Oversight Committee Releases Report on Sexual Misconduct
Issue   |   Tue, 02/05/2013 - 00:33

Last Wednesday, Jan. 30, the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct released a report to the College community analyzing the problem of sexual misconduct on campus and reviewing policies and procedures for handling cases of sexual misconduct. The report, titled Towards a Culture of Respect, concluded with a list of over 60 recommendations aimed at improving the College’s ability to prevent sexual violence and build a culture of respect on campus.

President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin formed the Oversight Committee this past October in response to public accounts of sexual assault at the College and pressure from students, faculty, staff and alumni. The committee was charged with examining five key areas — the campus environment, resources for student affairs, sexual education, recent history and College policy throughout the school, including policies related to Title IX — and developing a report to be presented to the Board of Trustees at the January meeting held last weekend. The report, over 50 pages long, was divided into 4 sections: an introduction, a comparison of sexual misconduct at the College with other campuses across the nation, a review and analysis of the current state of affairs at the College and a diverse list of recommendations for changes in College policies and procedures.

In the introduction, the report examined the College’s response to reports of sexual misconduct in recent years and concluded that, although the College did not appear to be “sweeping cases under the rug,” it had failed on a systemic level to provide adequate resources and due process for victims.

“Though a support structure of caring individuals has long been in place for responding to cases of sexual assault it does not always seem to have worked especially well. The sequencing process for complainants was often unclear, emergency services ill-coordinated, mental health and other support services were unreliable, some personnel were poorly trained in how to deal with this problem, and the composition of the Hearing Board may have deterred victims of assault from bringing cases forward,” the report read.

Although the report highlighted the fact that many of the issues related to the disciplinary process had been resolved by the Title IX Committee’s push for compliance with the April 2011 Dear Colleague Letter from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the committee noted that there were still many ways in which the College could improve its response to cases of sexual assault, the resources it provides for survivors and the atmosphere and attitude of the College towards sexual respect in general.

To understand the nature and extent of the problem of sexual misconduct at the College, Prof. Margaret Hunt, chair of the committee and professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies, said the committee consulted a wide variety of sources, including students, staff, academic studies and lawyers familiar with cases of misconduct at the College.

“Some of [the report] was based on external reports of (e.g.) crisis management at AC, the Counseling Center and the Dean of Students. Some came from meetings with students, including peer advocates. Some was based on personal communications between members of the committee and alums and current students — many of them survivors. Some was based on talking to the police and some with talking to lawyers familiar with many of the cases that have been reported at Amherst and elsewhere. We also interviewed — often repeatedly — everyone on staff who ever comes in contact with sexual misconduct cases. The students on the committee also had a big role in representing, from two very different points of view, the experience of students. We also tried to keep track of interventions by Amherst students, such as the It Happens Here project put together by Dana Bolger, Kinjal Patel and Sonum Dixit,” said Hunt.

Sexual Misconduct at the College

The report also compared the incidence of sexual misconduct with other colleges across the country and concluded that the frequency sexual assault at the College was neither worse nor better than at similar schools around the country. The report noted that while the College reported more sexual assaults on campus in its annual Clery statistics than its peer institution, the Clery figures are misleading because most assaults are never reported and different institutions often use wildly different definitions of particular crimes or define “campus” in misleading terms. For instance, Wesleyan University, which also made the news last year for its mishandling of sexual assault, only officially reported one case of sexual assault in the past ten years.

To gain a more accurate picture of sexual assault at the College, the committee used statistics from the biannual National College Health Assessment (NCHA), which collects information about student health and wellbeing from 141 colleges and universities nationwide, to compare the College with other institutions. Based on the statistics, the committee concluded that the College did not significantly differ from other elite residential colleges in its frequency of sexual violence.

“In the most recent NCHA survey (2012), 5 percent of Amherst women and 1 percent of Amherst men reported being penetrated without their consent in the previous year. In addition, 9 percent of women and 1 percent of men reported that someone had attempted penetration without their consent, 13 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported having been sexually touched without their consent, and 3 percent of women and 2 percent of men reported being in a sexually abusive intimate relationship. Several of these measures were a couple of percentage points higher or lower than the aggregate norm from 2010 of a comparison group of schools similar to Amherst, but these slight differences were not statistically significant. We may reasonably conclude from these data that the incidence of sexual assault at Amherst is at or very close to the norm for elite co-educational four-year colleges in the NCHA cohort,” said the report.

However, the members of the committee emphasized that the College still needed to strive to minimize the incidence of sexual misconduct as much as possible.

“The best evidence available to us, therefore, suggests that the incidence of sexual misconduct at Amherst is no worse than at our peer institutions; it is also no better. Our committee feels strongly that this is not good enough. We should aim to do much better than the norm,” the report said.

The report also attempted to characterize significant patterns of sexual assault at the College, noting that first-year women are especially at risk for assault.

“The main group at risk is first-year women, and anecdotal reports suggest that they are especially vulnerable in their first semester. In one group of eight survivors we talked to, all of the women had been attacked in the fall semester of their freshman year and at least one had been raped while attending a prefrosh event. This comports with national surveys of sexual assault on college campuses which show that freshwomen are the group at highest risk,” said the report.

In addition, the report highlighted the strong link between alcohol consumption and sexual assault, estimating that alcohol was involved in as many as 90 percent of assaults that occurred at the College. Moreover, the report noted that a large proportion of assault took place between students who had previously “hooked up,” usually when one partner demanded a sex act that the other was unwilling to perform and forced it on them anyway. However, the report emphasized that most students who consume alcohol and have sexual relationships with other students do so without becoming victims or perpetrators of sexual assault.

“It is perhaps important, in the interests of maintaining perspective, to note that the vast majority of Amherst students who visit each other’s dorm rooms, periodically hook up, are in romantic relationships, or drink alcohol, along with those who do some combination of these or none of them, are able to control their social and sexual encounters. The majority do not become victims or perpetrators of sexual assault. However the College needs to take very seriously the minority who encounter serious problems,” the report read.

The committee also investigated trends in the demographic profiles of perpetrators of sexual assault, but cautioned in the report against laying the blame on one group or another.

“Our committee spent a considerable amount of time researching and debating the question of who was perpetrating sexual assault and rapes on campus. One often hears that athletes are the ones responsible, or legacy admits, or members of secret fraternities. Certainly individual members of all of these groups have been implicated in sexual assaults, as have individuals who fit none of these categories. But a closer look at the actual cases suggests a fairly complex picture, and it will probably not serve us as a college to try to pin the problem on a narrow demographic,” the report said.

However, the report did note that many sexual assaults involved male upper-class students in leadership positions or prominent roles in extracurricular groups, organizations and teams, speculating that these individuals used their social capital and networks to take advantage of first-year women in ways that often crossed the line into sexual assault. The report linked this behavior to hazing, which it said was far more widespread at the College than commonly thought.

“Even the smallest group or network can unintentionally reproduce oppressive structures of power. The hazing or quasi-hazing practices that govern the social lives of too many student organizations and friendship networks at the College mark clear pathways to degrading and disrespectful behavior, including sexual misconduct. There certainly are student organizations that do not engage in this behavior, which is clearly prohibited by the College’s Code of Conduct. But these practices are more widespread than many people realize and are by no means limited to the usual suspects. Our committee’s recommendations seek to encourage student groups, including the Association of Amherst Students, to think carefully about the way that they understand and demonstrate respect for others,” said the report.

The report also noted the complex relationship between race and sexual assault, noting that many students of color feel that the College enforces sexual misconduct policies in a discriminatory manner, giving out more severe penalties to non-white perpetrators, especially if the victim is white.

“According to this view, white perpetrators pay for expensive lawyers to get them off, or get the College to intervene on their behalf and are never expelled or even particularly severely sanctioned. Students of color or international students, by contrast, ‘get the book thrown at them.’ It is impossible at this remove to know if this has ever been true, and the records that would tell us are closed or have been destroyed. But it lives on in the collective memory, presumably fueled by present-day racial disparities in criminal justice procedures and sentencing nationally, of which most of our students of color are well aware,” read the report.

The report found a similar sentiment among LGBT students, who seemed to be more reluctant report sexual misconduct because of the perceived homophobia of the Hearing Board. To deal with these perceptions, the committee urged the College to ensure that “all procedures relating to sexual assault and misconduct are fair, consistent, and equitable, and seen to be so by the whole community.”

Education, Student Affairs and the Campus Environment

The committee also considered the limitations of the College’s current efforts at sexual education and mentorship for first-year students. Again noting that first-year students are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, the report emphasized the need to improve programs for new students. Liya Rechtman ’14, one of two students serving on the committee, said that this fit with the committee’s holistic approach to combatting sexual misconduct.

“Sexual misconduct doesn’t just happen between a man and a woman; it happens within a community, and so we tried to look at every aspect of the community that we could tackle. We did some surveys, and we found that a lot of the issues had to do with community cohesion starting with freshman year. When you come in as a freshman you feel really lost a lot of the time, and especially freshman girls at that time are really vulnerable and are taken advantage of by upperclassmen men. A huge amount of sexual assault on campus happens to women within a few weeks of them arriving here. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to support first-year women and also about how to create structures and safe environments for upper-class students as well,” said Rechtman.

On this topic, the committee found that students first arriving on campus often find a lack of adults and older students willing to take new students under their wing.

“We believe strongly that upperclass mentorship of first-year students should be a key part of every student’s socialization to Amherst College. But we also think that the College needs to pay far more attention to how this takes place; Amherst should encourage first-year students to expect and upperclass people to apply to these interactions basic standards of good citizenship and respect for others,” said the report. “Many of our students say they experience a dearth of adults in their lives who resemble the families they have left behind to come to Amherst. Most professors try to be welcoming, but can seem a bit off-putting to many students, perhaps especially to those young people who have not had a lot of previous exposure to the norms of institutions of higher learning.”

The committee also emphasized the importance of continuing education on sexual respect throughout the time that students are at the College, noting that many older students develop a cynical attitude towards sexual respect policies. However, the report considered the difficulties of administering that education, since most voluntary events are only attended by students who already care about the issue, meaning that the groups most at risk never receive adequate education. Thus, the committee decided to recommend that some education be made mandatory at some point during students’ time at the College, possibly by making sexual education courses count for credit and be required for graduation.

The report highlighted the role of faculty and staff in education efforts, and lauded the number of faculty members teaching courses that address complex and controversial social concerns including “Cross-cultural Construction of Gender” and “Queer Geographies” in the Womens’ and Gender Studies and English departments, respectively. However, the committee raised concerns about the “cavalier” attitude of some faculty members towards potentially triggering material and the lack of awareness among faculty members about the reporting requirements of Title IX. The report recommended that faculty members include trigger warnings in course syllabi and highlighted the need to provide faculty and staff with adequate training to deal with reports of sexual assault.

The report also considered many broad aspects of student life on campus, including the role of the Dean of Students Office, the Health and Counseling Centers and student organizations. The committee felt that the Dean of Students Office was understaffed and did not have sufficient resources to take an active role in preventing sexual assault. Additionally, the report suggested that many staff in the office have confusing or overlapping roles and multiple, highly divergent positions. This problem meant that students reporting sexual assaults had to speak to many different staff members before they could initiate charges against their assaulter, often discouraging students from going through the entire disciplinary process.

In addition, the committee felt that the separation between the Health and Counseling Centers, both in purview and physical distance, created obstacles to providing victims of assault with adequate support.

“The current geographic separation inappropriately signals that student health is separate from mental health. In the contexts of sexual assault and substance abuse, separately and as they intersect with each other, this is particularly problematic. The spatial separation of health education and mental health also impedes health education initiatives that address the primary prevention of sexual assault, as well as those that seek to support survivors of assault and educate the community about the problem,” said the report.

To address this issue, the report recommended creating an integrated Wellness Center that served students in a holistic fashion.

“The community health center model we advocate offers more systematically coordinated mental health care, physical health care, and health education clearly integrated into the Dean of Students Office, and into the cocurricular and academic life of the College. This approach endeavors to understand and care for the individual as a member of a community, while still preserving confidentiality about what is safely expressed in a therapy session. Amherst College prides itself on the benefits of living and learning in a liberal arts residential college, and this value should be reflected in an integrated approach to physical, emotional, and academic well-being,” the report said.

The report also considered the role that student groups and leaders play in building a safe and respectful community, again emphasizing the pernicious effects of hazing and other obstacles to broader inclusion of students in the campus community. Additionally, the report raised concerns about the role played by the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) in student life on campus.

“It is regrettably the case that many students at Amherst feel disenfranchised with respect to student activity funds—and this in an environment of relative plenty. Given the relationship between a healthy campus social life and the prevention of sexual assault, the Association of Amherst Students has a serious responsibility to model citizenship, respect for persons, and responsibility. Because it is an elected body, and because it is the primary source of funding for student social opportunities and club initiatives, its deliberations, whether public or behind closed doors, potentially affect every student at the College,” said the report. “The bulk of student-driven initiatives, from club sports to social activities, pass through the student government, and it is thus imperative that this group foster a culture of trust and legitimacy. If the Association of Amherst Students is to continue in its capacity as the administrative center of student life, then it must be held to a high standard of transparency, equal access, fairness, and financial accountability.”

In addition, the committee worried about the role played by underground fraternities in the student governing process.

“The fact that all-male underground fraternities can and have gained power in student government on the strength of the ‘fraternity vote’ constrains rather than expands political opportunity and social trust. It may also contribute to the notorious gender imbalance in the Association of Amherst Students Senate (in the 2012/2013 school year, there are twenty-five male senators and seven female ones). The current leadership of the student government seems to be making a serious effort to foster a culture of trust, legitimacy, and inclusion (including the inclusion of women). But we wonder whether this approach is inconsistent with having underground groups able to wield power there,” said the report.

Additionally, the committee took issue with fraternities’ status as unregulated, ‘juridically invisible’ organizations.

“Our committee believes that it is time for the faculty, administration, and Board of Trustees to come to a decision regarding fraternities at Amherst. We do not intend to demonize young men who join fraternities. In particular (given the context of this discussion) it is important to note that we are not saying they are disproportionately guilty of sexual assault; we have no evidence that this is the case. However we do think that everyone in the Amherst community, regardless of where they may physically reside or socialize, must be held to the same standards of good conduct, community support, nondiscrimination and respect for others. As long as the fraternities exist but simultaneously do not exist, they will be a problem,” said the report.

Also under the heading of student affairs, the report addressed the impact of alcohol on student life. The committee noted the limitations of the ‘work-hard, play- attitude of many students at the College and encouraged the development of a social life that does not depend on excessive consumption of alcohol. In addition, the committee noted the relationship between the so-called ‘Amherst Awkward’ phenomenon and excessive drinking.

“A culture that relies on a deadening of the senses in order to experience fun is one that also promotes fun as behavior for which one cannot take responsibility. It is also a culture that underwrites particularly risky and dangerous sexual behavior. To be clear, we are not suggesting that alcohol consumption is responsible for every instance of student misconduct, only that in this area we can identify a clear place for productive conversation and growth in student life,” the report said.

The report encouraged the creation of more inclusive social spaces that emphasized community and student engagement over alcohol consumption, suggesting as an example the creation of a seasonally permanent oversized tent on the freshman quadrangle to host events and activities for the entire student body.

“Among these events could be large-scale poetry slams, small concerts, outdoor movies, recitals, dance lessons, and the like. If these are the kind of activities in which the next generation of first-year students participates when they arrive on campus, their experience would be very different from that of new students in prior years, who have been ‘welcomed’ with a dimly lit party scene; they have either participated in these potentially dangerous events or have tried to avoid them by isolating themselves. Neither response is desirable,” the report read.

Recommendations and Implementation

In addition to the recommendations listed above, the report offered a wide variety of recommendations ranging from changes to orientation, restructuring the Dean of Students Office and improving health education to reconsidering the role of fraternities, tightening controls on alcohol and increasing the number of women in the AAS. Recommendations related to Title IX and other legal obligations of the College have already been implemented, and the remaining recommendations will be discussed over the coming weeks, according to President Martin.

“Some of them will become part of the larger strategic planning process. In the next two weeks I will appoint the members of a Student Life Working Group for the strategic planning initiative. Two working groups have already been formed--one charged with analyzing the financial outlook for the College, the other with developing an assessment of our options for development of the physical campus. After the open meeting, we will make available a chart that outlines a possible sequence and time frame for consideration of the various recommendations. I hope this will help answer inevitable questions about how we go about responding to the many recommendations in the report,” said Martin.

Some of the more contentious recommendations to be discussed include a reorganization of the AAS — which could include a change in the amount of funds allocated to the AAS and increased oversight of funding practices by the College. According to Rechtman, such changes may be necessary to ensure that all students are adequately represented in the fund-allocation process.

"The committee commended Tania Dias and really stood behind her, but they also felt that the Senate was a very easy place for one student population to gain control over the rest of the student population. That has historically happened with very male-dominated and fraternity-dominated Senates, and it could conceivably happen again in the future. Basically, we’re saying Senate, which is meant to be a symbol and a body effectively representative of the student population, doesn’t always function that way. Often it has not been a place that is accessible to everyone, particularly female students who are interested in holding leadership positions,” said Rechtman.

In addition, the report strongly recommends the reconsideration of the role of fraternities on campus, including the possibility of banning fraternities outright and making students found to be members go through the disciplinary hearing process.

“The committee is recommending that the Trustees figure out once and for all what the fraternities’ role should be. Either they should be regularized or they should go entirely. Most though not all of our Committee members favored banning membership in fraternities. But that will be something the Administration and Board of Trustees must decide,” Hunt said.

The report also recommends a reconsideration of the school’s alcohol policy, calling for the College to eliminate ambiguities and investigate the effectiveness of stricter controls on alcohol, including more stringent enforcement of open container policies and tighter regulations on hard alcohol and liquor. However, the report also recommends the creation of at least one bar on campus, arguing that outlets for legal drinking will encourage more responsible behavior among students.

“Alcohol policy is discussed in the report because of the overlap of excessive drinking and sexual misconduct/assault. It is not clear that any college or university has the answer to the problem of alcohol abuse. Nonetheless, we will continue the due diligence that the committee began, identifying the most successful approaches and drawing on faculty, staff, and students so we can develop policies and practices that are best-suited to Amherst," said Martin.

The recommendations and proposals in the report will be discussed at a public forum with President Martin, Professor Hunt and Gina Smith on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. in Johnson Chapel. Afterwards, President Martin and the administration will continue to work with students, faculty and staff to implement the policy changes in a manner that best meets the needs of the College community.

“The report reinforces the perception that many of us share, that it is time for student life to have a higher priority at the College. We have acted and will continue to act on changes in policy, procedure and protocol that ensure an effective and equitable approach to sexual assault on campus. We will provide opportunities for input from the community as we begin the process of considering other key recommendations. Some recommendations will become part of our strategic planning process, which will take a year to eighteen months to complete,” said Martin.