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President Smith responds to O4S demands; is it enough?

in Around Campus/Breaking News/News by

 CW: sexual assault

It’s been less than 10 days since Organizing for Survivors, an activist group led by eight female and non-binary students, made their public debut on the steps of Parrish Hall on March 19. Everywhere from the bulletin boards in Parrish to the Sharples banner wall has become a hotbed of demonstration and discussion among students and faculty. Posters advocating for the resignations of Dean of Students Liz Braun, Dean Nathan Miller and Associate Director for Investigations Beth Pitts as well as the abolishment of frat housing, among other demands, have been put up and taken down within the same hour. The “Swat Protects Rapists” slogan and WordPress site have made a resurgence. Over 130 students of various gender identities attended a meeting following the rally on the night of March 20, where the O4S core team and other members planned further actions. Over 15 clubs and affiliation groups have released letters of support for the demands, including Resident Assistants, the Student Government Association and a group of student athletes.

“We have been inspired and heartened by the abundance of support we’ve received from students and faculty alike and are excited to continue working with alongside all of those people,” O4s wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix.

A week after the Parrish rally, President Valerie Smith addressed a letter to the college outlining policy changes and other responses to the O4S demands. He response to the demand that respondents (students who have had complaints filed against them) cannot serve as TAs or Residential Peer Leaders came in three parts: one, that due process requires that only students found responsible for a Title IX complaint will suffer consequences; two, that Provost Tom Stephenson will make the decision concerning TAs, as it is an academic position; and three, that “effective immediately,” a student must be in good standing with the college in order for them to apply or serve as an RPL.

O4S demanded that “Swarthmore must ensure that our right for Title IX proceedings to not exceed 60 days is protected.” However, Under Betsy DeVos’s federal guidelines, this is not a guaranteed right: “The department [of Education] says there is “no fixed time frame” under which a school must complete a Title IX investigation. The 2011 guidance stated that a “typical investigation” takes about 60 days after a complaint is made but said more complex cases could take longer,” Inside Higher Ed reported.  President Smith wrote that the administration “will strive to complete” the adjudication process in 60 days.

The preface to President Smith’s letter, which President Smith, Dean Braun, Director of Public Safety Mike Hill, Dean Miller, Pitts, and Interim Title IX Coordinator Michelle D. Ray signed, emphasized both recent changes and the need for improvement.

“During the past five years the College has implemented a robust series of changes including adding staff, enhancing programming and training, and implementing new policies,” President Smith wrote in the letter. “Despite this progress, more remains to be done, and we must continue to evaluate and reevaluate our practices based on our community members’ experiences.”

As the preface mentions, this semester marks the fifth anniversary of “The Spring of Our Discontent,” a period of intense, community-wide reckoning for the college. By May 2013, two central activists, Hope Brinn ’15 and Mia Ferguson ’15, had spearheaded efforts to file two Federal complaints for violations of Title IX and the Clery Act, adding the college to a list of institutions of higher education that received negative, national attention for their handling of sexual assault cases. Other groups actively protesting during this period included those seeking divestment from fossil fuels, marginalized students who felt unsupported in STEM classes, and LGBTQ+ students who protested homophobia and the lack of queer mentors and faculty at the college.  The period resulted in an overhaul of the college’s Title IX procedures and structure, from the establishment of the Title IX house and creation of the Title IX coordinator position to the firing of Tom Elverson. His position as advisor to the fraternities betrayed a conflict of interest in his position as a counselor for alcohol and drug use who also oversaw student misconduct, as the college’s SHARE (Sexual Harassment/ Assault Resources and Education) website states. According to O4S, the group both takes inspiration and caution from this history.

“We are very much informed by previous student activism of all types, including but not limited to the work that happened in the Spring of 2013,” O4S core members wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix. “We continue to look back at both the successes and missteps of previous organizing efforts in order to learn how we should move forward.”

This wave of renewed activism calls into question whether the college has resolved the issues that surfaced in 2013. Many members of the community, including alumni such as Jodie Goodman ’16, who became progressively more involved in Title IX-related activism during her time at the college, believe that the college still does not do a satisfactory job of addressing sexual assault reports and complaints.

“Fundamentally, the issue remains that Swarthmore still mistreats and silences survivors,” Goodman said. “That is still at the heart of the activism.”

The changes that O4S demands are not only structural, but also involve the specific demand that Dean of Students Liz Braun, who has held her position since 2010, resign.

We demand the resignation of Dean of Students Liz Braun for her historic and ongoing unwillingness to meaningfully respond to student concerns about policy and practice, as well as her past inappropriate conduct as a participant in the adjudication of Title IX cases and other failures to protect students,” O4S wrote in their demands.

Students have criticized Dean Braun for similar issues in the past. In April 2016, the first year on which the college chose not to host a Clothesline Project event, the Daily Gazette reported that a red t-shirt was found taped to the sidewalk in front of Parrish that read, “Dean Braun is responsible for letting my rapist graduate. There is nothing else I can do but try to ignore it. Happy Sexual Assault ‘Awareness’ Month.” The Phoenix reported in October 2013 of another incident in which that was a student found responsible for sexual assault and was convicted by the Swarthmore police for attempted simple assault against a domestic partner would be permitted to return to the college  after a two-year suspension. According to the article, Dean Braun, who at that time handled Title IX appeals, denied the survivor’s request for an appeal of the decision. It is unknown whether these incidents are the same, or related.

“I think [Dean Braun] has lost the trust of Swarthmore students,” Goodman said. “She should apologize to the students she has hurt, and resign.”

Yet these issues coincide with concerns over high turnover of deans and college staff, such as the departure of the Intercultural Center Director, Dean Jason Rivera. President Smith chose to commission an external review of the Dean’s Office, which occurs every 5 to 10 years, this year. In response to O4S’s demands concerning the resignation of Dean Braun and Dean Miller, President Smith stated that she would publish the results of the external review report, but did not specify the date on which she would publish it. One finding from the external review of the college’s compliance with Title IX and Clery Act regulations that then-President Rebecca Chopp commissioned in 2013: out of 11 people then mentioned as Title IX liaisons and resources, only six still work at the college.

Adding to the intensity are concerns among students as well as within O4S about certain methods of activism. In the most recent turn of events, O4S addressed their use of posters with triggering content in a post on their WordPress site.

“We knew that our slogans could be triggering–and that sometimes, the most triggering part of them is the fact that they are true,” they wrote in the statement. “As we take responsibility and accountability, we also ask that you contextualize your critique in proportion to the structural mechanisms at play as we work through these contradictions: who is responsible for our shared frustration, and anxiety, at its core?”

And then, around 6 p.m. on Tues., March 27, O4S announced that they would be temporarily ceasing activity and refocusing their message in a community forum that night.

“We will be specifically addressing the harm caused by our organizing methods last week,” the email said, which was distributed through Swarthmore Voices’ email newsletter to students. “We believe that the best way to move forward is to focus on healing, on building trust within a network of people who have been harmed, and by centering the experiences of the most marginalized voices on campus, who are continuously ignored in the conversation on harm and violence universally. We got caught up in policy change and quick action and did not take the necessary time to reflect as a collective.”

O4S requested that press abstain from reporting on the happenings at the forum. However, they did apologize for their triggering postings multiple times, and dedicated most of the meeting to listening to community feedback. Though they have urged students outside of the group’s core leadership to pause activity temporarily, they are hosting an informational meeting for faculty and instructional staff to learn about their campaign on Friday, March 30, according to biology professor Vince Formica.

“Several faculty (myself included) passed on an invitation from O4S to the faculty and instructional staff to have an open gathering where they would answer questions about their demands and their experiences,” Formica said.

Two factors have likely driven O4S’s decision to concentrate energy on the faculty as well as alumni. Firstly, faculty and instructional staff vote during monthly meetings on potential amendments and changes to the Faculty Procedures that the Committee on Faculty Procedures, the members of which are determined by vote, chooses.

In addition, faculty and administration members have institutional memory that students’ short term on campus prevents them from having. As every class present during the spring of 2013 has graduated by now, many current students do not know what happened that semester, or the divisive environment it created on campus.

“Every week had some escalation, including the Intercultural Center being intentionally targeted by students who wanted to intimidate protesters. It’s hard to argue that literally peeing on the doorstep of your ideological opponents is not heavily symbolic and gross,” Goodman said. “Leaders of the movement to reform fraternities, like Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson, were subjected to stalking, harassment, and violent threats on campus and online…Their testimony was alarming and upsetting to students on all sides of the issue,” Goodman said. “Campus was divided in three: those passionately for reform, those passionately against reform, and those who thought the entire thing had gotten entirely out of hand and had opinions somewhere in the middle.”

Alumni, as well, have stock in this discussion. Alumni could choose to withhold donations unless the school addresses the concern, as alumni did in the late 80s to push the administration to divest from Apartheid South Africa.

“All of the past Title IX advocates from Swarthmore that I’ve talked to are thrilled that the movement is growing and moving forward,” Goodman said.

According to O4S, they will release a public statement on their goals and mission as well as a statement on President Smith’s response to their demands in the coming days. The Phoenix will cover the faculty information session and other developments.   

Editor’s Note: The article erroneously listed the dates of the Parrish rally and the forum that followed as March 17 and 18. The dates have been amended above.   

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