe. Dina Nunziato, the Director of Counseling and Psychological services, addressed her own concern, and the concern of many other staffers at Health Services, that procedures meant to help victims are having a reverse effect. She stated, “We want listening meetings. We want to hear from students about how to receive and perceive alerts, which are really designed to make students feel safe, are actually raising anxiety, and misinformation starts to get communicated.” She also stressed that the sexual assault liaison, once distanced from victims seeking immediate support, now directs students straight to Victim's Services. She informed that rape kits cannot be provided on campus because it would be tampering with forensic evidence if any case were appealed to police. Dina Nunziato also said that the biggest complaint of victims was that they often had to repeat their story too many times, especially if going through the Yonkers Police Department. 

Nunziato, much like Dean Green, spoke to the changes in society as initiatives to a new school approach to sexual assault. She observed, “Awareness has changed. There is an increase in awareness as to what constitutes sexual violence and what constitutes consent. Victim-blaming is shifting. Many victims are no longer blaming themselves as they used to.” The Director also said she is “hardpressed to say there is a decrease in safety. My sense is that this type of thing has been going on for a while among young people. But there is thankfully now a greater awareness of what constitutes as consent.”

Students Against Sexual Violence and Dangers of a Single Narrative, along with another unofficial student group, known simply as “the Green Guard,”  have made impressive leaps and bounds writing documents, organizing marches, and sitting in on important administrative meetings to make their messages heard. 

Unfortunately, most of the members of Students Against Sexual Violence have graduated and their meetings have been either absent or infrequent since the beginning of the summer. Most of the group’s meetings were of great help to survivors, who could report their stories to other students anonymously. Not to mention, the group acted as an organizing vanguard for student action related to changing sexual assault policies. 

Dangers of a Single Narrative, on the other hand, still meets regularly. The Co-chair of this student organization, Nathara Bailey ‘15, said that the group was started because it was felt that the administration was ignoring the issue of sexual assault, or the intersectionality of identities within the framework of sexual violence, such as race, national origin, and sexuality. She told us, “There were times where I felt like I had to choose whether I was going to be black or I was going to be a woman, and that was disturbing to me because I can't rip the two apart. They inform each other.” She said she appreciates the meetings the school has undertaken to make more frequent, but that she, similarly to the majority of those interviewed, would prefer if these mandatory.  

With one more meeting left and the conclusion of a federal investigation to go, we could not ask for a more inconclusive situation. Sarah Lawrence students, faculty, administrators, and general staff await the answers this semester is bound to bring, but those answers may not be as simple as they want or expect. Perhaps many are left with the sense that we all need to act as a community, as well as the feeling that this problem is larger than our campus. The Dean expressed this sentiment well, stating “We are striving to hold our students to higher standards than civil society, so that they can be models to change the paradigm in which we live.” Or perhaps as a student put it, “We should be focusing not just on education, but on how to make a decent person in society.”

by Aviya Eschenazi '15
deschenazi@gm.slc.edu