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Does Swat Protect Rapists?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Content Warning: sexual assault

Yes. Given that it is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I believe it is appropriate to shed light on the ways that Swarthmore College has and continues to protect sexual predators at the expense, especially of survivors on campus, but also of all students who call Swarthmore home and expect the administration to enforce its stated guidelines on proactively protecting its community from sexual violence. This article is primarily intended for Swatties who have not interacted with the Title IX reporting process and are not aware of the specifics of the problem on campus.

Many students are familiar with complaints made during the spring of 2013, most notably the fact that Tom Elverson, Swarthmore’s alcohol education and intervention specialist as well as Greek liaison, was known to intervene in favor of Delta Upsilon members during Title IX investigations.

As an alum of the fraternity himself, his biases towards protecting the organization’s members resulted in his removal by the college on June 28, 2013, but not until an expansive national campaign was launched by survivors to plead their case. During his tenure at Swarthmore, DU members were actively protected from the consequences of their violent actions by a member of Swarthmore’s administration, creating a hostile environment that permeated the reporting process.

The federal Title IX investigation regarding these events (which was supposed to be completed within 180 days) is still ongoing.

Swarthmore has since made facial changes to its policies and staff involved in responding to complaints of sexual violence, but the skew towards protecting the interests of rapists over survivors remains to this day.

To avoid allegations of hearsay, I will first illustrate issues I personally faced after being raped by an intimate partner and reporting the incident to the nascent Title IX Office, before moving on to more recent examples without personal identifying information. The following paragraphs will include graphic depictions of sexual assault and victim blaming language.

The bias against survivors in my case began as a trickle and ended in an overwhelming deluge that exacerbated my PTSD and still impacts my day-to-day life. All complainants during the hearing process have access to the college’s “victims’ advocate,” a policy which was initally encouraging. However, I received no proactive help or advice in arguing my case, and my assigned advocate was frequently unable to answer my questions because she was unfamiliar with the college’s new procedures. Many other survivors have expressed feeling similarly isolated and forced into a position of self-advocacy in an adversarial system, while already dealing with trauma and a rigorous Swarthmore course load.
While the process of the investigation was exhausting, isolating, and all-consuming, those issues pale in comparison to what I faced during and after the hearing. Because my assailant was also my boyfriend at the time of the assault, I was met with insulting and degrading questions from the external adjudicator, such as “You are so articulate, why could you not verbally say ‘no’ to your boyfriend?” This was in response to my explanation that at the time I realized that I could not stop the assault I began to panic and could not verbalize my distress. Instead, I remained limp as the assault continued, visibly crying and shaking my head. This was considered insufficient to constitute a “withdrawal of consent,” although I argued that I was crying as hard as I could after my body chose to “freeze” rather than fight or flee— something that the adjudicator should have known is common among victims of rape.

The issue of withdrawal of consent would not have even emerged in the hearing had the adjudicator not invented the concept of “initial consent,” which I apparently indicated by getting into bed with my boyfriend to sleep. The fact that the college handbook explicitly states that affirmative consent must be attained for each individual sexual act did not seem to be of concern the adjudicator or the dean that handled my appeal. The adjudicator also did not take into account the undisputed fact in the hearing that between whatever initial consent may have existed and the assault, my assailant hit me and I was obviously distressed.

When I appealed on the grounds that the adjudicator had failed entirely to implement the definitions and requirements in the handbook, I was told that a “difference in interpretation of the handbook” was not grounds for appeal and that I had exhausted my options for seeking justice from the college. My rapist graduated in 2015 with a Swarthmore diploma and no mark on his transcript indicating he was involved in a disciplinary hearing at all.

Moving on to cases besides my own, Swarthmore even protects rapists that are found guilty during the hearing process. An individual found responsible for rape of an ex-partner remained on campus during his suspension. He was invited back to stay on campus by a fraternity brother and attended parties in utter disregard for the terms of his frankly lenient punishment. The administration was not planning on levying any further sanction until a veritable swarm of women confronted Dean Nathan Miller in his office. Furthermore, the accomplice was asked by his fraternity to appear on a panel exposing “toxic masculinity,” rendering the entire event dangerous for survivors and a disingenuous attempt to rehabilitate the organization’s image. Both men have been invited back for their five-year reunion, forcing the survivor in question to skip the event.

Lest anyone believe that these are issues of the past, this semester an individual who was found responsible for his second count of rape was only sentenced to two years of suspension. This means that he will be allowed to return to campus after his victims have graduated, and will continue to pose an active threat to all other students who will not be aware of his violent history.

Swarthmore also protects rapists by silencing survivors. An ongoing lawsuit alleges several cases of Public Safety officers discouraging reporting, in one instance by telling a victim to go to bed and think about things differently in the morning. Survivors are told not to talk about the “experience” in order to “deescalate the situation,” framing safety from retaliation as the survivor’s responsibility rather than the school’s. Recordings of any part of the process are forbidden, and the college frequently outright lies about encounters with survivors, gaslighting them and making them doubt their own sanity. The college has also scaled back awareness events that would reflect poorly on itself, including promising to hold a Take Back the Night rally and then rescinding the offer. Additionally, they shut down anonymous means of protest— many survivors’ last resort —by canceling the Clothesline Project and removing posters and chalkings critiquing the administration. Their excuse for this behavior is that the information is triggering to some survivors, and that is true; however, the administration has repeatedly refused many suggestions of compromise, such as moving the CLP to a less central location and removing the traditional color coding of shirts. Any time a new incident occurs, the college seems to react as if it is the first such infraction on campus, further isolating survivors and providing an excuse for the inconsistent enforcement of the handbook.

I have demonstrated that Swarthmore protects rapists throughout every step of the investigation process: creating an environment hostile to reporting, failing to follow stated procedures during the hearing, refusing to adequately punish even students they know to be a danger to campus, and silencing survivors. One can only speculate as to why the system works in this way, but many Swarthmore survivors have remarked that while they lacked the resources or capacity to threaten legal action following their mistreatment, respondents have a much higher rate of expensive legal retaliation against the school. I believe that Swarthmore protects rapists in order to protect its financial interests and its national reputation.

The administration isolates survivors from each other, making each individual feel as if they are alone in their struggle against these repeated injustices. They make survivors feel powerless to change their situation in much the same way that rapists attack their victim’s agency. The importance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month to me, therefore, is to publicly disclose the wrongdoings of the college such that it begins to balance the harms Swarthmore might incur when rapists threaten expensive lawsuits. Common decency and the law are both on our side. The entire student body must continue to hold the administration accountable and to demand better for the sake of all current and future Swarthmore students.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Letters and opinion pieces represent the views of their writers and not those of the Phoenix staff or Editorial Board. The Phoenix reserves the right to edit all pieces submitted for print publication for length and clarity. The Phoenix does not edit op-ed or letter submissions for content or factual accuracy.*

Shirt Sparks Debate in Survivor Community

in Around Campus/News by
Photo by The Phoenix
Photo by The Phoenix

Early last Thursday morning, a red t-shirt was found taped to the ground outside of Parrish Hall with the words “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” written on the front. Hours later, at 8:00 a.m., however, the t-shirt was removed by Public Safety Officers at the behest of administrators concerned about the potentially triggering nature of the shirt’s message. In past years, t-shirts have been hung at the college during the month of April as a part of the Clothesline Project, a national campaign to spread awareness and support for survivors of sexual violence. This year, however, the project was notably omitted from Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. Since last Thursday, the t-shirt, as well as its removal, have been the subject of speculation and debate, inciting conversation around the freedom survivors have to vocalize their experiences, the contested impact of the Clothesline Project on awareness-raising efforts, and the challenges of healing in a community that has drastically altered its sexual misconduct policies in recent years.

“The Clothesline Project has been a longstanding national project that’s happened for over 30 years at different college campuses,” explained Nina Harris, Violence Prevention Educator and Survivor Advocate at the college. “When I first came to Swarthmore, it was already happening and they gave opportunities for survivors and allies to make t-shirts that communicated messages around their experiences with violence. It was color coded. There were a series of different colored t-shirts that represented different types of violence, so there was violence around sexual orientation, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and incest. There were a variety of shirts and mediums, and people had the opportunity to create their own, and then they were hung in front of Parrish.”

Last spring, however, at the request of survivors who found the process of publically displaying experiences of sexual violence to be highly triggering, organizers of Sexual Assault Awareness Month decided to alter the Clothesline Project significantly, transforming it into a digitized archive instead of a physical installation. While survivors and allies were still given the opportunity to create t-shirts, these shirts — as well as all of the shirts retained in the Title IX Office from previous years — were displayed in a slideshow of photos broadcast during specific hours on the TV in Shane Lounge.

According to AnnaLivia Chen ‘18, who has been a member of the college’s Sexual Assault Awareness Team for the past two years, the digitization of the project represented a clear deviation from the way in which Clothesline Projects are traditionally presented, this more discrete iteration of the event was better suited to current survivor needs.

“There are many people whose voices are not as loud as shirts on Parrish Beach who struggle with the event for a variety of legitimate reasons,” Chen said. “Many survivors do not want to participate … and find the display to be extremely triggering and unavoidable for the week that the clothesline is up. Some feel that it’s an okay way to express emotions but that there is then no way to follow up and no way to support others, for example if there is another survivor whose shirt they identified with and want to try to make connection there.”

Harris expressed similar concerns.

“What was difficult about the Clothesline Project in the past was that it was this very singular event that happened in isolation, and the message there is triggering, and then I’m just going to go about my day and go to class,” Harris explained. “The reason that the Clothesline Project shifted last year was because voices were included that didn’t feel okay to go publicly to push that or say that.

As Harris explained, through consultations with individual students, as well as anonymous letters from survivors, staff in the Title IX Office received a significant amount of feedback, expressing concerns about the project’s upsetting nature and requesting that the shirts be taken down.

This year, in light of these complaints, the Title IX Advisory Team came to the controversial decision to remove all iterations of the Clothesline Project — digital or otherwise — from the college’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. Instead, organizers chose to replace the project with a number of less public, more intimate opportunities for sharing experiences and building connections within the survivor community, many of which were open only to survivors. These events include “Voices of Healing,” a gathering in the Scott Amphitheater for survivors and allies to share stories; “Speak Out,” a chance for survivors to share their experiences with the wider community; a storytelling workshop led by a facilitator from StoryCenter; and an allyship workshop, as well as the survivor meals, which are regularly scheduled throughout the year. According to Chen, these smaller events, which are focused more on creating spaces in which survivors can voice their experiences, describe their processes of healing, and build a network of support within the survivor community, have a number of advantages.

“With Nina and other professional staff present for all three of these events, people were able to follow up if they needed support from trained professionals,” Chen explained. “This also created a space for survivors to identify with each other and make meaningful connections – three of my closest friends were made that night.”

Nevertheless, Chen’s positive experiences with the revisions to this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming are not representative of the full dimensionality of survivor experiences on campus. Many current survivors and alumni have since expressed discontent with the discontinuation of the Clothesline Project, particularly on social media, citing the ways in which the project’s removal may serve to diminish the effectiveness of Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. As made clear by the language of the t-shirt taped outside of Parrish last Thursday, on which quotation marks are placed around the word awareness, some survivors believe that specifically the awareness-raising aims of the Clothesline Project have been left void in the Title IX Office’s new programming, despite the several replacement events scheduled.

According to the National Clothesline Project website’s description of the project’s goals, “It acts as an educational tool for those who come to view the Clothesline; it becomes a healing tool for anyone who makes a shirt — by hanging the shirt on the line, survivors, friends and family can literally turn their back on some of that pain of their experience and walk away; finally it allows those who are still suffering in silence to understand that they are not alone.”

For many, these consciousness-raising and solidarity-building features of the project are achievable only because of the project’s public nature. On Facebook and YikYak, several survivors at the college explained that by physically symbolizing the multitude of diverse experiences that fellow students have had with issues of sexual violence, the campaign reminded survivors that there were others who had suffered in ways similar to them. Several individuals also explained that the “in your face” nature of the Clothesline Project forced the community at large to become aware of the sheer magnitude of survivors associated with the college, something which is lost in more intimate, secluded events, which can be perceived as dictating the way in which victims are allowed to express themselves.

According to Chen, however, these criticisms are not representative of the realities of the new programming.

“While this may sound like it is still trying to silence hardship and anger that is not true in theory or in practice,” Chen explained. “During our first year of Voices of Healing, people shared stories with every range of emotion: despair, depression, hope, anger, resentment, bitterness, support, thoughtfulness, panic, and more. Before Voices, we had a dinner for survivors who had already signed up to speak and we also had a gathering afterwards in the Women’s Resource Center for anyone who attended to decompress, debrief, and do anything else they needed to take care of themselves.”

Ultimately, according to Harris, the divergences in planning from year to year reflect simply the changing needs expressly articulated by survivors on campus. As these individuals change over the years, so too will the programming and policies supported by the college to facilitate healing and raise awareness.

“At the end of the day, it’s not for me to tell survivors how they want to experience their pain,” Harris said. “While I don’t think the people who have organized in the past have reflected the voice of all survivors on campus, I’m lucky to have a position in which i can talk to people confidentially this is how this policy works out it didn’t feel right. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to make this better?’”

Clothesline Project raises awareness about gender violence, but has its share of critics

in News by
Students take in the Clothesline Project.
Students take in the Clothesline Project.

With spring slowly approaching, many students were excited finally to see the white adirondack chairs on Parrish Beach. But from March 31 to April 4, the colorful t-shirts of the Clothesline Project were the Beach’s main attraction.

According to an approximation by Worth Health Center Director Beth Kotarski, for the last 15 to 20 years, the college has engaged in the Clothesline Project in accordance with April’s designation as Sexual Violence Awareness month. A national organization, the Clothesline Project focuses on ending violence against women. As a way to commemorate the painful experiences of survivors and allies, the college adopted the organization’s focus by hanging T-shirts with stories, thoughts or phrases written on them by anyone who wants to participate. T-shirts were color coded by type of assault, and both open and closed T-shirt decorating sessions took place.

According to Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator Alexander Noyes ’15, only a few students attended the open session, which he said was expected because many survivors — who make a “vast majority” of the project’s t-shirts — prefer privacy. Both of the closed sessions, he said, were well attended.

“These individual monologues are placed in a public space, where people are invited and encouraged to read their stories,” Noyes said. “Having the shirts in front of Parrish places them front in center on campus, and many people take the time to read all or a few of the shirts as they go about their day.”

For some students, though, the presence of these shirts had an adverse effect.

“Clothesline is definitely empowering as an idea, and I really value and appreciate that people are able to write publicly about their thoughts on something so stigmatized and so traumatizing,” said Ariana*. “But for me, even just seeing the shirts as I walked to class, without even reading them, forced me think about things that I don’t want to confront at that time.”

Two other students, Jen* and Jamie,* agree with Ariana and were uncomfortable with how public and unavoidable the T-shirt display was.

“I do appreciate and commend individuals who experience trauma, identify as survivors and are able to write their story in large letters for the campus to see,” Jen* said. “However, there exist among us those who are still dealing and processing traumatic experiences. Seeing those words on my walk to and from class all week forced me to think about challenging events in my life — and it wasn’t on my own terms.”

Jamie, a former ASAP facilitator, added that seeing the shirts “opens the wound a bit more,” and Ariana agreed that the project was a trigger that affected her functionality throughout the week.

“The idea of the shirts’ being triggering to those who have experienced sexual violence is not new,” Kotarski said. “A few years back, we talked quite a lot about triggering and even did research on triggering events as related to sexual trauma. What we learned was that, while graphic discussion of trauma certainly did have the ability to trigger a memory, triggers are readily found in ‘ordinary’ life such as smells, sounds, sights, or places.”

She added that resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services, Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris and ASAP are available.

This year’s Clothesline Project came on the heels of several well-publicized sexual assault cases over the past year. Despite the recent prevalence of discussions about sexual harassment on campus, no major changes were made to the week’s basic structure. Noyes said that although ASAP coordinators had last year’s events in mind, the annual event’s mission has always been the same.

But while the project itself was the same as in previous years, two new workshops accompanied the weeklong display. The ASAP coordinators try to hold innovative events every year.

“This year, we chose to look locally, and thought that AORTA and HollabackPhilly were two organizations that had interesting, relevant and important projects combating sexism and gender-based violence,” Noyes said.

The first event, entitled “Institutionalized Patriarchy: Framing Our Resistance,” was conducted by Esteban Kelly of The AORTA Collective — a group that is “devoted to strengthening movements for social justice and a solidarity economy,” according to its website. The workshop focused on dismantling patriarchy, and participants explored issues such as daily instances of patriarchy in forms such as white supremacy, the gender binary and situations on campus.

“I think we managed to share some great insights to situate, contextualize and unpack the ways that patriarchy and male supremacy are supported by and serve to reinforce other systems of oppression,” Kelly said. “People felt committed to supporting healthy, feminist models of organizing and supporting friends, their communities, and even themselves. We raised the issue — but didn’t get too far due to time constraints — of how to engage other groups on campus with the work of challenging male supremacy, and participating in ongoing educational spaces about it.”

Rochelle Keyhan of HollabackPhilly — the local branch of an international movement with the goal of combating street harassment — held a workshop entitled “Breaking the Silence: Resisting Street Harassment.” After giving an overview of street harassment, particularly in Philadelphia, Keyhan welcomed attendees to share their own stories.

“I feel like the organizers this year really confronted norms and scripts that perpetuate rape culture head-on,” said Ben Wolcott ’14, who attended both workshops.  “I grew a lot from the Confronting Patriarchy workshop, the HollabackPhilly discussion and from reading the shirts on Parrish Beach. I have a tremendous appreciation for all of the logistical and emotional work that went into folks planning and participating in the Clothesline Project.”

 

*Ariana, Jen and Jamie are all pseudonyms for individuals interviewed.

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