New Sexual Harassment Policy Takes Form
Issue   |   Wed, 11/09/2011 - 02:54
Converse Hall, the Location of the Dean of Students' Office

In the past, Amherst’s sexual misconduct policy was covered under the broad Statement on Respect for Persons. Over the past few years, the College decided to specify what constituted a violation of the sexual harassment section of the honor code. As of this summer, the Statement on Sexual Misconduct has been added to the Student Handbook.

“Now students can look at the handbook and point to specific violations because everything is broken down,” said Gretchen Krull, the Assistant Director of Health Education and the College’s Sexual Assault Counselor. “The new policy basically says that if you don’t get a yes, it’s [a] no-go. Silence does not equal consent.”

Over the last year, a sub-group of the Sexual Respect Task Force crafted the new Misconduct Policy. The group included three students and three staff members who reviewed other colleges’ codes and guidelines in order to find an optimal policy for the College. The new affirmative, consent-based policy has long been a goal of the Peer Advocates (PAs), who have been educating students about consent and sexual misconduct since their inception in 1997. The policy follows the Cleary Act, which requires colleges to document any cases of several types of crimes, including forcible sexual acts such as sexual assault and rape. It also takes into account Title IX and a Dear Colleague Letter written by the Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights to the U.S. Department of Education from April 4, 2011, describing how schools can best implement Title IX and provide students with an environment free of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Peer Advocate and member of the Sexual Respect task force Julia Eichenfield ’12 believes the policy is a step in the right direction.

“The changes affirm the school’s commitment to creating a community free from abuse, assault, harassment and coercive conduct,” Eichenfield said. “I am pleased that the new policy sets such a clear standard for sexual behavior acceptable under the Amherst Honor Code. I am also impressed by the lengths the Dean of Students Office has gone to in order to communicate to students that we are each responsible for familiarizing ourselves with and abiding by the Amherst College Statement on Sexual Misconduct.”

Though a step in the right direction, however, the policy is still evolving.

“I feel we have a good program because we are continually working to improve what we do both in our educational efforts, counseling and policies,” Krull said. “It is not perfect for sure. Students will now know they cannot assume consent, but must learn to negotiate consent. Students should know that Amherst is continually working to support a safe, respectful community.”

Though it is too soon to see a direct effect of the policy change, many hope it will help people feel more comfortable about coming forward and reporting sexual assaults.

“Underreporting is a huge problem on every college campus,” Eichenfield said. “Advocates often cite the statistic that one in four college women will suffer a rape or attempted rape over their college career. The 14 officially reported sexual assaults at Amherst College in 2010 come nowhere near this statistic. However, the number of reports doubled between 2009 and 2010. This increase demonstrates that we are achieving some modest success in our attempts to make members of the community more comfortable in coming forward.”

According to a U.S. Department of Justice report entitled “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” (2000), an average of 27.7 rapes occur for every 1,000 female students at a college. This means that one in 36 college women experience a completed or attempted rape in an academic year. The study also said that colleges should expect 35 incidents of rape in a given academic year per 1,000 women at the college. They estimate that about 95% of completed or attempted rapes go unreported.

Campus Police records show that since 2000, the number of forcible sexual offenses reported at Amherst has ranged from a low of three in 2005 to a high of 14 in 2010. Forcible sexual offenses are defined by the FBI Uniform Crime Report, required under the Department of Education, as “any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will; or not forcibly or against the person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent. This includes forcible rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object and forcible fondling.” This differs from non-forcible sexual offenses, which are “unlawful, non-forcible sexual intercourse. This includes incest and statutory rape.” The College has had no reported non-forcible sexual offenses since at least 2000.

According to Chief of Public Safety John Carter, “We seldom report non-forcible sexual assault because of the narrow definition. Also, we collect data from sources other than just the police so not all reports are ‘police investigations.’ If you do a [comparison] to other schools, you may find this is not always the truth.”

“Although our numbers may appear high relative to some other institutions, I believe that students trust the resources we have set up for support and the policies and practices we have developed. They know we take allegations of misconduct seriously and that we respond with support, clarification of remedies and action, if desired. It is often difficult to tell someone else about a violation, let alone file a report. Moving from support to reporting involves understanding what is involved in taking that step,” Krull said. “We take this seriously and absolutely believe people should have access to education and activities free of sexual harassment.”

If a student is sexually assaulted, it is recommended that victims talk with someone about their emotional and physical well-being. Speaking to a confidential source first, such as a PA or Krull, allows students to evaluate all options, including legal or disciplinary responses, and determine what is best for them. Campus Police should always be contacted in situations where a student feels he or she faces future violence. Students can see the Sexual Misconduct Policy for more information. The College’s statements on Sexual Misconduct can be found in Appendix A of the Student Handbook. Furthermore, Appendix D clarifies what constitutes various forms of sexual harassment.