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Making a Cultural Shift

Substantive changes in Swarthmore’s sexual assault and harassment policies were put in place when the academic year began. The changes resulted after a summer spent working on policy revisions, expanded prevention and programming efforts, and recruitment for several key staff positions. The revisions follow several years of increased on-campus attention to this issue, a recent sea change in federal regulations, and well-coordinated national student activism.

The revised federal regulations include a clarification of legal obligations under Title IX regarding campus sexual assault. In March, another related federal law—the Campus Sexual Violence Act (SaVE Act)—passed, which will be in effect in 2014, mandating additional provisions for colleges and universities related to acts of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

In mid-July President Chopp shared a letter with the campus community detailing a number of interim steps the College was taking at the advice of Margolis Healy & Associates (MHA), specialists in campus safety, security, and regulatory compliance who were hired this spring to review the College’s sexual assault and harassment policies and procedures. MHA issued an interim report in mid-July. MHA is joined in its efforts by an internal Task Force on Sexual Misconduct composed of students, faculty, staff, and several members of the Board of Managers.

The comprehensive re-examination of policies on sexual assault began this spring, shortly before Mia Ferguson ’15 and Hope Brinn ’15 led the filing of two federal complaints stating that the College needed to more aggressively pursue charges of sexual assault and harassment. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is conducting an investigation. Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Occidental College, Dartmouth University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, among others, also filed complaints recently.

“These kinds of conversations can cause pain, but I think it’s a testimony to the strength of our culture and our institution to get this right,” said President Rebecca Chopp. “We will get it right and make the shift to a culture of prevention and safety.”

More than policy is at stake, Chopp said, listing four areas of campus culture—prevention, support, safety, and communication—that she believes are crucial for success in the College’s efforts.

One new initiative is a mandatory online training course, providing information on sexual assault in a college context, for all incoming students, meant to augment the interpersonal, peer-to-peer efforts already underway. Chopp said that she and Dean of Students Liz Braun were delighted that for this year’s orientation play, students produced a piece involving prevention, sex, consent, the appropriate use of alcohol, and a song titled “Consent” belted out to the tune of the Aretha Franklin hit “Respect.”

“It was brilliant,” Chopp said. “This is what we have to have—a culture that literally rocks with issues of consent and prevention.”

In a midsummer update, Chopp also announced the appointment of Patricia Flaherty Fischette, a counselor and psychologist at the Worth Health Center, as interim Title IX coordinator. A search—involving faculty, staff, and students for a permanent Title IX coordinator—will be underway shortly.

Fischette said that the positive effect of the changes on students was already evident:

“I received a response from a student to my outreach for comments on what we’re doing:

‘I felt so happy coming back to Swarthmore, embracing it like my home again.’ ” Another told Fischette, “Wow, I feel so well cared for.”

“That doesn’t mean there’s no more work to be done,” Fischette added. “I’ve had lots of questions about specific issues in the policy, which we’ll continue to address. We look forward to working with our entire community in a spirit of shared responsibility as we continue this good, hard work together.”

Following up on other MHA recommendations, campus safety will hire an additional investigator and has begun training sessions for staff members and others from the campus community on how to effectively and sensitively conduct investigations into acts of sexual misconduct. All campus community members who are deemed “responsible employees” according to Title IX—staff, faculty, RAs, and other groups who have significant student responsibility—will also receive training. “The mantra for the year is training, training, training,” Chopp said.

Communication also is being improved to keep students and the entire campus community better informed and updated on policy and planning. A new website was created, new resource materials are being made available to students and others, and conversations, formal and informal, are taking place routinely.

“Cultural change is difficult,” Chopp said. “I want to think of ways that we can think about who we want to be as a community—a vision based in our past but also based on our future. We can change policy, and we can hire more people, but, at the end of the day, we need a vision to pull us forward. This year—the year of our sesquicentennial—is a great year for doing that.”

—CBD and SLK

Click here for information on campus resources in cases of sexual assault.

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