College Holds Meetings to Discuss SMOC Report
Issue   |   Wed, 02/13/2013 - 00:12

Last week two public meetings were held to address the content of the report released by the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct (SMOC). On Tuesday Feb. 5, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin hosted a meeting in Johnson Chapel with Prof. Margaret Hunt, Chair of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct, and Gina Smith of Ballard Spahr LLP to discuss the Oversight Committee’s report with the broader campus community. Students, faculty and staff asked questions and shared comments about the report and the committee’s recommendations, covering topics including underground fraternities, alcohol policy and the role of the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) in funding student activities.

Several students challenged the committee’s decision not to identify specific groups involved with sexual misconduct, arguing that the College needs to confront “toxic subcultures” to adequately deal with sexual assault. Gina Faldetta ’16 raised concerns about the high concentration of athletic teams in the Socials and urged the committee to consider the role that social spaces played in sexual misconduct.

“Maybe you can’t look at a certain team and say ‘this is where assault is happening,’ but there are certain places where it is more likely to happen. I know as a freshman, my friends and I would go to the Socials at the beginning of last semester because we knew that’s where parties were happening, but we eventually decided to stop going there because we tired of having to deal the next day with our friends who were crying because they were assaulted the night before,” Faldetta said. “I don’t feel like we can just say that the athletes aren’t involved, because there are lots of athletic suites in the Socials. I don’t know if the committee looked at where assault is happening, but I feel like there are certain parties where people are much more likely to be assaulted than others.”

However, Professor Hunt cautioned that singling out specific groups might not be the best strategy for increasing campus-wide awareness of sexual assault.

“What we felt was the best way to eliminate sexual misconduct in a primary way from the beginning is to enlist the entire community instead of trying to find on very skimpy evidence some particular demographic that is especially prone to sexual misconduct. That was partly a philosophical choice that we made; it was partly a strategic choice; and it was partly a choice necessitated by the evidence,” Professor Hunt said.

Additionally, E.J. Mills, head coach of the football team, emphasized that many athletic teams have taken a leading role in promoting bystander training and sexual respect education.

“I’ve done a lot of work with bystander training and consent training, and I’ve worked with an all-male team to confront the relentless misogyny in our society. When you watch the Super Bowl or just turn on the TV you find constant misogyny and it often affects male culture — at least that’s the way I see it. I think that we need faculty, staff, coaches and students to open up to not pointing the finger, because I think it’s going to take a proverbial village moving forward to take on this issue. I’m excited about what we can do make this a better place for our students, and that’s really what it’s all about,” said Coach Mills.

The meeting also touched on the role of alcohol in student life on campus. While the report highlighted the close relationship between alcohol and sexual misconduct, it did not offer any specific recommendations for changing the policy. Some students suggested the College consider more lenient ‘harms-reduction’ policies towards alcohol, employed by schools including Harvard Univ. and Yale Univ., in order to encourage higher reporting rates for sexual misconduct and other alcohol-related issues.

“One of the reasons that I think that a lot of the party atmospheres can be predatory, as other students have mentioned, is the lack of adequate spaces, but I also think it is the association with alcohol, which is associated with secrecy because of the alcohol policies at this school. If you want to drink before a party, you have to do it in a room where no one can see you and down as many shots as you can in as short a time as you can; it’s a dangerous situation that can be conducive to sexual assaults. Amnesty policies have been put in place at schools like Yale and Harvard where the school acknowledges that the age of adulthood is 18 and alcohol becomes less of a police thing and there are more opportunities for bystanders to be present and there is more of a respectful atmosphere. I was wondering if the committee had considered implementing a similar policy here,” said Noah Gordon ’14, a former Resident Counselor and current AAS secretary.

However, Professor Hunt expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of more lenient alcohol policies in preventing sexual misconduct.

“We talked about [amnesty policies], and we were a little skeptical of that model. I think that there’s a difference between one’s personal sensibilities — I personally think that the drinking age should be 18 — but what you have to do in this kind of institutional setting, where there’s a responsibility that we all have as teachers and administrators. We didn’t solve the alcohol issue in this report, but we found no evidence that the College’s alcohol policies are causing sexual assault. Clearly there is a complicated relationship between alcohol and sexual misconduct, and this is an issue that we will have to address together, as students, faculty and staff,” Professor Hunt said.

In addition, students at the meeting discussed the report’s recommendations about the AAS, which said that “called for “a high[er] standard of transparency, equal access, fairness and financial accountability” with regards to AAS funds allocation. Abigail Xu ’15, the current AAS treasurer, questioned the report’s conclusions and asked why she had not been consulted by the committee.

“I would say that one of the things the student body appreciates the most about the student government is how we allocate funds. Thus, I am curious about why you make the claim that most students at Amherst feel very troubled by our funding policies. As the treasurer, I do want to improve my job and do what I can for students. However I want to know what problems you’ve found: what’s wrong with the current process? Why is it not equitable? Why does it have no integrity? I just want to know where you based your claims about what you said about the student government,” Xu said.

Professor Hunt responded that the committee wanted to address concerns raised by students in surveys about student life on campus. In these surveys, said Hunt, only 40 percent of students said that they were satisfied by the student government, and the College consistently ranked last among its peers in student satisfaction with student government.

“In this section we were trying to deal with the sense that the student government was not serving students in the way that it seems it does at other institutions. We’re also concerned about this common view that people were getting into student government by getting elected by underground fraternities. There are a variety of issues that had to do with worrying about how the student government administered itself and presented itself to the student body,” Professor Hunt said.

Additionally, on Thursday, student representatives, including Liya Rechtman ’14 and Robert Wasielewski ’14 from the SMOC, Alessandra Simeone ’13 and Ryan Arnold ’15E from the Sexual Respect Task Force and Dana Bolger ’14E from the Title IX committee, held a public meeting with students in the Pruyne Lecture Hall to discuss their work on their respective committees. While much of the discussion covered similar ground as the Tuesday meeting, Arnold highlighted the Sexual Respect Task Force’s plans to implement mandatory bystander training for all students at the College, and Bolger announced the release of a report from the Title IX committee in the next few weeks.