College continues to revamp sexual assault prevention, education

As we near the close of the third week of this school year, we are in the midst of what has come to be known as the “Red Zone,” a period of time at the beginning of the school year during which the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses is highest. While the risk of sexual violence is serious and present at all times, the beginning of the year, when one quarter of the students are new to campus, is a time to be particularly aware. Though the most visible of the college’s efforts to prevent sexual violence are mostly enacted in a single night during first year orientation, there are a number of administrators, staff, and students whose work towards preventing sexual assault extends beyond that first week.

Two years ago, the federal government launched an investigation of Swarthmore’s handling of sexual assault cases due to a Title IX complaint filed by students. The case, opened by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, is not yet resolved. In the time since the complaint was filed, the college has hired a number of new staff members and changed or created much of their efforts around sexual violence prevention and survivor support.

One of the college’s relatively recent hires was Nina Harris, the violence prevention educator and advocate and newly appointed advisor to the Women’s Resource Center. In terms of appropriate ways of teaching students about sexual assault, Harris acknowledges the importance of awareness during the beginning of the year, but cautions against focusing too intensely on the so-called Red Zone.

“In any messaging or awareness campaign you must also be balanced in creating an accurate picture that will not disproportionately emphasize one element, like the ‘red zone,’ and imply that danger only exists in that period, or that sexual assault only happens because of alcohol and party culture,“ she said. She noted that the statistical existence of a Red Zone is pointed out in Campus Clarity’s “Think About It,” the online sexual assault prevention program that first years are required to take.

The online education module, which aims to educate students to “reduce risky student behavior and prevent sexual assault on your campus,” leads students through lessons on alcohol consumption and sexual assault and hook up culture.  Its use has been met with criticism on a number of other campuses.  Students writing for other campus newspapers, including Temple University, have raised concerns with the program such as its heteronormative focus, probing questions about students’ own drug and alcohol use and sex life, and a risk for trivializing the issues as problems with the program.  Still, most do acknowledge that it is a potentially useful tool for leveling the playing field of knowledge around consent.

At Swarthmore, though many students have been on campus for almost a month, party permits were not issued until the weekend of September 5th. Harris said that she supports the decision to delay the start of alcohol-fueled parties, though she wishes that there had been clearer communication about why dry week is important.

Harris now officially splits her time between her office in Worth Health Center and the WRC.  She explained that while her Worth office is the appropriate location for her work with the survivor community, and for her to act in her capacity as a confidential resource, it was not a logical space for some of the broader initiatives she has in mind. Harris hopes to expand her scope and the ways she interacts with students by moving into the WRC.

“Women’s centers on college campuses have traditionally been the community space that deals with issues of gender and sexuality and so when we’re talking about culture and climate and community, the Health Center doesn’t fully allow us to address that on that level,” Harris pointed out.  She hopes that the WRC will become a space that operates similarly to the way the BCC and IC do, providing a home base for community work, which it has struggled to do in the past partially because of a lack of support staff. Title IX Fellow Becca Bernstein and Residential Communities Coordinator Heather Lorin Albright will join Harris in working in the WRC this year, in an effort to address that lack.  She explained that there are plans for the WRC, IC, and BCC staff to coordinate throughout the year, and that they are collectively seeking to answer the question “How can we model a working and lived experience of intersectionality?”

The WRC previously served as a dry alternative available during parties, and was only almost exclusively open on weekend nights. The space will now be open during daytime hours, and Harris hopes it will become a comfortable space for all and a hub for students whose interests include gender-related issues.

Harris’s work will also extend to advising Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, a student group that led peer-facilitated workshops during orientation (before the days of Making Friends, Making Out) in the past, but seeks to reevaluate and redefine its role on campus this year. According to Ashley Hong ’16, an ASAP coordinator, this reshaping is due in large part to the hiring of Kaaren Williamsen as the college’s first Title IX Coordinator and the creation of an official Title IX space.

“[The members of the group] realized we were allowed to step back thanks to the institution’s stepping up,” she said. Since these changes, ASAP coordinators have spent time figuring out how to be most effective in meeting their goals and in actively supporting Williamsen’s work.  Victoria Stitt ’15, another of ASAP’s coordinators, hopes that the group will have a larger presence this year, though they will be smaller in numbers since they no longer lead orientation workshops.

The official mission statement of ASAP includes the following: “We seek to educate our peers about the multifaceted ways that abuse and sexual assault can manifest themselves … We encourage our peers to recognize and know how to support a friend or friends dealing with the impacts of sexual assault.” For her part, Hong joined the group with hopes of being able to influence campus culture.

“My freshman year, I realized that there was a big lack of resources, awareness, and education about healthy relationships, consent, prevention, etc. I joined ASAP to make sexual assault issues more visible and to make consent the norm,” she said. She believes that there has been a shift towards greater awareness and understanding over the course of her time here.  “ASAP doesn’t have an official, longitudinal study to quantitatively assess the changes that we believe have occurred, but there are areas on campus and in social media that have shown an increase in support.” She explained that she was heartened to see students using the anonymous app Yik Yak to spread information about campus resources, to identify Harris and Williamsen as useful figures, and to reinforce the importance of consent. “Every effort counts,” she added.

Williamsen voiced gratitude towards the students, like those involved in ASAP, who dedicate their time and energy to supporting her office’s work.

“Preventing sexual violence is a community effort and I am so appreciative that so many students are interesting in working together on this issue,” she said. She also pointed out that one of the difficulties in keeping a consistent culture of consent and awareness of issues and policies at Swarthmore, or any college, is the sizable turnover in the student community, which necessitates a continued educational effort by the administration.

Williamsen’s official role, as described in the Student Handbook, is to oversee all sexual misconduct reports, to advise students in matters involving sexual misconduct, and to ensure that the college is compliant with all regulations under Title IX law. Williamsen herself also highlighted her work on the side of sexual violence prevention, and her commitment to working with other staff and students to create educational events, workshops, and trainings.

Harris, Williamsen, and ASAP coordinators all pointed to the upcoming “Can I Kiss You?” workshop as one of the events they are looking forward to this year. The workshop, which also took place last year, is led by author and public speaker Mike Domitrz and seeks to help students manage the realities of giving and getting consent. Other sexual violence-related programming is also in the works for the coming year, including private events for the survivor community and public ones for all interested students.

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