College shifts sexual assault policies

14 mins read

Last summer, responding to complaints about its handling instances of misconduct, President Chopp sent out a campus-wide email detailing a variety of changes the school planned on making to improve its policies and practices.

Now, with the fall semester underway, the college has begun to implement them.

Since sending out its list of planned steps, the college has appointed Patricia Fischette, who was serving as a SMART team advisor and CAPS therapist, as the interim full-time Title IX coordinator, designated and trained four other college employees as deputy Title IX coordinators, developed and implemented new forms of training for incoming first year students, and updated its sexual misconduct policy to comply with federal law. In addition, the school is currently in the process of searching for a sexual assault advocate, new drug and alcohol counselor and plans to begin its search for a permanent Title IX coordinator on October 1.

“We heard clearly that we shouldn’t wait, so we got to work,” Chopp said. “Margolis Healy were willing to offer this interim report and we immediately started to put that in place.”

As with Chopp’s summertime email, community response to the new measures has generally been positive.

“My experience since Patricia has come on board has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Hope Brinn ’15, one of the students who filed a complaint with the federal government that alleged the school violated both Title IX and the Clery act.

Brinn cited better communication as one of the major improvements she has seen since last spring.

“One of the things that was happening to me before is the college would blatantly refuse to respond to my emails for like three weeks about really, really, serious matters,” Brinn said.

But now, according to Brinn, most administrators respond in a timely fashion and are okay not communicating by phone when survivors do not feel comfortable using it as a medium.

“Nathan Miller [senior class dean and judicial affairs coordinator] and Patricia Fischette have been amazing,” Brinn said.

Brinn also felt that the college had drastically improved its judicial process.

“When there are multiple complaints against a perpetrator, they’ll do an interim suspension until the complaints are resolved,” Brinn said. In addition, Brinn said, the college has begun handling multiple cases involving a single alleged perpetrator itself, instead of having the students each individually go through a college judicial committee (CJC) hearing.

“If there are multiple cases against someone, the college is supposed to do a CJC case against them, not the individual students,” Brinn said. “They’ve never done that before. Now they finally are.”

Beth Kotarski, the director of the Worth Health Center, a SMART Team advisor, and the person chairing the search for a sexual assault advocate, shared Brinn’s optimism.

“I really am so highly encouraged by the incredible responsiveness by every group on campus,” Kotarski said.

“That doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of work left to do,” she added, “but I think what’s encouraging is the college really wants to get it right.”

Not everyone, however, is as encouraged.

“Swarthmore can lead on solution-making, but they haven’t yet,” said Mia Ferguson ’15, who, along with Brinn, helped file the complaint.

“Policies have to address all discriminatory crimes. Not only is sexual violation an intersectional issue, but we, as students, experience destructive and illegal discrimination on a daily basis,” she said.

Ferguson expressed concern that the college’s new requirement that all employees of the college with the exception of those who are legally permitted to be confidential (Worth Health Center employees, psychological counselors, and religious advisors) would risk forcing all students who are employed by the college report instances of sexual misconduct they become aware of.

“The solutions for the school might be viable for the long term, but if a student doesn’t feel safe coming forward because their name will automatically be pushed through to an investigation, we aren’t well supported,” she said.

She warned that this might discriminate against lower income students. “If you are a student on work study, you have no way to opt-out of reporting and participating in investigations,” she said.

Kotarski, however, says that this is not the intention, and that the school is looking for ways for students employees who are not resident assistants, student academic mentors, sexual misconduct resource advisors, acquaintance sexual assault prevention, drug and alcohol response team members, or party associates to be exempt from reporting.

“I think we are investigating if there may be flexibility for students not in those categories,” said Kotarski.

In addition, Fischette and Kotarski both indicated that they were working to provide confidential peer resources.

“We’re definitely in support of peer to peer support,” Fischette said.

“I believe that the college should look at trying to find and train confidential peer responders,” Kotarski said, adding that not giving the impression that students should stay silent on instances of sexual misconduct needed to be balanced with a survivor’s “right and power to tell who they want to tell.”

“I think a very highly trained student might be the person that kind of solves this problem.”

Still, Ferguson is not the only person with concerns. Brinn, though generally pleased with the changes, feels there are still components of the college in need of reform.

“The investigative process still needs work,” she said. “Survivors come out of that process feeling horribly disempowered and terrible.”

Brinn also added that the confidentiality policy “still really needs to get cleared up,” and that there was still little from the school on what consequences could be expected for those found to have committed acts of sexual misconduct.

“They need to have that established so there’s a reasonable expectation in place for what will happen to you if you do something like this.”

In addition, members of the task force on sexual misconduct, which had been charged with assisting Margolis Healy and Chopp in revising the school’s misconduct policies, expressed some discontent with the way the reform process had been conducted, and with the interim policy that resulted.

“We received the interim policy twenty-two hours before it was given to the campus, and they said they were sending it to us as a courtesy,” said Kenneson Chen ’14, one of the task force’s three student members.

“It was a little bit discourteous because we didn’t actually have time to give feedback,” Chen said. “We felt a little bit miffed.”

Nora Kerrich ’16, another member of the task force, expressed concern at the fact that the document had no author.

“It’s not really stated explicitly where this document came from, who wrote it” she said.

According to Chopp, it was a “team effort” that included Fischette, Liz Braun, dean of students, Nathan Miller, Nancy Nicely, vice president for communications, and Sharmaine Lamar, assistant vice president for risk management and legal affairs. In addition, the school consulted with lawyers and Margolis Healy.

Gabby Capone ’14, also a task force member, hoped the task force would be given a larger role in shaping the interim policy. “I expected us to have more substantial input on things like the interim policy, which are directly relevant to our work,” she said. And though she called the interim policy “an important step” towards improving the college’s sexual misconduct policies, Capone felt that it was missing some key components.

“My biggest issue is that it does not sufficiently define its terms and that there are a lot of ambiguous phrases and sections,” Capone said.

“I did not see a place in the policy where members of the assessment team were listed, besides the Title IX Coordinator,” she said. “Maybe I missed it, but it should have been explained the first time it appeared. I understand that this is an interim policy but the duties and details of this assessment team are too important to not have defined its actual or potential constituents.”

Capone cited several other instances where she felt the policy was unclear. She pointed out, for example, that in its statement of privacy, the school stated information related to a report of sexual misconduct would only be shared with College employees who “need to know” in order to assist in the active review, investigation, or resolution of the report, without defining who these people might be or why they need to know. And she said that the policy is unclear about to whom sections apply.

“Retaliation is mentioned numerous times, but it is unclear if the college’s stance on retaliation applies to students, to faculty and staff members, to both, or to neither,” she said.

“In sum, there are instances where the actual definition of a term is unclear. But in other instances the ambiguity lies in how the policy is going to be implemented,” she said. “In the long term, I would like to see a policy which I could trust without having to worry about how the college decides to interpret the ambiguous language.”

Chopp acknowledged that they did not give the task force as much time to look at the policy as was desirable.

“We, too, would have liked more time to share it with the task force,” she said.

But Chopp said that the emphasis was on getting it published promptly, calling the decision “a judgment call.”

“We were really in agreement with the student comments that we don’t wait,” she said.

Administrators, however, emphasized that it is only an interim policy, and will be updated.

“We already have some feedback from the internal task force,” Chopp said. “We’re looking forward to hearing more and more from the campus.”

Chen agreed that not enough time has passed to determine if the college has followed through on its promise of making the campus safer. “I would say there hasn’t really been much time yet,” he said.

Indeed, in spite of some disappointment with the interim policy, task force members indicated that they believed the school was making progress.

“They haven’t done all that they can,” Chen said. “But they’re doing a lot.”

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