College Reacts to New Sexual Assault Legislation

After months of debate and negotiations, Congress recently reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. First signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994, the legislation toughened provisions against perpetrators of sexual assault and sought to improve the services available to survivors.

But this time, the bill included a new provision, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE). First introduced by Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey in 2010, the act aimed to combat sexual violence and harassment on college campuses.

Now signed into law, it will require colleges and universities to inform survivors of their options, direct them to where they can find support, appeal decisions, and do a more thorough job communicating sexual misconduct policies to the student body.

Swarthmore, like all institutions of higher education, falls under SaVE’s jurisdiction. According to Sharmaine LaMar, the assistant vice president for risk management and legal affairs and Title IX coordinator, the school will make modifications to its sexual misconduct policy accordingly.

“Each year, towards the end of the spring semester, we review the sexual misconduct policy,” said LaMar. “This year, we will do so with this important and valuable legislation in hand in order to help us identify which modifications should be made to improve our programs and processes.”

While LaMar does not know specifically what that will entail until the review takes place, she said the aim would not simply be to meet all of the law’s requirements. “We don’t just want to comply with the law. We want to do what’s absolutely best for the community. And in my mind, that means sometimes going beyond,” she said.

Indeed, it appears that Swarthmore is, by and large, already in compliance with the law’s requirements. The school, for example, already hosts a sexual assault prevention workshop for all incoming students during orientation week, fulfilling one stipulation.

Still the law will undoubtedly help the college as it tweaks its policy. “Our goal as a college is to provide a safety net for students to be able to not just come forward but get support,” said Beth Kotarski, the director of Worth Health Center and a Sexual Advisors & Resource Team (SMART) advisor. “The law asks colleges to pay attention to the fact that they’re doing that.”

“I think it will bring investigations more into light,” said Lisa Sendrow ’13, a SMART member. Sendrow spent her summer internship at the National Organization for Women two years ago lobbying for the law’s passage. “We wanted to find ways to prevent sexual assault on campuses,” she said.

She hoped that by providing legal protection and increasing awareness, SaVE might create a climate in which survivors and others felt more comfortable discussing issues of sexual violence. Currently, according to Sendrow, cases of sexual assault at Swarthmore are highly underreported. Thus, any legislation that makes talking about it easier is welcome. “I think it’s really going to be a way for students to feel more comfortable talking about being sexually assaulted on campus, just because there’s so many legal protections,” Sendrow said.

Even beyond the legislation, the college is already planning to make changes to how it handles sexual misconduct. “One of the things we are going to look at is our web resources,” said Kotarski. She added that the current wheel of resources, which depicts the various people and groups students may go to when dealing with an incident of sexual assault, could be overwhelming. “Some have looked at it and given us the feedback that it might offer too many avenues of choice when someone is looking at it. It would be helpful to have a Q and A on the web.”

More broadly, there is hope that the legislation can help curb sexual violence at college campuses nationwide. While LaMar said she could not speak for other campuses, she felt that anything that gets college campuses to examine themselves and “gives them the opportunity to sit down and reflect about how and whether their policies are working is a good thing.”

For some, like Sendrow, the law has its faults. “It was put into VAWA, and this is something that doesn’t just affect women, it affects all genders,” she said, though Sendrow believes Swarthmore does a better job of being “inclusive of all genders.”

But on the whole, it is widely regarded as positive. Kotarski expressed personal enthusiasm. “It was very exciting to see the law pass,” said Kotarski, whose background is in women’s health. “The length of my 30 year career has been focused on legislation and trying to be a member of the healthcare community that lobbies for legislation.”

For Sendrow, it is more than just a set of stipulations and regulations. “The campus SaVE act is not only a way to take legal provisions,” she said. “It’s also how we can help the students now, provide them with resources and help them feel safe around their campuses.”

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