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 college’s Interim Sexual Harassment and Assault policy has been generating conversation and criticism ever since it was released in the student handbook for 2013-2014. One main point of contention lies in who on campus is required to refer incidents of sexual harassment or assault of which they are aware. In the first publication of the policy, any student employed by the college or volunteering for the college was required to refer incidents to the Title IX coordinator, Patricia Flaherty Fischette.
Under the new policy, six student employee and volunteer groups are required to refer any and all incidents of sexual harassment and assault of which they have knowledge. The term “report” from the first publication has been replaced with “refer,” a word intended to be interpreted synonymously. These six groups are Resident Assistants (RAs), Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team (SMART), Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), Student Academic Mentors (SAMs), Drug and Alcohol Response Team (DART), and Party Associates (PAs). Since Title IX requires that all student employees act as required referrers, the revised policy now acknowledges only students in any of the six named groups as student employees. In addition to submitting new reports, student employees in these six groups are also required to refer if they became aware of sexual misconduct at any time in the past, but only if said misconduct could connote an “ongoing or current potential hostile environment or active safety threat” for campus today, a fact highlighted by a campus-wide email sent yesterday by Fischette.
Students employed in any other capacity outside of the named six groups are encouraged, but not required, to refer any knowledge of sexual misconduct. This significant change to the original policy alleviates some concerns, including those of students employed outside of the six groups who felt that their referring mandate was unexpected or unreasonable.
Many students continue to express concern that referring a report of sexual misconduct would violate a victim or survivor’s privacy, autonomy, or emotional well-being. Fischette’s email, however, explains that a referral means that she will provide a victim or survivor with resources to ensure their safety and comfort.
“By referring the matter to the Title IX Coordinator, victims/survivors may be connected with trained professional resources and information about procedural options, protective measures, and interim accommodations to enable a victim to be supported and as appropriate, seek accountability for those who violate our community standards,” wrote Fischette.
According to NK ’16, a co-coordinator of ASAP and a member of the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct, “[Fischette’s] first and foremost job is to say, ‘How can I get you as safe as possible?’” For instance, Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head might be contacted in order to switch the room of the victim or survivor. As stated in her email, Fischette will “sensitively consider” the complainant’s needs, as well as to what degree they wish to pursue further action, if at all.
The degree of agency the complainant will have in the steps taken after the referral of their case to Fischette has yet to be explicitly stated following the revision of the interim policy. The original policy, however, stated that “ individuals are not expected or required to pursue a specific course of action.” As a result, their decision may be an ongoing process, supported by the college to the best of the college’s abilities.
Another common concern about the revised policy is held by some student-employees who remain required reporters, who feel that referring a friend’s case would be a breach of confidence. According to Kerrich, however, students have never had the privilege of being confidential. In this case, confidentiality is defined as only being required to refer if the person to which they are talking is at risk of harming themselves or somebody else.
“Confidentiality is a professional privilege, saved for a very specific group of people,” she said.
Currently, at Swarthmore, there are three confidential resource groups, which are the counseling and psychological services (CAPS) counselors, Worth Health Center health practitioners, and religious advisors, with a confidential sexual assault survivor advocate to be appointed in the near future. In order to be a confidential resource, one must have proper training and expertise to deal with highly complex issues of safety and emotional well-being.
According to Kerrich, even if a student does have the proper training, not referring an incidence of sexual misconduct creates a campus safety issue.
Kerrich draws a parallel between a friend telling another friend about having been sexually harassed or assaulted, and telling this friend that they are in danger of harming themselves.
“When someone tells you, I’m going to hurt myself, I’m going to kill myself […] you just let them tell you that, and you say okay, I can’t do anything about this, there’s going to be a personal betrayal that happens, and that’s a serious thing, and it’s hard to do that, but basically you want to help that person. […] In situations of sexual assault, the fact that that happened means to me that you need help beyond what I can provide,” said Kerrich.
“I think it’s important that nobody feel like they are a bad friend or feel like a bad guy if they report a friend’s assault, because ultimately that is out of a place of concern and out of care for that individual’s well-being,” said Marian Firke ’14, a co-coordinator of ASAP with Kerrich.
Firke also points out that it can be especially difficult for someone to counsel a peer who is a victim or survivor if they themselves have been affected by sexual violence. By referring, one defers to the professional expertise of others in order to guarantee the victim or survivor’s best chance of safety and access to necessary resources.
One potential outcome of the revised interim policy is that student employees in the six named groups will simply refuse to refer, a plausible course of action seeing as their responsibility is based on the honor system. In response to this possibility, Firke urges required referrers to recall the events that led to the college’s widespread reform. “I think it’s really important to consider that one of the reasons the college is taking this step back and reevaluating its policy is that people who were required reporters weren’t reporting […] There were assaults that should have been reported that weren’t reported, and that was detrimental to individuals who could have really benefited from the support.”
As Kerrich puts it, “If people don’t take this seriously, and people don’t consider not only the safety of the person who tells them [about an incident of sexual misconduct] but the safety of the other people who could get harmed by a named perpetrator […] That is really important to me, and I’m sure everyone wants campus to be as safe as possible, and this is one of the ways that it is happening.”
Although only student employees in the six named groups are required to refer, every other member of the community is encouraged to do so as well. This responsibility rests on the individual, and it is a decision that remains unavoidably personal and complex.