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.
This spring 2018 semester marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most notable period of campus unrest in recent history: The Spring of Discontent. During the spring of 2013, Swarthmore students activists worked to address systemic administrative failures in a number of areas, including diversity within the student and faculty bodies, management of fraternity housing, investment in fossil fuels, and Title IX policy. I will explore students’ work to address Swarthmore’s mishandling of sexual assault cases and the College’s response between the Spring of Discontent and now.
During May of 2013, two students, Hope Brinn ‘15 and Mia Ferguson ‘15, filed two complaints pertaining to the College’s handling of cases of sexual assault: one with the federal government for a violation of the Clery Act, and another with the Department of Education for a violation of Title IX. The complains included allegations of underreporting of sexual assault statistics and testimonials from over ten students who had their rights under the Clery Act violated. The College conducted an external review of its policies and procedures regarding sexual assault.
On May 4th, 2013, student activists participated in an open meeting with the College’s Board of Managers to address, among others, issues surrounding College policies and actions regarding sexual misconduct. Two days later, students presented a list of demands to the College at a community action meeting in Parrish hall. The demands directly pertaining to issues of sexual misconduct include the:
- Creation of an Office of Survivor Advocacy with legal, trained student advocates, and, comprehensive rights education.
- Immediate revision of the CJC process, so that sexual assault cases are no longer confidential.
- Immediate implementation of the emergency alert system to notify students of sexual assaults and violence on campus as in in compliance with the law.
- A public apology from the administration admitting grave mishandling of and wrongdoing towards survivors of sexual assault in violation of federal law.
- At least one all-gender bathroom in every dormitory. In Wharton, one all gender bathroom in each section of the building(AB, CD, EF).
The reasons for student’s concerns regarding the College’s practices in the prevention of and response to cases of sexual assault were numerous. As of the spring of 2013, not a single Swarthmore student had ever been expelled on account of a sexual assault policy violation. Before 2013, the recorded last meeting of the College Judiciary Committee to consider a case of sexual misconduct was in 2010, the verdict of which was not guilty. Numerous survivors had experienced damaging and unhelpful responses from the College. They faced unsympathetic and often accusatory responses from administrators, unnecessarily lengthy and distressing adjudication processes, and insufficient sanctions against their perpetrators.
Although many of these demands went unaddressed, the College did take significant steps toward addressing concerns. The College created the positions of Interim Violence Prevention Educator/Advocate and Grievance Advisor to advocate for both victims and accused perpetrators of sexual assault, respectively, during the adjudication process. Also, Tom Elverson, then Drug and Alcohol Counselor and advisor to the fraternities, was fired. Tom was notorious for his mishandling of cases of sexual assault and unfair advocacy of fraternity members in those cases. Currently, Joshua Ellow serves as the Alcohol and Other Drugs Counselor and Educator. His responsibilities do not include advising any fraternities or interest groups on campus. The Office of Student Engagement was delegated the responsibility of advising fraternities. Additionally, at least one all-gender bathroom was created in each dorm.
On April 7th and 8th, 2013, the Swarthmore Student Council held a referendum on fraternities. This referendum was held to address community concern regarding fraternities’ facilitation of sexual violence on campus, among others. The specific questions on which the community voted were:
- Do you support ceasing Delta Upsilon’s and Kappa Alpha Theta’s affiliations to their national chapters?
- Do you support admitting students of all genders to sororities and fraternities?
- Do you support making fraternity houses into substance-free spaces?
- Do you support merging all sororities and fraternities into one campus building?
- Do you support having no campus buildings expressly for the purpose of housing Greek organizations?
- Do you support the abolition of sororities and fraternities at Swarthmore College?
Of these proposals, only the second passed. Despite this, the nationally-affiliated organizations, Delta Upsilon and Kappa Alpha Theta are presently prevented by their national chapters from allowing students of all genders into their organizations.
During recent years, students have continued to promote the work that began in the Spring of Discontent. In the spring of 2015, the student group Specters of Discontent held a series of events featuring storytelling by students and alumni involved in the activism of the Spring of 2013. In spring 2017, a group of students created the website Swat Protects Rapists to document the precise issues in the College’s handling of sexual assault. This spring, O4S began to use the website as a platform to convey its message.
On March 19th, 2018, Organizing for Survivors (O4S), a collective of over one hundred survivors and allies, held a rally in Parrish Hall to read a list of over thirty specific demands for change in the College’s Title IX policy and present this list of demands to President Valerie Smith. Broad demands in this document include:
- “that Swarthmore protect survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent sexual violence to the degree it is possible.”
- “A restructuring of Title IX policy and procedures to create a system that protects survivors and facilitates justice.”
- “viable interim measures that meaningfully ensure survivors’ comfort and safety while limiting the ability of perpetrators to continue harm.”
- “‘good standing with the college’ be a formal condition of involvement with the College through positions of power/leadership or interactions as alumni.”
- “education and supportive services for survivors and all students that ensure our wellbeing.”
- “an end to the dangerous structure of fraternity housing on campus.
- “individual staff changes and changes in institutional policy.”
- “a formal apology by Swarthmore College to the many students it has harmed and retraumatized through its negligence, misconduct, and wrongdoings.”
In addition to presenting their demands, survivors shared anecdotes of their personal experiences throughout the Title IX reporting and adjudication processes.
Concerns regarding the impact of fraternities’ presence on campus are still widespread and have gone largely unaddressed. On March 22nd, 2018, O4S hung posters across campus addressing the inequitable control of campus social life that fraternities’ building leases provide, as well as their facilitation of sexual violence and protection of perpetrators. These posters were soon removed, allegedly by Public Safety. Public Safety did not respond to an inquiry regarding these allegations. Students responded by hanging more posters; once again, they were removed.
The messages displayed on these posters triggered and caused anxiety for some student survivors. O4S published a statement to apologize for the triggering that their posters caused and to explain the challenge of simultaneously sending a powerful message and avoiding causing pain for survivors.
The next day, Organizing for Survivors published a series of letters demanding that Dean of Students Elizabeth Braun, Dean of the Senior Class and Director of Student Conduct Nate Miller, Associate Director of Investigations Beth Pitts, and Interim Title IX Coordinator Michelle Ray resign for their continued mishandling of cases of sexual assault. These letters detailed the administrators’ specific failures. Trends in these failures include asking inappropriate questions of complainants throughout the adjudication process (often in direction violation of victims’ rights under College policy), insufficient support of survivors and prioritization of their recovery, and enacting and enforcing sanctions against perpetrators insufficiently. In addition to resignation, these letters demand that the administrators sign formal letters of apology to the survivors who have suffered as a result of their malpractice.
In the days following, numerous student groups published formal letters of support for O4S and its efforts. Among these groups are The Daily Gazette, Student Government Organization, Sunrise, Women+ in Political Science, Student Philanthropy Council, Resident Assistants, SISA, Diversity Peer Advisors, W+IMS, Writing Associates, and Swarthmore Student Athletes. In their statement, a group of student athletes acknowledged the longstanding association between athletics and fraternities and reaffirmed their support of all of O4S’s demands — including “an end to the dangerous structure of fraternity housing on campus”.
In response to an inquiry regarding fraternities’ role in preventing sexual assault, Phi Psi president Mark Herdengroder ‘19 wrote, “We take this issue very seriously and plan to continue to outline specific steps towards cultural change. At the moment we are having internal conversations about the role we should play in the campus community. We will not stay silent on this issue, but need time to ensure our statement is reflective of the values of individuals members and of our group as a whole.”
In response to O4S’s rally and list of demands, President Valerie Smith published an update to Title IX policy on the Swarthmore College website on Monday, March 26th, 2018. The document, titled “Important Title IX Update,” outlines the College’s action steps to address O4S’s demands. These action steps include:
- striving to complete the Title IX complaint process within sixty days from the point when a complainant formally files a complaint and requests a formal process.
- providing regular updates to students during the Title IX complaint resolution process (including weekly updates for students who prefer them).
- continuing to offer participants the opportunity to resume the interview process either after a break or at a later date in the event that an interview last more than two hours.
- increasing training for faculty and staff to heighten awareness of Title IX issues.
- working with students to create a communication mechanism that will allow them to provide feedback on their experiences with the Title IX process on a voluntary basis.
- ensuring that, to be considered for employment and to serve in any type of residential peer leader role, including RAs, DPAs, SAMs, and GAs, a student must be in good standing with the College.
Many of O4S’s demands were only partially addressed in these action steps. For example, O4S demanded that “change the hiring process for Residential Peer Leaders as well as Teaching Assistants to include clearance through the Title IX office that there have been no complaints made against candidates.” Smith responded that, in order to be considered for employment for any type of residential pear role (not including Teaching Assistant), students must be in good standing with the College. Students accused of sexual assault remain in good standing with the College until found guilty.
In other cases, Smith explicitly stated that the College would not be able to meet certain demands. One of O4S’s demands was that Swarthmore “stop extending invitations to return to campus, whether for Alumni Weekend, class reunions, or opportunities to speak on panels or give talks to any alumni who have had complaints made against them” . In response, Smith wrote, “As a general matter the College cannot prevent individuals who have been ‘identified as a respondent’ from pursuing leadership opportunities before their complaints have been resolved. Nor can we deny invitations to all alumni who have had complaints made against them if those alumni were not found responsible for violating College policy. We must continue to preserve our commitment to due process and constitutional norms.” Smith also stated that the College would not be able to provide attorneys to survivors or suspected perpetrators. The letter did not include an apology of any sort, and its introduction was signed by Liz Braun, Nathan Miller, and Beth Pitts — the exact administrators whom O4S demanded resign.
Since the spring of 2013, the College has taken numerous action steps to improve its sexual misconduct response and support procedures. When asked about the actions it has taken, the College responded, “Since the spring of 2013, the College has completely revised how it prevents, responds to, supports the victims/survivors of, investigates, and adjudicates cases of sexual assault and misconduct.
These changes, which were communicated to the campus community by either the president, Title IX coordinator, or Dean of Students, include:
- Commissioning an external review of sexual misconduct policies. ALL recommendations from the external review were implemented.
- Conducting a thorough internal review through a Sexual Misconduct Task Force, chaired by Professor of Sociology and soon-to-be Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton.
- Immediately hiring an interim Title IX coordinator (Patricia Flaherty Fischette), followed by a full-time Title IX coordinator (Kaaren Williamsen) who reports to the president. (An active search is underway for this position and will be filled by the end of the spring semester.)
- Appointing four Title IX deputy coordinators to support the work of the Title IX coordinator.
- Hiring a violence prevention educator and advocate (an active search is also underway for this position, expected to be filled by the end of the semester) and additional investigator in Public Safety.
- Separating the roles of drug and alcohol counseling and fraternity advising, hiring an alcohol and drug counselor, and significantly increasing alcohol-free programming.
- Dedicating a Title IX House on Fieldhouse Lane for the Office of the Title IX Coordinator and creating a Student Title IX Advisory Team, which assists on policy, procedures, events, and initiatives.
- Adopting a new Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy and revising the Student Handbook, detailing the new hearing procedures and providing detailed explanations of reporting options, discussions of available resources, clear definitions of sexual assault and harassment, and explicit timeframes for all major stages of investigations and resolution.
- Revising response and support procedures to ensure that all reporting parties/complainants are offered a range of appropriate interim measures, including academic accommodations, housing changes, and contact restrictions.
- Adding an online report form for incidents of criminal activity or sexual misconduct.
- Implementing a new adjudication model for student-student cases of sexual misconduct that is overseen by external adjudicators with the experience and sensitivity necessary to navigate these complex cases with skill and great care.
- Sponsoring both full-day and half-day Title IX Training sessions for faculty and staff.
- Providing training for investigators on how to most effectively and sensitively conduct investigations.
- Ensuring that all of our campus security authorities (CSAs) were identified and trained on their responsibilities to promptly report all Clery Act crimes, including sexual assault.
- Requiring education sessions and training for incoming first-year students about healthy relationships, relationship violence, alcohol and other drug awareness, campus community-building, consent, campus support resources, and sex-positivity programming.
- Revising the College’s alcohol and party procedures and developing the Alcohol and Other Drug Amnesty policy to promote safety and well-being on campus.
- Hiring a case manager and educator for community standards to serve as a grievance advisor.
- Creating a Title IX Fellow to help with healthy-relationship events and programming, resource development, and prevention education.
- Expanding the hours of the Women’s Resource Center, providing regular drop-in hours and survivor support events.
- Surveying the campus climate on a number of campus issues, including the climate related to sexual misconduct.
- Developing the SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Resources and Education) website to clearly showcase information and resources about sexual violence and healthy relationships to the community.
- Creating student groups that address sexual violence and/or healthy relationships and sexuality at Swarthmore include: Student Title IX Advisory Team, the Title IX Liaison Team, and Men & Masculinities (M&M) group.
- Implementing annual Title IX team review of policies and procedures based on community feedback, recent experience, benchmarking, and/or legal guidance.
- Re-committing to upholding equality and freedom from all forms of discrimination and harassment following an announcement from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that the Department of Education planned to revisit Title IX guidelines”
Additionally, in this statement, President Smith wrote, “I am grateful for the courageous efforts of our students over the years to identify issues related to sexual misconduct.
As I said in my letter to the community, the College has implemented many changes and improvements during the past five years, but more work remains to be done, and we must continue to evaluate and re-evaluate our practices.
I am committed to making sure that our students feel safe and supported, and unharmed by sexual—or any other type of—violence, abuse, or harassment. I am equally committed to maintaining fairness for every student. I believe that we can do both.”
More information regarding the College’s work to improve its handling of sexual assault can be found on its SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Resources & Education) website.
Without doubt, many student demands remain unfulfilled. Survivors’ needs continue to be insufficiently prioritized throughout the adjudication process. Administrators fail to support survivors sufficiently. During the adjudication process, investigators question survivors’ sexual history, level of intoxication, and emotional stability. Survivors continue to have no choice other than to live and work in the same spaces as their perpetrators — sometimes even under their authority as student leaders.
In spite of substantial improvements in policy — such as the creation of the Title IX House and increased community training and education on sexual assault — survivors still feel that, in practice, they are not supported enough by the College. Some of survivors’ experiences in the process include inappropriate and accusatory questioning, poor communication and transparency during the adjudication process, and protracted hearings. These are largely the same problems activists during the spring of 2013 worked to address.
In a piece for Voices published in February 2018, a survivor and member of the core group of O4S wrote, “We as students need to be asking questions of the College at large, and particularly the Title IX office, about how these policies are enacted in practice. The problems that Student X, myself, and others experienced were not solely problems of policy—they were also problems of procedure.”
The College can continue to form committees and make revisions to the Student Handbook, but, until the individuals directly involved in the adjudication process properly enact policy and generally work in a more timely, communicative, respectful, and professional manner, survivors’ needs will remain unmet.
In the spring of 2013, Swarthmore students demanded change in the college’s handling of sexual assault. In spite of many positive policy changes, it seems that survivors continue to have far from ideal experiences throughout the sexual assault reporting and adjudication processes. Five years later, student have not only not given up on this cause — they are demanding more concrete, consequential action.
In an email that President Smith sent to our community on Monday, March 22nd, she wrote that she has “been impressed by the passionate commitment members of our community demonstrate in their efforts to make our campus and the world beyond it more just, fair, and equitable.” It is time that the administration translate this sentiment into executing the demands that students have had for years now.