Re-evaluating the Sexual Assault Policy

Posted by Alex Brehm

Why does anybody rape anybody else?

Why would one Skidmore student rape another?

"I think there are different levels of sexual assault, and I think it's because we have sick people—people who want to cause harm, they get something from that," said Joe Yanks '11, Head Peer Advocate of the Center for Sex and Gender Relations and member of the Sexual Assault Task Force, the committee charged with drafting a new sexual misconduct policy for the college. "We also have a culture of sex, a United States culture that promotes disrespect…and a lack of communication."

"I agree," Dean of Student Affairs Rochelle Calhoun, said. "There are sexual predators on college campuses, likely serial predators."

She described a culture where college men seek out vulnerable women as targets and sexual objects. "We're trying to change the culture. We want to create a dialogue that equalizes responsibility for respect. We want to get to a culture of zero tolerance."

"We know that this happens," said Calhoun, "now let's prevent it as a community."

The Sexual Assault Task Force, the Center for Sex and Gender Relations, Health Promotions, Residential Life, and other campus organizations have all released new programming on the upcoming enforcement of the revised Sexual Misconduct Policy, slated for adoption on Oct. 18. On Wednesday, Oct. 6 there was a discussion between the Task Force and other members of the college community. Calhoun addressed the audience, which was made up of students and a handful of staff members, outlining the recent development of the policy.

In Sept. 2009, the Student Affairs subcommittee of the Institutional Policy and Planning Committee called for a group to review and revise the college's sexual assault policy. The Task Force met every other week for the fall and spring semesters of the 2009-2010 academic year.

In April 2010, an article in the Albany Times Union criticized college policies regarding sexual abuse, and featured the case of a former Skidmore student who was allegedly sexually assaulted on campus during the previous summer.

The news rippled through the campus and the Task Force held an open review of the sexual assault policy with the college community. Students and professors packed Davis auditorium, many voicing rage that the sexual assault policy was re-traumatizing survivors of sexual assault and letting their rapists and abusers go free, holding victims up to a standard of evidence they could not possibly provide.

A few weeks later, students taking a Feminist Theory and Methodology class staged a rally on Case Green calling for more attention to revision of the policy and confrontation of sexual assault on campus.

But if the meeting last Wednesday was any measure, many students have lost passion with the issue. The crowd of 75 students in Gannett looked sparse, and was mostly made up of members of associated organizations—Peer Advocates from the Center for Sex and Gender Relations, mediators from "Fight Club" Conflict Resolution, and members of Pride Alliance.

"How will you track effectiveness, and how will you educate the community?" Fight Club Co-Chair Nick Hara '11 asked the Task Force, "because I don't see everybody here."

The Task Force has a tall order in envisioning a complete college community that is active in preventing and decrying sexual assault. "Certainly the cases from last semester made everyone get out in the streets," Calhoun said, "but the kind of cases where someone did not give effective consent, where someone wasn't willing to have sex and then ended up having it, those don't get people out in the streets. But guess what? That's rape."

"Effective consent" is the dictum students will be seeing in the coming weeks and years, the central idea of the new college policy. Students received cards in their school mailboxes defining effective consent as "freely and actively given, in which both partners are equally informed through mutually-understood words, body language, and actions."

"We like this policy because it no longer takes the victim and asks ‘What did you do to say no?'" says Dr. Julia Routbort, director of the Counseling Center. "Instead it asks the accused ‘What did you hear, to hear a ‘yes?''"

The Task Force expects that the idea of effective consent will not only serve as a disciplinary criterion, but also as a tool for teaching. Effective consent was the message of sexual education programs for students this past summer, has become part of first-year orientation and will continue to spread through programming from campus organizations involved with sexual issues.

Other important changes include the widening of the policy from sexual assault to sexual misconduct, including behavior such as harassment and inappropriate touching under the new policy.

The new policy adds the roles of Advocate and Advisor, aides for alleged victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct. An Advocate provides support and facilitates options for dealing with the problem of an abuser on campus—changing residence halls, classes, or pursuing a disciplinary hearing about the abuser. The Advisor helps the alleged abuser in navigating the hearing process and other disciplinary issues.

The Task Force also wants to stress the new change in evidentiary requirements. Sexual misconduct cases will no longer be held to the standard of "clear and convincing evidence," as they once were, but "preponderance of the evidence." The phrases are legal terms, and the change means no longer laying a large burden of proof on the victim, but instead relies on a majority of evidence from either party to decide whether an instance of misconduct occurred.

At the discussion, one student asked why there was no clear description in the new policy of punishments for violators. The college refers to punishments as "sanctions" and outlines them in the Student Handbook.

"There's actually a range of possible sanctions in there," said Don Hastings, director of Residential Life and chair of the Sexual Assault Task Force. "It ranges from an apology to expulsion from the school." Students sanctioned for sexual misconduct may be made to write essays about the harm they have caused, perform community service or face temporary suspension.

Yanks added that there is a potential for fraudulent reports. Students who lay false accusations of misconduct will face sanctions.

Other students at the discussion wondered whether an alleged abuser's past accusations and hearings would affect the decision in a new sexual misconduct case. If a student had been accused twice before of sexual assault, would that be allowed as evidence in a new case?

Dean Calhoun explained: "We consider each case independently. Unless those cases are very similar to the case being heard and describe a pattern of behavior, they would not be allowed in as evidence. However, if the panel decides that a violation of the policy has occurred, then there is a sentencing stage of the hearing and those cases would be considered."

The Task Force stressed the two stages of a hearing—evaluating whether an event occurred, and deciding the severity of the punishment. Past accusations, members of the Task Force said, would generally not be necessary to decide whether an instance of misconduct occurred as the complainant described.

Jen Burden of Health Promotions, compiled statistics about assault at Skidmore based on student surveys last semester. Skidmore is an anomaly among colleges in that most incidences of sexual misconduct occur on campus: 80 percent of cases, according to Burden's report.

Burden's statistics estimate that 3.9 percent of Skidmore students have been raped at Skidmore, and 83 percent of them were female. But members of the Task Force emphasized that they consider sexual misconduct and assault a problem that affects people of any sex, gender, and orientation.

"That's why we included gender-neutral language in the policy," said Calhoun. Yanks took particular care in articulating that the Center and the Task Force see sexual abuse as a problem that affects everyone. "It's not just girls getting raped."

There are resources on campus for survivors of rape and sexual misconduct. The Counseling Center, college chaplains, and Health Services are groups that listen and treat cases confidentially. The Center for Sex and Gender Relations' Peer Advocates, "Fight Club" Conflict Resolution, First-Year Experience Peer Mentors, Campus Safety, Residential Life staff, and college faculty are also available for student support.

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