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.
The push for these changes began last April, when Mia Ferguson ’15 and Hope Brinn ’15 led fellow classmates in filing a Clery Act complaint with the federal government. One month later, Ferguson and Brinn pushed for a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education (DOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Their complaints gathered quick media attention; Swarthmore’s policy on sexual assault became a failed example used in articles by The Huffington Post, New York Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer.
Almost immediately, Tom Elverson, Swarthmore’s alcohol education and intervention specialist as well as Greek liaison, saw his post removed by the college on June 28, 2013. While Elverson did not oversee many sexual assault cases, he was closely involved with several investigations involving Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers and was accused by students of allowing his personal bias to influence his interaction with sexual assault complainants.
Rasheda S. Douglas, supervisory attorney with the OCR, notified Brinn and Ferguson on July 12, 2013, that the OCR was opening a federal investigation in the college, with similar investigations being pursued in Occidental College and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prior to the one at Swarthmore. Later on, University of Colorado Boulder and Dartmouth University came under similar federal scrutiny.
“It’s a strategy that we decided to use after exhausting our other options,” said Brinn referring to the federal investigation.
The investigation, which still ongoing, has resulted in several key policy changes that outlined the results of the college’s internal independent investigation through a campus-wide email sent out by President Rebecca Chopp.
In the email, Chopp also included Margolis, Healy & Associates’ (MHA) report of their preliminary investigation, who conducted interviews with college leadership, the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct, the Title IX coordinator, staff from the Dean’s Office, Public Safety, Athletics, Human Resources, self-identified survivors, and peer advisors.
Policy changes include a national search for a full-time Title IX coordinator and naming Patricia Flaherty Fischette, former CAPS advisor, as the interim coordinator. Fischette’s role is first and foremost a person of initial contact to victims and survivors of sexual assault.
“I will make an outreach to someone who has been identified as having been assaulted or harassed, to offer resources, to check in and be curious about “what are you thinking about? What do you need? What are your wishes going forward?’” said Fischette.
In an interview, Dean of Students, Liz Braun, also highlighted Fischette’s role in the wider context of the Title IX sphere. In addition to guiding individual students, she can also guide the college community in the right direction.
“She can not only help individuals but think more globally – what are the trends, what’s the climate, are there particular events or spaces that might be problematic,” said Braun.
Another notable change involves the removal of Sharmaine LaMar and Joanna Gallagher from their former positions of Title IX coordinator and Title IX deputy coordinator, respectively, and expanding the role of Title IX deputy coordinators to include representatives from the Office of Human Resources, the Dean’s Office, the Provost’s Office, and Athletics.
The role of advisors will also be expanded to include a victim/survivor advisor who will provide guidance through the reporting and legal procedures, as well as a hearings advisor to guide respondents to complainants through the grievance process.
Additionally, the college has taken a highly intensive stance on improving comprehensive training, highlighted in the updated Student Handbook and Interim Sexual Misconduct Policy sent out on August 27, 2013. In addition to changes mentioned by the MHA report and Chopp’s email, the interim policy also features outlines for extensive Title IX and investigation training programs, detailed explanations and definitions of reporting options, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other specific forms of prohibited contact.
“So we’ve been through training this summer, there will be a large info session on the faculty training for students. And that’s not a one-time deal. This will now be a way of life,” Chopp said.
For Brinn, the introduction of these policy changes served as validation that her personal concerns had been heard and considered. For her case, she was allowed an ex-Supreme Court justice from Pennsylvania who is also the head of the Domestic Violence Unit for the state, which directly refers back to a clause within the interim policy allowing for an outside adjudicator during some cases.
“I’ve felt the substantive changes personally in my case,” she said.
The Interim Sexual Misconduct Policy was explained in further detail in a campus-wide email that Fischette sent out yesterday afternoon, containing the college’s Title IX obligations, a definition of campus confidential resources, an explanation of the new required referring clause, and an outline of the process through which a referral travels through the chain of command.
With an emphasis on student safety, the administration is working towards implementing sound systems in which all students’ concerns can be addressed – whether they are personally directly involved in a sexual assault case or not.
“We have to transform the culture…the fact is that students are taking hold of the culture and changing it. We got to change policies and we got to make this a safe campus and address all the judicial processes,” Chopp said.
While Ferguson recognizes the merit of certain suggestions made by MHA, she is still frustrated by the lack of actual policy implementation. Though she is open to and supports many of the suggested policy changes, she is tired of abstract discussion without physical execution.
“It’s really hard, as a student, to deal with mixed messaging, because you just want to be here and do school. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be having these conversations. We just want it to be easy and enjoy our education, and I feel that too,” she said.
Ferguson has a firm stance in support of extending support systems for respondents, and recognizes that it has been an issue absent from discussion in the past.
“Perpetrators and potential perpetrators are still our students. Even once you’ve been expelled, you have ten days to appeal, which to me means you’re still a student for ten days. So what psych support are you getting in those ten days? What attention are you getting from retaliation in those ten days? That’s really important,” she said.
As it is looking so far, the college will take this school year to solidify plans to move forward with the interim policy – and perhaps eventually dropping the “interim” part.