This August, the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct submitted a 33-page report presenting its findings on campus attitudes and policies related to issues of sexual abuse and violence. Incorporating insights from 16 months’ worth of open dialogue, document-based research and private conversations with students and alumni, the report offers suggestions for “cultural changes at all levels” of college life, including alcohol and party policies, sexuality and violence education and peer support.
Commissioned in May 2013 by former President Rebecca Chopp, the Task Force was designed to support the work of Margolis Healy and Associates as the firm conducted an external review of college policies. It was composed of faculty, members of the Board of Managers, alumni and current students, and chaired by Professor and Chair of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who also headed the Black Studies program while volunteering her time to the committee.
Central to the Task Force’s findings were calls to implement sustained educational initiatives on issues of sexual misconduct. The report proposes comprehensive sexuality training that addresses issues of consent, bystander intervention and interpersonal violence through the modeling of healthy relationships.
“Our responsibility as an educational institution, realizing that there may be people who come into our community who think it’s okay to hurt other people, is to intervene in that, and we have to offer a range of educational opportunities so people know you can be in a range of relationships and not hurt other people,” said Willie-LeBreton. “And not only that, but in this community, those aren’t our values … I think we have to explicitly say to each other, ‘we’re a community in which we mutually respect each other, no ifs, ands or buts, whether you’re drinking or not, whether you’re high or not, whether you’ve had positive models or not.”
“You can’t rape, you can’t stalk, you can’t humiliate — we just don’t do that here. And I think most colleges want to say that, but I think as a campus that has Quaker roots, we have a particular responsibility for lifting that up and making sure that there are lots of opportunities for people to figure this stuff out,” Willie-LeBreton added.
Instead of providing one recommendation for formatting sexuality education, the Task Force provided a list of suggestions for consideration, including incorporating it into the P.E. requirement, instituting a non-credit-bearing course and integrating it within existing courses across the curriculum. It also suggested reinstating community collections or query sessions to reflect on shared values and concerns.
First-Year Orientation additionally underwent a change: whereas conversations on sexual assault were traditionally led by members of the Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention team and featured discussions of survivor stories, this year’s program included a presentation led by Nina Harris and a breakout session facilitated by RAs and SAMs.
Alongside recommending mandatory educational initiatives, the report calls on male students to increase their involvement in addressing issues of sexual violence and assault on campus. Under the section “Prevention and Education,” the report states that “an examination of male privilege may become an effective way for men to wrestle with the effects of the ideology of male supremacy and to interrupt and challenge that ideology” in a society “that has inherited the values of patriarchy.”
According to Nora Kerrich ’16, the only student member of the Task Force still enrolled at the college, calls for male leadership arose after it examined student volunteers in groups like ASAP and the Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team, which already work to address issues of sexual violence and assault on campus.
“Across the board, these students are female-identified and queer,” Kerrich said. “I think that was disconcerting for us to bring to the table and say, ‘We need to very specifically call on groups of people to take this very seriously and to take concrete action.’”
“I would never assume that sports teams or the fraternities are not aware of these issues, but there’s very proactive work going on, particularly in queer communities and women-centered communities, around consent education and creating safer spaces for survivors,” Kerrich added.
Kerrich was driven to apply to the Task Force because she felt she could represent student voices that might otherwise be excluded from the committee, specifically students who publicly filed Title IX or Clery Act complaints against the College. She said that she and the other two student representatives, Kenneson Chen ’14 and Gabriela Capone ’14, took their roles as student representatives very seriously, occasionally working to bring survivors into meetings to share their stories and perspectives. Although this could be a painful and triggering task for the students, she believed it helped underscore the seriousness and urgency of the Task Force’s mission.
“I definitely went in with a confrontational attitude because I knew that faculty, staff and board members did not know what was going on,” Kerrich said. “I knew that they were misinformed and they needed to be informed about what was going on from a student perspective.”
In its examination of campus climate, the report addresses concerns raised in the spring of 2013 relating to the ownership of space and control of parties. Although the Task Force was “cautioned against the assumption that sexual assault only happens in one place,” findings revealed that “there are athletic teams, particular parties like Genderfuck, Crunkfest and Halloween, as well as particular groups, like fraternities and sports teams, that each have reputations for having sexual misconduct associated with them.” Furthermore, the report sees fraternity control of “the two largest party spaces that allow alcohol on campus” to be “an impediment both to challenging the privilege of fraternities and addressing underage and excessive drinking.”
Willie-LeBreton says that while discussions over the control and safety of space may seem to have disappeared from the college’s agenda, administrators and policy-makers have continued to discuss inclusive and safe party venues. The renovation of Olde Club this summer is one example of action taken to address concerns raised over adequate social spaces on campus.
The Task Force also called for increased clarity in regards to procedural problems at the institutional level. It recommends greater transparency both in the publicization of College Judiciary Committee procedures and the respective roles of new administrative positions and staff. A clear outlining of sanctions for those found guilty of sexual misconduct by the CJC and an explanation of any sanctions were some of multiple options also recommended.
Helping achieve greater administrative clarity were recent hirings and creation of new administrative positions. The college welcomed Kaaren Williamsen as the new Title IX coordinator this summer and created the positions of Assistant Director of Residential Communities, a position filled by Isiah Thomas and Residential Community Coordinator, now filled by Karina Beras, to interface between RAs and deans.
“Students want and need more clarity and responsiveness and directedness, and I think that staff wanted to do that, but there were not things in place for them to as fully live up to their potential as they could,” Willie-LeBreton said. “And now they have the okay to do that and they have a thicker team of colleagues to rely on.”
While the report seems intent on calling for improved communication between the policy-makers and student body, Hope Brinn ’15 says she’s “not necessarily optimistic that it will create change.”
“Swarthmore hired a lot of new people and wrote some great new policies. All of these look wonderful on paper,” Brinn wrote in an email. “Unfortunately in practice, these changes are not panning out. We are suspending students who are found responsible for rape for only a year. We’re allowing them to re-enroll when their victim is still a student. Even after all of the work we’ve put in as a community to create change, these things are still happening.”
With the report publicly available on the College’s website, Willie-LeBreton doesn’t agree that it will sit gathering dust, although she acknowledges that “the challenge is to keep the momentum, even as the people who may have been the most angry and upset graduate.” Kerrich, however, cautioned students against becoming too complacent.
“People have to read this report and latch onto one thing to mobilize around,” she said. “You have to decide, ‘That recommendation for sex education is exactly what we need, and I’m going to be bothering Worth Health Center, I’m going to be bothering the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, I’m going to be bothering the physical education department, and I’m going to figure out exactly how it’s going to happen,’ because that is how we effect change.”
“It’s not like we publish the report and automatically things happen,” she added. “That’s not how it works, and I think the track record of power-holders in this institution is that they don’t take concise action on this stuff, so it’s on people who are directly affected to make moves, because it’s not going to happen otherwise.”