College Releases External Reports, Next Steps To Follow

On August 30, 2019, Jim Terhune, dean of students, released the reports of two separate investigations that the college initiated last May in response to events last semester. One examined the fraternity documents which were reported on by The Phoenix and Voices last Spring as well as the Tumblr page “Why the Swarthmore Fraternities Must Go”. The other investigation was centered around multiple events and protests that took place throughout April until the beginning of May. 

On May 14, Dean Terhune informed the campus of the external investigation intended to potentially identify violations of college policy.

According to Dean Terhune, “there were a number of really serious charges/allegations from students, from staff members, from others about potential violations that may have occurred during the whole period of protests… we felt like it was important to use somebody from outside as a neutral observer, who could come in with fresh eyes on this subject and real experience in conducting these kinds of investigations.”

The college hired Christina Riggs, a Partner at the law firm of Saul Ewing Armstein & Lehr LLP who has experience with conducting investigations at higher education institutions. She acted as lead investigator throughout the entire process. In the campus events report released to the community, she noted that they only spoke with three students despite reaching out to an additional 32. 

The report states that “the Investigators interviewed 26 individuals, including College administrators, employees, Public Safety Officers, the Swarthmore Borough Police and three students… the Investigators also reached out to an additional 32 students… but despite multiple attempts to reach each student, these students did not agree to meet or speak with the Investigators”.

Organizing for Survivors released a statement last May in response to the investigators reaching out, stating they would not participate because they viewed the process as a means to punish students for nonviolent protests.

“We, student protesters at the heart of this matter, are writing in order to update the community that we have decided to decline to participate in this external investigation, understanding that this process will be used for further punishment of nonviolent protest,” wrote O4S.

In the same statement, O4S expressed concerns over the choice of Riggs as the lead investigator because of her past work as an attorney.

“An initial Google search into this firm and these staff members show that their advertised expertise is primarily in defending universities against students who complain that their Title IX cases were mishandled, defense against hazing claims and risk-management for universities,” wrote O4S.

According to Dean Terhune, however, Riggs provides an external, experienced perspective.

[When looking at firms], “we looked at people who had experience doing this kind of investigation. And, you know, I think we felt very strongly that Christina Riggs brings real experience doing this in a variety of settings. I don’t believe in any way shape or form, that the work  that she does is tilted in one direction or another” said Terhune.

In a new statement from O4S in response to the reports being published, highlighted concern and lack of clarity surrounding the purpose and potential outcome of the investigation, including disciplinary action. They consulted with a lawyer and decided not to participate due to lack of communication surrounding the consequences of the investigation.

“Last semester, after much discussion and consultation with a lawyer, we decided not to participate in the Campus Events Investigation which was, from the outset, intended to intimidate us. We attempted several times to contact and meet with administrators to determine what the potential consequences of this investigation would be, and did not receive an answer beyond that all disciplinary measures were on the table, up to and including suspension and expulsion.”

According to Dean Terhune, the investigations were not intended to determine if a member violated college policies, but provide facts for the college to make conclusions on its own. 

“The investigator’s job was to gather the facts — including information about behavior that may have violated Swarthmore student or employee policies. The college is assessing those findings and will make appropriate decisions based on the facts and in accordance with our policies and procedures,” said Dean Terhune.

Dean Terhune also emphasized that the investigations were not meant to explicitly examine protest activity, but the events that occurred concurrently.

“I just want to be clear, we’re not interested in investigating protest activity. It’s behavior that may have occurred or around them that’s separate from protesting,” said Dean Terhune.

The other investigation focused on the unredacted documents with the intent of fact finding to update alleged reportable offenses of hazing, sexual misconduct, fraternity culture, and follow up with resources for those identified in such activities. Christine Wechsler from Elliott Greenleaf, P.C. was selected to investigate the contents of the fraternity documents in addition to Tumblr page.

“Christine is conducting a review of the unredacted documents in order to identify any current student who may be implicated in violations of college policy, as well as to identify any activities that may be ongoing or are otherwise reportable offenses such as those pertaining to Title IX, Clery, and hazing. As part of her review, she may contact individuals who could have relevant information,” Terhune wrote in an email on August 30th  to the campus.

The report from this investigation also noted a lack of participation with sixteen people cooperating and nineteen individuals failing to respond or declining a request to be included. Additionally, the investigation did not, “discover any direct evidence of hazing incidents, and/or occurrences that constitute potential violations of applicable Pennsylvania statutes and/or college policy by or against current students at the college,” as written in the report. 

Wechsler noted that the individuals who cooperated in the investigation did not contribute much information regarding the misconduct of fraternity members or the identities of students who potentially violated college policy. The lack of information affected the conclusion of the investigation regarding fraternity culture and its member’s behavior.

“The failure of witnesses to identify peers alleged to have engaged in conduct that potentially violated policies and/or the College’s code of conduct, impeded the investigation and resulted in an inability to appropriately and fully gather information to assess whether escalating reports on campus regarding poor “culture” at fraternities could be corroborated or the result of anecdotal and/or cursory, unsubstantiated, and speculative insinuations and allegations regarding fraternity members’ “behavior.”

The report stated that Wechsler was unable to find direct evidence policy violations at the college, and broader issues of “culture” within the community were to be handled by the Task Force and President Valerie Smith. 

O4S in their statement reaffirmed their decision to not participate, and condemned the report as inauthentic to their work throughout last semester.

“It is important for us to reiterate the reality of the situation: Swarthmore College is afraid of protests and will take specific measures to prevent, intimidate and punish those who wish to engage in them. Their redefinition of our narrative is just another attempt to erase the harm they have caused and the obvious success of our work.”

O4S has plans going forward to continue their work and strengthen their connection with the Swarthmore Community. 

“Organizing for Survivors still has plenty of work to do in the coming months, and we intend to redouble our efforts to be in collaboration with the greater community. We continue to change and grow as a group and appreciate the time and energy individuals and groups take to talk with us about this growth.”

For Dean Terhune, the reports establish a clear narrative that will help the college move forward in their response to what happened last Spring.

“The reports are helpful in establishing a clear set of facts that will allow us to make determinations about what policy violations may have occurred. We will then determine how to address them fairly, in accordance with our procedures and our educational mission,” said Dean Terhune.

The College has still not announced how these reports will be used going forward. 

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