Ending the Cycle: Demanding Change in Swarthmore’s Broken Title IX System

  Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Last semester, Voices published an article titled, “The System is Broken”: An Experience with the Title IX Process. In it, the student survivor details their experience with the adjudication process, and, more specifically, the lack of support and transparency they felt they received from administrators central to that process. I resonate with this article as I was a complainant in my own adjudication case last semester. I encountered many of the same difficulties as Student X: I was assured that the process would not extend beyond 60 days; I was told that I would receive “support” throughout; and I was guaranteed that my concerns would not fall upon deaf ears. During my first meeting with the former Title IX Coordinator, Kaaren Williamsen, at the beginning of September, I felt comfortable pursuing adjudication as a plausible next step (I had already obtained a contact restriction at this time). Ultimately, this comfortability quickly deteriorated as those involved mishandled and prolonged my adjudication process. My experience embodies a common narrative at Swarthmore of student survivors undergoing breaches of humanity; this retraumatization, stress, and injustice was preventable. I hope to not only address the negligence of Swarthmore’s administration, but also to make transparent the procedural changes needed to occur for survivors to receive humanizing and just treatment in their complaint processes.

My case endured for nearly five months. After sixty days, I was disheartened yet understanding due to Kaaren’s departure and my advisor’s sudden leave of absence. However, I could not understand how these departures affected the investigator’s ability to communicate her decision to pause the investigation until my advisor returned. I waited for the investigator to continue with the process, which necessitates I meet with her to review my file, which included my written statement, witness narratives, and additional evidence from the Health Center. After a month of radio silence, I took the initiative of emailing her to schedule the meeting. When we met, the investigator stated that her incommunicativity stemmed from both not wanting to concern me while my advisor was absent, and not knowing if I would feel comfortable without her present. Her decision not to consult me stripped me of my agency, and at that point, my trust in our relationship was broken. Transparency, more specifically, clear and consistent communication about what is happening throughout the process and when, is necessary to ensure that survivors are adequately supported. By not communicating with me, the investigator extended the process longer than it needed to last and left me in a position to advocate for myself more often than I should have had to. I felt that her comments revealed a lack of understanding for the ways in which the length of my ongoing case (particularly when my perpetrator remained on campus and in a residential peer leadership role) was itself an added burden to my experience at Swarthmore. Adjudication is a taxing endeavor for survivors, even when all administrators are present and supportive.

Aside from this example, I encountered similar issues regarding transparency and responsiveness with the Conduct Office and later asked the administrators involved to explain to me the reasons for the problems I encountered. Four administrators pointed to the turnover in the Title IX office, administrators’ vacation times, and Nina Harris’ absence as reasons for the extension of my case and for their difficulties communicating with me. The instability and irresponsibility to maintain infrastructure during administrative turnover led me to distrust their ability to support me. Thus, in December, I decided to formally end my involvement in my case but allowed the College to continue with the hearing. My perpetrator was found responsible for violating the sexual assault & harassment policy. By the time I received the outcome of the hearing in late January, I was angry with the College. While venting to allies and other survivors about my process, I discovered that Student X and I were not alone in our frustrations. Other survivors have expressed feelings of inadequate transparency not only in adjudication processes, but with educational programs like Intimate Partners for Peace and interim measures like contact restrictions. The stark commonality of these experiences with administrative disorganization drove me to consider how the College could improve its misconduct processes as a whole.

The College has made significant improvements since 2013. On February 7th, Dean Braun sent the student body an email describing Title IX related updates, with the goal of demonstrating that the College’s “commitment [to ‘creating a violence-free campus’] remains as strong as ever.” One section of her email outlined recent changes to Sexual Assault & Harassment policy:

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Policy, however, is relatively static in terms of its applicability to every affected person’s situation. We as students need to be asking questions of the College at large, and particularly the Title IX office, about how these policies are enacted in practice. The problems that Student X, myself, and others experienced were not solely problems of policythey were also problems of procedure. It became evident from my interactions with relevant administrators in the Title IX office, Public Safety and the Conduct office that you can have the same policy and have a set of people who treat it differently. For example, while Dean Braun’s email suggests that the team prioritizes student feedback in developing changes to its policies, I know from meeting with the Interim Title IX Coordinator that there currently exists no formal process for obtaining feedback from students who have filed a formal report. The Title IX Office is “in the process” of developing one, and is also “in the process” of analyzing the results obtained from the HEDS survey released in February 2017. To date, the primary ways of gathering student feedback have occurred through 1-on-1, voluntary conversations and/or written documentation shared with the Title IX Coordinator or the Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate. These responses are ultimately filtered through the lens of the administrator gathering this information, and presented to the Title IX team every summer when the policies are re-evaluated. The administration’s lengthy processing of data, or the idea to start collecting data, has often frustrated students who want to see change happen before they graduate, and long for institutional memory.

Additionally, there exists little competency in other departments around Title IX processes. It becomes very difficult for survivors to navigate punitive processes and to feel supported by administrators when it appears as if perpetrators are not being held accountable. My own perpetrator was hired to be a residential peer leader at the end of Spring 2017. Before I requested a formal adjudication at the beginning of September, I notified my employers in the Office of Student Engagement (OSE) about my existing contact restriction with the perpetrator because I would be working alongside him during training. On the first day of training, I reminded them of my distress at being placed in any Orientation training groups with my perpetrator. However, on two different occasions, the OSE staff had placed me in the same groups with him. For example, when I approached a Residential Communities Coordinator at the beginning of one session to remind her of our agreement, she assured me that we had not been placed together. When I insisted we re-check the list, it appeared that him and I had. After I had decided to go through a formal adjudication process and again informed my employers of this decision, one of these employers scheduled an unrelated meeting with me in the OSE—unbeknownst to me—during my perpetrator’s work shift. I walked down to the Office, and was immediately surprised and triggered when I saw him working at the front desk. My employers apologized for this error, but I remained frustrated. In these situations, I was forced to advocate for myself to protect my emotional and physical security.

Also reprehensible is the absence of clear policy about students holding certain leadership positions that involve responsibility for their peers’ wellbeing when they are respondents in ongoing cases or after the case has been decided. Now, though he was found responsible through the adjudication process, my perpetrator still holds his residential peer leader position (a mandated reporter position). Because I am a Resident Assistant and serve on the Selection Committee, I discovered that my perpetrator is also applying to be an RA. When I asked my employer why my perpetrator was a candidate, he responded that the outcome of my case does not prevent him from applying for these opportunities. This process concerns me not only for those who might be forced to have him as an RA or RA-On-Call, but also for other survivors serving on the Selection Committee and for other applicants: the potential of running into a perpetrator during a group interview or an individual interview is a triggering and emotionally charged experience. OSE staff members have explained to me that although they do not receive information about conduct violations from applicants, they “check with Title IX and Dean Miller” about candidate concerns after final decisions have been made. However, this policy does not delineate how these “checks” inform decision-making. The selection process enables perpetrators to continue to secure and hold residential positions, unchecked, year after year. If the OSE staff identifies a candidate who has been found responsible for violating the sexual assault & harassment policy, what specific outcomes hinder their ability to transition into the RA role? Are candidates with contact restrictions filed against them treated similarly to candidates on academic probation as a result of adjudication? How does the staff make decisions about who gets to be an RA and who doesn’t? How can the staff claim to support and care for survivors while simultaneously sanctioning this selection process that increases our vulnerability?

These contradictions—and the lack of explanations for them—demonstrate that while policy change has occurred, these changes are not institutionalized through procedure. If Swarthmore is to express the shared goal of “creating a violence-free campus” (see Dean Braun’s email referenced earlier), the administrators involved have to be held accountable for the violence they create when issues such as a lack of transparency make processes unnecessarily difficult for survivors. We have to continue pressing for immediate change, and we can start by asking more specific questions. What are the expectations about how information is shared with students and when? How might administrators involved in Title IX processes make the rationale behind their decision-making more clear? How can the processes the Title IX office promotes (i.e. interim measures, remedies-based, advisors, investigation) better meet survivors’ needs? (Are the processes meeting survivors’ needs in the first place?) Myself and a team of student survivors and allies have begun to consider possible answers to these concerns. If you would like to get involved in upcoming actions, email us at organizingforsurvivors@gmail.com.

It is not enough to share this article. Student X’s article did not get the action it deserved. Narratives like ours do not often result in the action they deserve. This is the cycle of student anger on Swarthmore’s campus. Students feel unheard. In attempts to resist, we write articles, we chalk, we march. Sometimes, administrators appease us. Other times, we hear nothing. We get tired. We graduate. Our perpetrators graduate. More often than not, significant changes are tabled for later years or forgotten about. The cycle, inevitably, repeats itself. We can’t move forward without applying student pressure on the College. Now is the time to advocate for change, to request more information about what is needed to improve the conduct process, and to require that our policies align with our practices.