Content Warning: sexual assault
Yes. Given that it is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I believe it is appropriate to shed light on the ways that Swarthmore College has and continues to protect sexual predators at the expense, especially of survivors on campus, but also of all students who call Swarthmore home and expect the administration to enforce its stated guidelines on proactively protecting its community from sexual violence. This article is primarily intended for Swatties who have not interacted with the Title IX reporting process and are not aware of the specifics of the problem on campus.
Many students are familiar with complaints made during the spring of 2013, most notably the fact that Tom Elverson, Swarthmore’s alcohol education and intervention specialist as well as Greek liaison, was known to intervene in favor of Delta Upsilon members during Title IX investigations.
As an alum of the fraternity himself, his biases towards protecting the organization’s members resulted in his removal by the college on June 28, 2013, but not until an expansive national campaign was launched by survivors to plead their case. During his tenure at Swarthmore, DU members were actively protected from the consequences of their violent actions by a member of Swarthmore’s administration, creating a hostile environment that permeated the reporting process.
The federal Title IX investigation regarding these events (which was supposed to be completed within 180 days) is still ongoing.
Swarthmore has since made facial changes to its policies and staff involved in responding to complaints of sexual violence, but the skew towards protecting the interests of rapists over survivors remains to this day.
To avoid allegations of hearsay, I will first illustrate issues I personally faced after being raped by an intimate partner and reporting the incident to the nascent Title IX Office, before moving on to more recent examples without personal identifying information. The following paragraphs will include graphic depictions of sexual assault and victim blaming language.
The bias against survivors in my case began as a trickle and ended in an overwhelming deluge that exacerbated my PTSD and still impacts my day-to-day life. All complainants during the hearing process have access to the college’s “victims’ advocate,” a policy which was initally encouraging. However, I received no proactive help or advice in arguing my case, and my assigned advocate was frequently unable to answer my questions because she was unfamiliar with the college’s new procedures. Many other survivors have expressed feeling similarly isolated and forced into a position of self-advocacy in an adversarial system, while already dealing with trauma and a rigorous Swarthmore course load.
While the process of the investigation was exhausting, isolating, and all-consuming, those issues pale in comparison to what I faced during and after the hearing. Because my assailant was also my boyfriend at the time of the assault, I was met with insulting and degrading questions from the external adjudicator, such as “You are so articulate, why could you not verbally say ‘no’ to your boyfriend?” This was in response to my explanation that at the time I realized that I could not stop the assault I began to panic and could not verbalize my distress. Instead, I remained limp as the assault continued, visibly crying and shaking my head. This was considered insufficient to constitute a “withdrawal of consent,” although I argued that I was crying as hard as I could after my body chose to “freeze” rather than fight or flee— something that the adjudicator should have known is common among victims of rape.
The issue of withdrawal of consent would not have even emerged in the hearing had the adjudicator not invented the concept of “initial consent,” which I apparently indicated by getting into bed with my boyfriend to sleep. The fact that the college handbook explicitly states that affirmative consent must be attained for each individual sexual act did not seem to be of concern the adjudicator or the dean that handled my appeal. The adjudicator also did not take into account the undisputed fact in the hearing that between whatever initial consent may have existed and the assault, my assailant hit me and I was obviously distressed.
When I appealed on the grounds that the adjudicator had failed entirely to implement the definitions and requirements in the handbook, I was told that a “difference in interpretation of the handbook” was not grounds for appeal and that I had exhausted my options for seeking justice from the college. My rapist graduated in 2015 with a Swarthmore diploma and no mark on his transcript indicating he was involved in a disciplinary hearing at all.
Moving on to cases besides my own, Swarthmore even protects rapists that are found guilty during the hearing process. An individual found responsible for rape of an ex-partner remained on campus during his suspension. He was invited back to stay on campus by a fraternity brother and attended parties in utter disregard for the terms of his frankly lenient punishment. The administration was not planning on levying any further sanction until a veritable swarm of women confronted Dean Nathan Miller in his office. Furthermore, the accomplice was asked by his fraternity to appear on a panel exposing “toxic masculinity,” rendering the entire event dangerous for survivors and a disingenuous attempt to rehabilitate the organization’s image. Both men have been invited back for their five-year reunion, forcing the survivor in question to skip the event.
Lest anyone believe that these are issues of the past, this semester an individual who was found responsible for his second count of rape was only sentenced to two years of suspension. This means that he will be allowed to return to campus after his victims have graduated, and will continue to pose an active threat to all other students who will not be aware of his violent history.
Swarthmore also protects rapists by silencing survivors. An ongoing lawsuit alleges several cases of Public Safety officers discouraging reporting, in one instance by telling a victim to go to bed and think about things differently in the morning. Survivors are told not to talk about the “experience” in order to “deescalate the situation,” framing safety from retaliation as the survivor’s responsibility rather than the school’s. Recordings of any part of the process are forbidden, and the college frequently outright lies about encounters with survivors, gaslighting them and making them doubt their own sanity. The college has also scaled back awareness events that would reflect poorly on itself, including promising to hold a Take Back the Night rally and then rescinding the offer. Additionally, they shut down anonymous means of protest— many survivors’ last resort —by canceling the Clothesline Project and removing posters and chalkings critiquing the administration. Their excuse for this behavior is that the information is triggering to some survivors, and that is true; however, the administration has repeatedly refused many suggestions of compromise, such as moving the CLP to a less central location and removing the traditional color coding of shirts. Any time a new incident occurs, the college seems to react as if it is the first such infraction on campus, further isolating survivors and providing an excuse for the inconsistent enforcement of the handbook.
I have demonstrated that Swarthmore protects rapists throughout every step of the investigation process: creating an environment hostile to reporting, failing to follow stated procedures during the hearing, refusing to adequately punish even students they know to be a danger to campus, and silencing survivors. One can only speculate as to why the system works in this way, but many Swarthmore survivors have remarked that while they lacked the resources or capacity to threaten legal action following their mistreatment, respondents have a much higher rate of expensive legal retaliation against the school. I believe that Swarthmore protects rapists in order to protect its financial interests and its national reputation.
The administration isolates survivors from each other, making each individual feel as if they are alone in their struggle against these repeated injustices. They make survivors feel powerless to change their situation in much the same way that rapists attack their victim’s agency. The importance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month to me, therefore, is to publicly disclose the wrongdoings of the college such that it begins to balance the harms Swarthmore might incur when rapists threaten expensive lawsuits. Common decency and the law are both on our side. The entire student body must continue to hold the administration accountable and to demand better for the sake of all current and future Swarthmore students.
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Content Warning: sexual assault