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Five Colleges, One Definition, and Whole Lot of Complications: How My College Consortium Addresses Sexual Assault on Campus

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December 17, 2013

Claremont-CollegesOnce or twice a month, my inbox has the misfortune of receiving a “Notification of Sexual Assault/Misconduct” from my college’s administration, detailing a recent assault that occurred on my campus.  Or an assault that didn’t occur on my campus.  While I am a student at Scripps College, these messages often don’t relay information about Scripps students.  Instead, they are forwarded to our student body from the Dean of Students at Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, or Harvey Mudd Colleges, the other four schools making up our Claremont College (or “5C”) community.  As part of a close-knit five-college (and two graduate schools) consortium, where students from all of the institutions are integrated academically and socially, when sexual assault occurs between students at the 5C’s the appropriate response is often complicated.  For victims, to whom should they report their assault?  Which school is responsible for the grievance procedures that follow?  Clearly, it’s quite complicated and these complications can lead to difficulties or hesitation from survivors of assault.

In recognition of this and in light of the recently strengthened Title IX provisions requiring institutions of higher education to take sexual harassment and assault more seriously, students, faculty, and administrators at the Claremont Colleges hare engaging in serious and productive conversations about sexual assault policies at the 5Cs.  In the past year or so, the five college administrations began to working together to synthesize their sexual assault policies and grievance procedures, creating comprehensive policies with the ultimate goal of reducing sexual assault and providing important resources to survivors.  At the same time, students at the Claremont Colleges have come together to create new programming and resources with the same goals.  The different avenues taken by the colleges to address the serious problem of sexual assault and the actions of students to make an impact in their communities provide a wonderful example of the way that different colleges work together and separately to best meet the needs of their own students.

One of the Claremont Colleges’ first important steps was unifying the definitions of assault and consent at all seven members of the consortium.  As defined in each college’s policies on discrimination and harassment policies and grievance procedures, sexual assault occurs “when an individual engages in sexual activity without the explicit consent of the other individual involved…This includes coerced touching of the actor by the victim as well as the touching of the victim by the actor, whether directly or through clothing.”  This broad definition encompasses the kind of assault that many students experience in college – on dark dance floors or in empty dorm rooms.  Also importantly, the 5Cs have a unified definition of consent as “clear, knowing and voluntary. Consent is active, not passive. Silence, in and of itself, cannot be interpreted as consent.” The colleges also have unified definitions of rape, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation, to name a few.  These unified definitions are especially key in situations where the assailant and the victim come from different institutions.

The Claremont Colleges also created a single site where any student can access resources about reporting assault, grievance procedures, and options for victims, directly addressing the complicated landscape of grievance procedures that each college offers differently.  A centralized location for these resources enables any student to get information not only on their own college’s procedures but on those of a perpetrator’s college as well.  One of the biggest roadblocks to reporting an assault for survivors is a lack of information – this site ensures that students have all the details they need to make the best decision for their situation and themselves.

The colleges have also responded to sexual assault by locking down on social events where sexual assault is prevalent.  For example, as most 5C students know, the weekly party “Pub” has been subject to serious changes in response to the high levels of unsolicited sexual contact occurring between partygoers.  After instituting new measures like more lighting and more information around consent and assault, Pub was cancelled this September while Pomona College investigated reports of sexual assault at the party.  While the investigation has finished, the administration does not currently plan to re-open the party at this time.

At the same time, large-scale institutional responses to sexual assault aren’t always the best option for survivors.  Students at my home base, Scripps College, came together to create Scripps Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault, a student-run resource for survivors modeled off of Pomona College’s Advocates.  Scripps Advocates is student-run but affiliated with the Scripps administration, ensuring that survivors are connected primarily to students but also that those students have access to the resources and support provided by the administration.  Theresa Iker SCR ’14, is co-president of the organization, says that Scripps Advocates is important because “there needed to be a resource for and by Scripps students.  We are primarily a women’s college so we our community has specific needs.”  She also pointed out that victims of assault feel most comfortable talking to other students first and so having that as an option specifically for Scripps students should improve the chances that a survivor will reach out for support.

None of this is to say that the 5C’s sexual assault policies are perfect.  Last year, Scripps student Gavin Odabashain wrote a senior thesis entitled “‘To Live Confidently, Courageously, and Hopefully’: Challenging Patriarchy and Sexual Violence at Scripps College” in which she argued that “the Claremont Colleges will continue to be faced with the extreme problem of underreporting and non-reporting to the administrative bodies until they make their policies and processes more accessible and standardized under one policy.”  While the colleges have unified their definitions regarding sexual assault, there is yet to be one unified policy on what to do when an assault is reported.  By default, when and inter-college assault is reported, the grievance procedure from the perpetrator’s college is the one used to address the report, not that of the victim.  That means that survivors are navigating a different college’s administration, a college that does not necessarily have their best interests in mind.  Clearly, there is work to be done.

Nonetheless, I used to receive notifications of assault once or twice a semester.  Now it’s not uncommon to see them once every week or two.  While at first glance this may seem to indicate that assault is on the rise, as Iker says, “these numbers going up is good, it means that campus is safer.  It means that students feel safe reporting.” And that means all of these conversations and policy changes are working – survivors of sexual assault feel more comfortable speaking up and the general culture around sexual assault at our colleges is beginning to change.  I can only hope we will continue to see these changes as we move forward in address a unified grievance procedure and ultimately, a campus where every person feels safe, where all consent is enthusiastic and verbal, and where sexual assault is unacceptable.

 

 

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