Administration Takes on Sexual Misconduct Issues
Issue   |   Wed, 10/31/2012 - 20:20

In the wake of Angie Epifano’s op-ed published two weeks ago in The Student, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin and other members of the administration have met with students, faculty, staff and parents to discuss ideas and policies to combat sexual violence and misconduct on campus. Already, President Martin has established a Sexual Respect Oversight Committee composed of students, faculty and staff to make recommendations and oversee policy changes to prevent sexual assault. In addition, President Martin announced a campus-wide ‘moratorium’ for Friday, Nov. 2, cancelling all classes and closing all offices to facilitate a discussion between students, faculty, staff and possibly even trustees entitled ‘Speaking to Silence: Conversations on Community and Individual Responsibility.’

In response to student suggestions at the open meeting held on Oct. 14 to discuss the TDX T-shirt, Martin decided to include student representation on the Title IX Committee. Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits any educational institution receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex, and so-called ‘best practices’ of Title IX compliance are enumerated by the Department of Education’s 2011 Dear Colleague letter. The Title IX Committee, which is charged with reviewing College policies and procedures to ensure compliance with Title IX best practices and policies, has historically only included faculty, staff and trustees, although students had been pushing for representation since its creation last spring. On Oct. 22, the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) appointed Dana Bolger ’14E and Mark Kahan ’13 to serve as the first two students on the Title IX committee.

In addition to representation on the Title IX committee, President Martin also included student representation on the newly-created Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct, chaired by Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Margaret Hunt. After reviewing a number of applicants, the AAS appointed Liya Rechtman ’14 and Robin Wasielewski ’14 to serve on the committee. The committee will meet weekly to gather information and propose recommendations to improve the College’s efforts to prevent and adjudicate sexual misconduct on campus. President Martin listed five general areas for the committee to focus on, including the campus environment and culture, resources for survivors of sexual assault, education about sexual respect and healthy sexual behavior, recent instances of sexual misconduct at the College and peer institutions and recommendations for policy changes and Title IX compliance. The committee will work to develop proposals for Martin, who will present them to the Board of Trustees in January 2013.

On Oct. 24, President Martin met with sophomores, juniors and seniors in Kirby Theater to discuss and share ideas about sexual respect and the College’s plans to reform policies and procedures to better address sexual misconduct. At the meeting, students pushed for a ‘moratorium,’ essentially a campus-wide shutdown, to discuss these issues more broadly with members from all sectors of the College community, noting that many students who felt passionate about sexual respect were unable to attend the scheduled meeting because of homework or prior engagements. The College last held a moratorium in 1968 to discuss racial equality, but President Martin felt that the current discussion was of enough importance to merit a similar day of discussion. Although no concrete plans were made at the meeting, on Oct. 27 President Martin and Dean Call sent out an email announcing that the moratorium would be held on Nov. 2.

Call, who worked with Assistant Dean of Faculty Janet Tobin, student leaders, faculty and staff to organize the event, envisioned the day as a special time for community building and conversation between members from every part of the College community.

“It really is a day for all of us to listen to each other. As a faculty member, I think that we feel the responsibility for the institution and hold it very dear, but we recognize in this instance and others we might not be the most knowledgeable members of the community. I think it will be particularly important opportunity for the faculty and staff to listen to our students. I think there will be a lot of perspectives offered, and I am very eager to learn from this conversation,” Dean Call said.

The day will begin in LeFrak Gymnasium, which can hold up to 2500 individuals, featuring an opening statement made by President Martin and a facilitated discussion on sexual violence led by Gina Smith, the sexual misconduct and Title IX expert hired by the College this summer to review its policies and procedures. Attendees will then break up into smaller groups made up of students, faculty and staff and hold squad-style discussions about community and individual responsibility. The squads will be led by student moderators who have received training either as orientation leaders or RCs and will meet until lunch is served on the Valentine Quad. The meal will be catered by outside groups including UMass Dining Services and Atkins Market to allow the College’s dining staff to fully participate in the day’s discussions.

Although all offices and most buildings of the College will be closed for the day, several spaces will be open to allow students that don’t feel comfortable participating to retain a sense of normalcy. In addition, counselors from Harvard University’s McLean Center will be available in Chapin Hall to meet with students that need their services throughout the day.

“We’re trying to find the balance of giving those who might feel uncomfortable participating a space to have a fairly normal day, if that’s what they choose, but we would hope all that can would come and be a part of this. This is a very important day for the College and all of us in the community,” Dean Call said.

In addition, students at the meeting discussed aspects of the College’s culture and social life that they felt contributed to sexual misconduct and lack of respect. Some students criticized the perceived divide between non-athletes and students on varsity sports teams, while others lamented the so-called ‘Amherst awkward,’ which refers to the common tendency of Amherst students to avoid contact with other students outside of their immediate social circle. To help solve these problems and build a broader sense of community, several students suggested bring back the ‘Mix-it-up at Val’ program, which encouraged students to sit with groups at Val with whom they do not usually sit.

Caroline Katba ’15 criticized what she saw as the elitism endemic to the College’s culture, citing disparaging remarks made by a dean reported in Epifano’s op-ed that suggested that Africa was dangerous and ridden with disease and lions and that citizens of Wyoming were backwards and unenlightened.

“This is not just an issue of policy. There hasn’t been any mention of the comments about Africa. There hasn’t been any mention of the comments about people in Wyoming. There hasn’t been any mention of our culture of elitism. These comments showed disrespect and, in a sense, racism. Thinking that we’re better than the people in Wyoming or the people in Africa is wrong. There’s a perception in the Five College Consortium that Amherst College is as snobbish as a school can get, when that’s just not true. It’s our job as students to hold ourselves accountable to everything we say. When we hear people make elitist comments we need to stop those people and educate them on what they’re saying, even if they don’t like what we have to say,” Katba said.

Students at the meeting also brought up the relationship between alcohol and sexual misconduct, arguing that recent efforts to increase enforcement of the alcohol policy had ‘unintended consequences’ that heightened the risk of sexual assault. The group of 10 students that met with the Board also made this argument, summarizing it in a report released to the student body.

“It was noted that the increased enforcement of the alcohol policy created a disparity in where students could feel comfortable congregating. It is much easier for police to see (and require registration) of a gathering in a big and open space (for example: Marsh Dormitory’s ballroom) than in a gathering in many suites and on the stairs (such as in Stone Dormitory). The enforcement of regulations specifically around beer pong also forced students into smaller spaces with less people around and drinking primarily hard liquor. Conversely, beer pong was a social activity with more regulation and enforcement of social norms that also required players to consume alcohol more slowly,” the report read.

President Martin responded to these concerns, citing the need to enforce College policy and uphold legal obligations.

“When it comes to the so-called crackdown, although I doubt the Dean of Students would call it that — I wouldn’t call it that —there has been attention on enforcement. The administration takes seriously its obligation to enforce all of its policies,” President Martin said. “The administration can’t enforce some policies and ignore the others. So now the question is, how do we produce an analysis together about how we can go forward responsibly?”

The students who met with the Board held an open meeting on Oct. 25 to share the results of their meeting with the student body. The group reviewed the issues it brought to the Board, including faculty training on sexual respect, reform of the disciplinary procedures for sexual misconduct cases, the improvement of resources and support systems for survivors of sexual assault, the inclusion of race and gender in first-year seminars and the unintended consequences of the alcohol policy. The group also asked for review of deans involved in sexual assault cases, including but not limited to Dean Carolyn Bassett, Dean Charri Boykin-East, Dean Allen Hart and Dean Liza Nascembeni, and they encouraged the College to allow students to meet with Gina Smith, the sexual misconduct and Title IX expert hired by the College this summer to review its policies and procedures.

President Martin responded to some of these concerns in an interview with members of The Student staff, saying that Smith would independently review deans involved with sexual misconduct cases and make her own determinations. She expressed interest in making Smith available to students, but offered no concrete information about when meetings with Smith might occur.

“She will be available. I’ve suggested to her, in response to her request to meet with the 10 students who met with the Board, that she instead be available in a more open forum for students broadly. She’s not done with her work, so there wouldn’t be any recommendations that she could share anyways. She’s still in the review stage, so having her draw on students now would make sense. She’s very informative, and I think educationally it’s very valuable to have her speak. She’s at a point where she’s gotten to know what issues there are here well enough that she can interact with any constituency that wants her to,” President Martin said.

Despite the progress made by the administration in the past few weeks, several students who attended the meeting expressed frustration at the time it took the College to address sexual assault. Bolger, who wrote the article on the TDX t-shirt, argued that the College should have begun reforms last spring, when many allegations began to come to the surface.

“As someone who had gone to the Title IX Committee multiple times last year, who met with several deans last year, who was discouraged from filing a complaint last year and who met with other survivors and went with other survivors to speak with the deans and the Title IX Committee, the College did know that there were serious problems last year. I’m really glad that they’re taking things more seriously now, but it is not true that they were taking this seriously last year, and it is not true that they didn’t know about it,” Bolger said.

On Oct. 26, Gretchen Krull, the College’s Sexual Assault counselor — in addition to serving as Assistant Director of Health Education and Alcohol/Drug counselor at the same time — resigned after 22 years at the College. While the reasons for her resignation were unclear, at a meeting with parents the next day, Martin denied allegations that Krull was forced to resign. Rechtman, who had worked with Krull, suggested that Krull had conflicting and confusing obligations that made her position dysfunctional.

“Gretchen’s role was overcomplicated and underinclusive. She was given too many tasks and not enough resources to do them effectively. There’s no way one person could have effectively and ethically done everything she was given to do. That is in no way a personal failing on her part. That is a structural failing of the entire administration,” Rechtman said.

President Martin agreed that Krull’s position was overcomplicated and stated that restructuring the support network for survivors of sexual assault would be part of replacing Krull.

“The position was always confusing. It included a lot of roles and it wasn’t clear what it meant to have a counselor separate from the counseling center. The plan now — and this is where the Oversight Committee will be important — is to think about how to restructure these various functions so that there’s clarity about the purpose of each and so that there’s integration and coordination,” President Martin said.

In the meantime, trained counselors from Harvard University’s McLean Center will be available to assist students in need of counseling for sexual assault, and Director of Health Education Denise McGoldrick will take over Krull’s drug and alcohol counseling responsibilities.

Tom Matlack (not verified) says:
Mon, 11/05/2012 - 16:48

I happen to be related (my niece) to a high school classmate who went to Amherst and was sexually abused while on campus. Unfortunately he subsequently committed suicide. His mother has given The Good Men Project, which I founded, exclusive rights to the suicide note which is both brilliant and heart-breaking. If Amherst is going to consider these issues, I think this note is a piece of information that all constituents should reflect upon. It can be found here:

LWilder (not verified) says:
Fri, 11/09/2012 - 23:28

Wyoming is a sparsely populated, windswept, ruggedly beautiful place. Unfortunately the stereotype of an uneducated and unenlightened populace is often true. It's cowboy to the extreme; in many ways still the wild, wild west, a concept that is much grittier and revolting in practice.