Clarification: the meeting reported in this article took place before the publication of Angie Epifano's story.
President Biddy Martin led a meeting to discuss issues of sexual respect and misconduct on Sunday evening (October 14), marking the first step in planned on-going conversation concerning the topics at Amherst College. The audience was comprised of a cross-section of the College community – administrators, faculty, coaches, fraternity members and survivors of sexual assault – who came forward to discuss matters of student involvement in formulating sexual misconduct policy, unduly lenient punishments for misconduct, and the status of fraternities.
President Martin called the meeting last Thursday following a recent article published in the Indicator and posted to AC Voice that drew attention to an offensive t-shirt designed by members of a fraternity last spring and to a culture that tolerates sexism and misogyny.
The meeting concluded with the formulation of the following action steps: student involvement on the Title IX committee; the establishment of a group that will discuss the regulation or disbandment of fraternities; further utilization of campus resources, such as the Peer Advocates; the treatment of survivors of sexual assault, which will include faculty education on how to handle classroom material that is potentially triggering to survivors.
“Respect for other people and for other people’s boundaries, and their bodily integrity as well as psychological well-being is absolutely crucial,” said President Martin. “Not only for other people, but for your own relationship to yourself.”
“Some of you talked to me last year, and said you thought the College’s policies, procedures and practices were not adequate, or that they had problems that prevented you from coming forward,” she said. “In other cases, you thought the procedures and practices weren’t entirely fair to all parties or to two parties in the dispute. I came to feel you were right.”
With the help of outside consultants, the College has been working to comply with Title IX — the federal law that forbids sex discrimination at colleges — and to design best practices regarding the disciplinary hearing process. Last spring, the College Council and Committee of Six made changes to hearing procedures, offering alternative testimony options for participants and training faculty advisors in the process [see sidebar]. Outside consultants further reviewed sexual misconduct policies, procedures and policies over the summer, which has resulted in the creation of an investigative model for cases of sexual misconduct where an outside investigator may be hired to collect evidence.
Matters of legal compliance are left to legal experts, but as a private institution, the College has some discretion over how terms are defined and thus greater room for student input. For instance, two years ago, the College’s sexual misconduct policy was changed from a standard of rape based on force or threat of force, as stated in Massachusetts’s law, to a consent-based policy.
Since no law stipulates how the disciplinary hearing committee should be composed, and thus the structure of the disciplinary hearing committee, which includes three students and two faculty members, is undergoing review.
“With students and faculty on hearing boards, your sense of privacy can easily be breached even if everyone who takes part swears and even keeps confidentiality,” said President Martin. “It may put you in a position where you feel as though you’ve exposed yourself to people you’re going to take classes from, and that you’re going to interact with, and one of the things we’ve been encouraged to do [by consultants] was to look at that.”
Student representatives problematic for other reasons. “Students on the disciplinary committee are chosen from a very narrow pool — namely, the AAS senators,” said Dana Bolger ’14E, writer of the article on the t-shirt incident, in a recent interview. “As less than a quarter of Senators are women, this pool is not at all representative of the student body. Even more important, student and faculty committee members are replaced every year or so. Thus they have little knowledge of precedent, and a 2012 committee member has no idea how a similar case was adjudicated in say, 2006. There’s no institutional memory and thus no consistency. We need a dedicated, permanent committee of highly trained staff members.”
A chief concern at the meeting was the perceived lack of student input on changes that have already been made and lack of student representation on committees that devise sexual misconduct policy. “What we’d like ideally is to be authors of the policy, to be involved in the policy making process rather than students who are just given the policy afterwards,” said Cat Bryars ’12.
While most committees at the College have student, faculty and administrative representatives who contribute different perspectives and levels of expertise, the Title IX committee accepted no student representatives. “I think that’s a huge problem,” said Liya Rechtman ’14. “Students also did not meet with the consultants who have come to the school, and that’s another huge problem.”
Bryars believes that students know best what is in their own interest, which makes student involvement in policy making so essential. “They’re asking, why aren’t girls coming forward, why are they scared?” she said. “The administration isn’t empowering them when they’re making policy. The administration needs to trust women to make policies that create a safe campus, and women will come forward when we know it’s safe.”
Bridget Bennett ’14 drew attention to the administration’s patronizing attitude toward survivors of sexual assault rather than empowerment of survivors. “They discuss you as if you’re a child, as if you cannot exist in this world because you’ve been hurt and because you’ve been broken and that is something that is so inappropriate when it comes to dealing with victims or their friends,” she said.
Historically, few cases have gone the full distance in the disciplinary process at the College. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 95% of attacks go unreported, making sexual assault one of the most drastically underreported crimes. Two thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Survivors are often silenced by the fear of being judged or not understood, or by institutional barriers. Others may not immediately define their experience as assault or rape.
“There needs to be a recognition that rape and sexual misconduct is a crime,” said Bennett. “It should not be the victims that are looked at by deans or administrators who say, ‘Do you really want to ruin that poor boy’s life?’ I think rather, what should be said to the accused and the parents is, ‘At least they did not choose to take this to the police.’ I think that what is often forgotten about the young women on this campus is how often they are asked to sympathize with their attackers, and how they are asked to protect them from the outside world.”
Others expressed concerns that punishments meted out for sexual assault were not severe enough, as offenders would not learn by example and would not be deterred from committing crimes.
“Considering that we have a zero tolerance policy with plagiarism and cheating on campus, I really don’t understand why there isn’t a zero tolerance policy in terms of sexual misconduct,” said Danielle Amadeo ’13.
According to the record of sanctions released by the College last spring, students found responsible for sexual assault were typically suspended for two to four semesters. Punishment for theft of a laptop resulted in five semesters’ suspension.
“Considering that rape is a crime — and often a repeat crime at that — this seems neither just nor safe, and is hardly encouraging to victims considering taking disciplinary action against their attackers,” said Bolger. “Most victims never file a complaint at all and, of the ones who do, most end up making an out-of-hearing agreement with their attacker rather than continue through the hearing process. How can any of us be confident that our attacker will get more than a slap on the wrist, when the committee is meting out a greater punishment for stealing a laptop than sexually assaulting a human being?”
“Our attitude toward sexual disrespect is somewhat casual,” said Beth Hall ’14, who brought the offensive fraternity t-shirt to the administration’s attention last semester. “Personally, I would have liked from the administration to see a little bit more outrage. We sign an Honor Code, but a lot of people on campus don’t hold themselves accountable for their actions, and don’t hold their friends actable for their actions. Redefining the social norms of what’s acceptable on campus is what’s necessary to make sexual respect the norm.”
“A lot of people have been thinking that there are shades of grey and it’s hard to penalize people for something so complicated but I think as a student body, we should make things more black and white,” said Hall. Other speakers also emphasized that there are no grey areas in rape, where consent is either a yes or a no. ‘Grey rape’ is sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial, which minimizes the magnitude of rape and justifies victim-blaming.
“When rape does happen, it’s usually not with a gun to the head, or a knife to the throat – it’s usually when people are in relationships, it’s usually when people have been hooking up, those are the grey areas,” said Shamari Sylvan ’13. He believes that the byproduct is questions such as, ‘was there alcohol involved? Were they dating? Were they hooking up beforehand? What kind of relationship did they have?’ These questions obscure the real issue at hand create a hesitancy to see rape and sexual assault as black and white.
Since Sunday’s meeting was prompted by anger over an offensive t-shirt designed by members of a fraternity, discussion led to a scrutiny of the impact of underground fraternities on campus culture and gender equality, and the question was raised of whether fraternities should be disbanded or regulated.
“Fraternities exist in a regulatory grey area where we all sort of pretend they don’t exist,” said Emma Saltzberg ’13. “It creates a culture where the administration agrees to look the other way. When you know that you exist in a grey area and that the administration is wiling to ignore your existence, that gradually turns into a culture of brazenness and in this instance, you see that people exploited that.”
Professor Dumm believes Amherst fraternities are what Michel Foucault would call a “tolerated illegality.” He said, “My daughter graduated from Wesleyan a year and a half ago, and she was warned there was a fraternity she should never go near, because it was the ‘rape fraternity.’ When I saw that photo in the Indicator, I thought to myself, could I ever recommend to a friend of mine that a young woman apply to Amherst College?”
Professor Dumm extended his support to students who had been upset or hurt by the t-shirt incident or more general experiences of sexual disrespect. “We on the faculty need to hear more directly from you whenever you’ve been offended,” he said. Assistant Athletics Director and basketball coach Brian McBride also offered his assistance: “If you don’t believe we’re here as an administration not here to support you, I think there’s some ambiguity there. Because I know we’re here for your best interests as you foremost are important to us.”
Some believed that forming a partnership with fraternities would be best, as men will join fraternities as long as freedom of association exists on campus. “I have experienced, witnessed, heard about sexual misconduct from my friends, and I’ve experienced it firsthand,” said Amadeo. “But I have also experienced men in fraternities speak to their brothers about how to behave, and discipline their brothers about how to behave, and say this is not acceptable, this is not how you treat a woman, and I think that maybe we need to tap into fraternity leadership.”
Following the discussion, President Martin made a commitment to create a group that will discuss the status of fraternities within a month.
“It’s not that the administration turns a blind eye — we have to deal with it,” she said. “I think we should deal with it in the larger context of student life generally. Going after frats as if that’s our single challenge or opportunity doesn’t seem wise to me — I’d rather, as part of our planning process, have discussions about what kind of student experience you want and we want at Amherst College and what will enable us that you have this experience.”
“I think all of this is changing and it’s changing as it changes too — Amherst is not alone in having had relatively informal ways of settling things in the past,” said President Martin. “History catches up and surpasses us, and we have to catch up with it, and that’s the position we’re in.”