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DoE releases Title IX complaint against Swarthmore

in Around Campus/Breaking News/News by

One student alleged that after someone sexually assaulted her, the school would not move him out of her dormitory. Another alleged that after telling Dean of Students Liz Braun about her assault, Braun never reported it, even though she is required by law to report sexual misconduct. And a third said that a student who threatened her with violence continued to attend campus parties and drink alcohol in violation of his probation, even though then-Associate Dean of Student Life Myrt Westphal “was aware of his behavior.”

These are just a few of the allegations found in the 46-page Title IX complaint filed against the college by a group of students last spring. The complaint was obtained by the Phoenix through a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal Department of Education. Until now, the complaint was not publicly available, though some of the stories it contains had surfaced, and some of those who filed it came forward. The Phoenix has made excerpts from the complaint available on its website, but with all individual stories withheld due to privacy concerns. All of the names of students in the complaint, and some of those of administrators, were redacted by the Department of Education.

The complaint contains testimony from 13 students which, it alleges, present “clear evidence of deliberate indifference on the part of Swarthmore College” in responding to sexual misconduct. The complainants argue that this constitutes a violation of Title IX, the law that bars institutions receiving federal funding (which includes Swarthmore) from discriminating on the basis of sex in any way. That law is generally seen as mandating that colleges take effective action to eliminate sexual violence and harassment.

The information released to the Phoenix also includes a July letter the DoE sent to complainants in which it said it will open an investigation into the Title IX allegations, and not pursue the complaint’s claims of Clery Act violations because it does not enforce that law as well as a claim of college retaliation, because the college’s actions “do not rise to the level of an adverse action.”

It also includes a lengthy letter to President Rebecca Chopp, also sent in July, notifying her of the department’s decision to open an investigation into the complaints and requesting a substantial amount of information from the college. In that letter, the DoE says it opened the investigation because its Office for Civil Rights “has jurisdiction and the allegations were filing timely” and that “the opening of an allegation for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to its merit.”

The allegations of indifference and negligence take on several different forms, and many of the same issues appear in the stories of multiple students. The complainants argued that the school did not adequately punish perpetrators, that it failed to provide psychological and academic accommodations after coming forward, that it discouraged reporting and that the school’s investigations and adjudications were unreliable and biased. As a result, the students said that they felt unsafe on campus and that their academic performances suffered.

One complainant, for example, said that during his investigations, he was asked, “Just to play devil’s advocate, how would you feel if someone were trying to kick you off Swarthmore’s campus because they didn’t like you?” Another said that after reporting her assault, an administrator told her that thought her CJC committee believed her, it “did not have enough evidence to take punitive action against my attacker because it was ‘[her] word against his.’”

Several administrators are named repeatedly in the complaint, including Braun, Westphal, Director of Public Safety Michael Hill, former Title IX Coordinator Sharmaine Lamar, former Alcohol Education and Intervention Specialist and Greek Liaison Tom Elverson, and former Associate Director of Public Safety Joanna Gallagher. Westphal retired at the end of last year, Lamar has taken a different job at the college, Elverson was fired this summer and Gallagher left the college to serve as director of public safety at another school during the winter. Braun and Hill still serve in their same positions.

If it finds that the college violated Title IX, the DoE could impose a fine and possibly deny the college access to some federal funding.

In the face of criticism of its handling of sexual harassment and assault, the college last year hired the specialty law firm Margolis Healy to assess its practices and policies and make recommendations for changes. The firm gave the college a final report in January.

The Phoenix has also requested a separate Clery Act complaint, filed by the same students. The Clery Act requires colleges receiving any federal funding to collect and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses to students and employees.

That request is still being processed.

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