Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As alumnae who were very involved in addressing the problems and issues related to sexual violence at Swarthmore during our time on campus, we have been carefully following recent events at the school, including the articles in The Daily Gazette and the filing of federal complaints against the College. While at Swarthmore, we organized the Clothesline Project in its earliest years; facilitated Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention workshops; served on the SMART team; and facilitated the Swat Survivors group. In other informal ways, we supported many survivors on campus. In all of these capacities, we have worked formally and informally with the administration, thus appreciating the enormity of the task at hand.
We want to express to the Swarthmore community how proud we are, and always have been, to be Swatties. We admire the courage exhibited by those students who have shared their stories, and have collaborated to demand much-needed change in the policies and culture of a community we hold so dear. We also recognize and laud the equally inspiring survivors who have not come forward, but who are fighting privately in their own ways every day. They are no less brave.
In our experience working with survivors, we have always been so impressed by the determination that survivors at Swarthmore exhibit. This determination has emerged in public forms, as has been the case for the survivors filing the federal complaint or sharing their stories with The Daily Gazette; it also functions in more anonymous ways, such as making a t-shirt for the Clothesline Project, seeking counseling during a difficult time, or accomplishing the deceptively simple tasks of trying to keep up with schoolwork or getting out of bed following a traumatic event.
The trauma of surviving sexual violence is difficult to understand for anyone who has not lived through it. We want to affirm our belief that survivors should do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves following an assault. They are deserving of support, patience, counseling, and any and all other necessary resources as they begin to heal. We believe that it is imperative that survivors be given accurate information as to their options following an assault, and that they are empowered to pursue whatever path they choose; being able to make an informed decision is an important way to challenge the loss of power and control experienced during an assault.
When we first heard about the experiences of current student survivors who sought help from the administration, we were filled with sadness because these stories are so familiar: they sound like the stories of survivors from our time at Swarthmore. When we were students, we discussed these same systemic issues with a variety of deans; apparently, minimal corrective action was taken. The judiciary system and administration have failed so many survivors already, and it is shameful that this trend continues. We know that changes were made in response to re-interpretations of the law since we graduated, but we believe they are insufficient precisely because the College does not understand where it went wrong in the past. The College does not understand how it re-traumatized and hurt the survivor community. This failure has resulted in repetition of the same mistakes for over ten years. The depth and pervasiveness of these problems is symptomatic of a culture of complacency within the administration: these issues were not taken seriously because of a lack of accountability. Currently, the only recourse within the College for reporting issues with the administration is to talk to another member of the administration. However, we know several people who took this step were retaliated against, and treated poorly after they had made these reports. Clearly, this lack of accountability, which leads to sexual assault being swept under the rug, has gone on for too long, and has perpetuated survivors’ suffering.
One of Swarthmore’s biggest draws is its alleged commitment to an open, supportive, and accepting community. This community has let the survivors of Swarthmore down. Instead of finding a receptive and supportive administration, many survivors are discouraged to find the complete opposite. It often seems protecting the image of the College is more important than safeguarding the welfare of its students.
As this process goes forward, we hope that the Swarthmore administration will look deeply at how both current and prior practices have resulted in the mishandling of sexual violence issues. We hope that they will seek varied input on how to move forward. We hope they will earn back the trust of the survivor community, which has been almost completely eroded over the years. Finally, we hope that they will take to heart the chorus of voices from students and alums demanding that change must happen.
We know this is a painful chapter for everyone, but the current system did a disservice to all the students at Swarthmore – it failed to keep them safe. We all deserve a Swarthmore where students can feel and be safe, and can learn, collaborate, explore, and do wonderful things without the fear or trauma of sexual violence. Sexual violence affects us all and undermines the very fabric of the community that we love. It is time for this issue to be rectified, and for the administration to do more to safeguard and support survivors and all students on campus.
If you are a Swarthmore alumnus who supports an improved college response to sexual assault, please sign the Alumni Petition started by Trude Raizen ‘08. You can find it here.
Nicole Belanger ‘08
Allison Grein ‘10
Layla Helwa ‘12
Jean Strout ‘10