On Friday April 25, dozens of students gathered in front of Converse Hall to demand more severe sanctions for students found responsible for sexual assault at the College, holding signs with messages like “0.00% of rapists have been kicked out of Amherst in the last 20 years” and “Is Laptop Theft Worse Than Rape? Amherst Says Yes,” arguing that despite the progress of the past six months the College still has a long way to go.
Ryan Arnold ’15E, who organized the demonstration, said that the students’ goal was to keep the College’s administrators accountable and transparent as they revise the College’s policies on sexual misconduct and work to promote sexual respect on campus.
“April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so we’ve put on a series of demonstrations over the course of the month, mostly in front of Val. This is also leading up to the Title IX Committee’s revision process, and there’s been virtually zero transparency in that revision process,” Arnold said. “I know that they had a draft of the sexual misconduct policy that was going to be released in early February; they sent the draft around to some of the student organizations that work directly with the committee for input, and after that they decided not to release the draft at that time. I think there’s just been a lot of frustration within the student body about the lack of external accountability to this revision process.”
Additionally, Arnold said, while the Title IX Committee initially had two students representatives appointed to serve by the Association of Amherst Students (AAS), one of the students left the committee several months ago and still has not been replaced.
Interim Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East met with the demonstrating students and held an impromptu conversation with many of the students present at the protest in which she discussed the issue of the missing student representative on the Title IX Committee.
“I was surprised to hear that she was not aware that the second student representative had left the Title IX Committee, because she is on the Title IX Committee. With that being said, I don’t really think that’s her fault; I think it says a lot more about the various pressures that being part of the administrative structure places on its positions. Some things just fall through the cracks. When you have a committee that is as siloed as the Title IX Committee has been, you don’t have any sort of external accountability. That was the main takeaway for me,” Arnold said.
Demonstrators also discussed the issue of sanctions for sexual misconduct with Dean Boykin-East and expressed their frustration with what they saw as inaction by the Title IX Committee on the issue of sanctions. According to statistics released by the Dean of Students Office last year, students found responsible for laptop theft during the 2009 and 2010 calendar years received between four and five semester-long suspensions, while suspensions for sexual misconduct ranged between two and four semesters during the same period of time. However, according to Dean Boykin-East, the disciplinary process for sexual misconduct has changed significantly over the past six months, and the Title IX Committee is continuing to revise and improve the College’s policies and procedures.
“Sanctions for sexual assault play a role in our prevention efforts as they can serve as deterrence to future misconduct. Sanctions can also help a victim of sexual assault begin to regain a sense of safety at the college. We firmly believe that rape is more serious than theft or academic dishonesty,” Dean Boykin-East said. “The allegation of sexual assault is very broad and it can include inappropriate touching and an array of other behaviors. It is my understanding students are requesting that the college impose stricter sanctions when students have been found guilty of rape. In cases where students are found guilty of rape, students are asking disciplinary boards to expel students from the college. I support strong sanctions in all egregious cases.”
Additionally, Dean Boykin-East addressed concerns from students about the perceived lack of action by the Title IX Committee on the issue of sanctions, saying that the hearing board process developed by the committee is substantially different from the disciplinary process for theft or academic dishonesty and calling allegations that the committee is ignoring the issue “dangerously misleading.”
“I would like to make it clear the Title IX committee did not dismiss the question about routinizing sanctions, but rather put in place a hearing board process that is quite different from the conduct process for laptop thefts. Creating a separate process and a way to consider sanctions in the context of sexual misconduct, independent of violations of other sorts like laptops thefts, will have the effect of creating patterns of responses to findings which we intend to be consistently punitive,” Dean Boykin-East said. “The suggestion that the Title IX Committee deliberated and decided not to permit sanctions more extreme than those for plagiarism is simply false and dangerously misleading and could have the net effect of discouraging the reporting of assaults.”
According to the College’s official Sexual Respect & Title IX website, over the past sixth months the College has taken a variety of steps to improve the College’s response to sexual misconduct, including adding student representation to the Title IX Committee and the Sexual Respect Task Force, establishing an anonymous and confidential sexual assault hotline, reformed the hearing process for sexual misconduct and expanded counseling services for survivors of sexual assault. In addition, according to Peter Rooney, the College’s Director of Public Affairs, the College will be hiring a new Title IX Coordinator this summer, separating the position from the Department of Athletics, where Suzanne Coffey currently holds both the Title IX Coordinator and Director of Athletics positions.
Dana Bolger ’14E, who serves as a student representative on the Title IX Committee said that despite the College’s progress, students needed to keep pressure on the College to ensure that the College continues to move forward and go beyond the bare legal minimum of compliance with Title IX.
“It’s critical that we continue to remind the institution that we’re still watching, that we will hold administrators accountable for the promises they made last semester, and that we insist that they continue to make more changes such that they are not only in ‘compliance’ with the bare minimum legal requirements but also that they proactively work to ensure that this environment is not a toxic one for its women students,” Bolger said.
Arnold concurred with Bolger’s sentiments and said that he thought the demonstration had helped work towards these goals.
“On a campus like ours when you continue to demonstrate you run the risk of just dividing the student body across existing fault-lines and you run a pretty serious risk of making people in the administration feel unfairly persecuted, and that’s what I really did not want to have happen with this. I don’t think that was what happened. With that being said, the third risk is that you’re in danger of solidifying the appearance to the rest of the student body that the only people who care enough about these issues to demonstrate are just the same group of ten to fifteen students who have been doing it. I think that’s definitely something that has come close to happening in the past, but yesterday we had between 40 and 50 people total at the demonstration. It was a really impressive mix of students from different facets of the community life,” Arnold said.
President Biddy Martin was out of town on College business during the demonstration, so she was unable to meet with the demonstrating students. Nevertheless, President Martin sent her regrets to the students and said that she supported their efforts to increase awareness about sexual assault.
“I am very sorry I could not be on campus today to show my solidarity with our students who are advocating for a culture of sexual respect at Amherst College and doing so much to help create it. Sexual misconduct and rape are problems on college and university campuses all across the country, and Amherst is no different,” Martin said. “On these last days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I thank our students for focusing their attention and ours on all the work that remains to be done.”