O4S Returns: A Community Update

Last semester, survivors came together in a packed community forum to discuss the ways Swarthmore College mishandles Title IX cases. Out of this, Organizing for Survivors, our demands, and our movement were born.

After two months of countless meetings, forums, and planning, we began a sit-in in Dean Liz Braun’s office that shortly became extended to include the office of Dean Nathan Miller: during the day, supporters brought food, over 300 of us filled the halls, and flyers and posters covered the walls. Faculty, alums, staff members, and news reporters showed up to ask questions and share the communal space. Each night, 20 students camped out in these offices, often overflowing into the hallway.

Eight days later, we announced our plans to move out of the office to a crowd of 150+ students, faculty, and staff by delivering moving boxes and exiting Parrish in order attend a meeting with President Smith to discuss implementing our demands.

One week after the sit-in, Liz Braun, the former dean of students, announced that she would  resign from her position and leave the College. O4S released a statement describing her resignation as an implicit recognition of the severity of harm that she and other administrators have caused as well as an indication of the the power the students possess to bring to light those failures and revolutionize a broken system.

Since then, we want to update the Swarthmore community as to where we are now. We will be hosting a teach-in on September 18, at 8 PM, where we will talk about the foundations of our movement, why it happened and is still happening, and where we are headed next  The events of the summer reflect the depth of administrative resistance to structural change and the immense power of student movements to call the College into greater ethical responsibility. We hope you celebrate these important, impactful wins as the direct results of student labor, time, and energy. And we hope that you will hold, as we do, the energy of what we have accomplished together as motivation to accomplish more.

Staff Changes: Beth Pitts, Michelle Ray

Staff changes made over the summer illustrate the fact that the administration continues to avoid the accountability we continue to demand of them.  Michelle Ray has returned her previous role as Case Manager for students accused of Title IX violations, a conflict of interest O4S members anticipated and preemptively stated was unacceptable to us as a student community. This is an irresponsible shift that will harm students who require the services of the TIX team.

Beth Pitts, according to an email sent to faculty and staff, has been moved into the office of the General Counsel, where she will have advise the College on legal matters having never answered for the incompetence and harmfulness she repeatedly demonstrated as our Title IX investigator. This is not only insulting to students who have been harmed by Pitts, but also indicates the administration’s stance that such behavior is acceptable.

Beth was one of the three administrators O4S called on to resign last Spring, due to her repeated mishandling Title IX investigations. Survivor accounts illuminated Pitts’ patterns of victim-blaming, incompetency, and inequitable treatment resulting from her sexist, racist, queerphobic and transphobic actions. Through mass student participation, the community made clear that we would not accept this behavior from our administrators, especially one with such  consequential responsibilities.

Now, beginning this semester, she will no longer be working in the Department of Public Safety, or in her previous role as Title IX investigator. Instead she will be serving as assistant general counsel, working on “risk management and compliance,” among other responsibilities.

O4S supports the removal of Beth Pitts from her role in conducting Title IX investigations and as Associate Director of Public Safety; her actions as well as unwillingness to address them have irreversibly compromised her ability to serve in such a crucial role. We celebrate this change as an important prerequisite for rebuilding an improved reporting system and we acknowledge it has occurred directly because of student labor and student power.

However, we believe the College’s approach to executing this change represents an ongoing attempt to evade accountability.  In the email to faculty and staff, Beth Pitts was praised as a “valued and collaborative campus partner” and an “outstanding staff member.” Celebrating a staff member who has a documented pattern of harming and mistreating students is insulting, inappropriate, and distinctly serves to obfuscate the issues and experiences of harm that catalyzed the change itself.

The administration’s attempts to rewrite, lie about, and invisibilize its harms and failures is antithetical to our vision of accountability and transparency—it only serves the College’s reputation and vulnerability, at the expense of student safety and survivor justice.

As Amanda Epstein writes in Issue 8 (2015) of the Swarthmore Review, the College has taken the same approach to addressing problematic administrators through the student movements in 2013. In 2014, Sharmaine Lamar was “stripped of Title IX duties” and moved to the legal department, where Beth Pitts will now also work, as general counsel.

Lastly, this action by the college is indicative of a larger pattern in which Swarthmore seeks to divert and appease survivors, rather than address systemic issues and offer true accountability. O4S has been explicitly critical of the ways Title IX processes often result in sanctions that separate perpetrators from the College only for the duration of a complainant’s time at Swarthmore, with no mechanism to ensure behavioral change upon return or to comprehensively examine the roots of the harm caused.

Dean’s Office External Review: Still Not Released

Early last semester, the President commissioned an external review committee to analyze the functionality and effectiveness of the Dean’s office. Our concerns surrounding the incompetence and mishandling of different members of the Dean’s office, and the opaque and bureaucratic structure of the Office itself, were often deflected by ensuring this committee would be addressing these questions. The executive summary was promised to be released by March.

In the interim, Dean Braun resigned, the semester ended, and a summer passed. We have not been informed as to why this 6-month delay has occurred and do not know when we can expect this crucial information. Faculty and students alike deserve to know the contents of this report in order to understand how and why our Dean’s Office has failed us, and how the College plans to prevent further failure in the future.

Policy Meetings with President Smith: Challenges and Victories

In the last weeks of the spring semester, members of O4S core met twice with President Smith and administrators to negotiate the implementation of our demands. We invited a number of faculty members, who have shown deep care and concern for their students and commitment to what O4S values, to join us in the meetings. In those meetings, President Smith agreed to meet a number of our demands for the first time. At each meeting, all parties present agreed to a written set of guidelines which stated that the outcomes of the meeting would be shared with the whole campus community.  However, after both meetings, the administration violated the process we agreed upon as to how we would share those outcomes. Documents that were painstakingly co-written by administrator, student, and faculty notetakers were returned to us with significant changes, and no explanation or reasoning behind those changes. We were later told that these changes had been made in consultation with certain “stakeholders” including Greg Brown, VP of Finances and Administration, and Sharmaine Lamar, the college’s General Counsel (the College’s in-house lawyer). After much back and forth between members of O4S core and the President’s staff, the President emailed out the outcomes of our first meeting. The outcomes of the second meeting, however, were never announced to the campus.  

We understand that this compromised our transparency to the wider student community, and want to address that directly: it is in the President’s power alone to commit to meeting the demands. While we are able to share what verbal agreements were made, and will do so soon, we had been waiting throughout the summer for the President to commit in writing to meeting the demands discussed in the second meeting.  Her failure to formally make these commitments, despite her agreement to do so, appears to us as a sign that the administration as a whole continues to engage in bad faith. The changes administrators tried to make throughout the negotiation process, and the complete lack of communication or follow-up over the summer, have shown us that the college continues to prioritize its image and over the actual needs and expressed demands of their students.

We can count some important wins—we believe these changes will improve the Title IX process and support the safety and wellbeing of not just survivors but the student body more broadly.

President Smith agreed to an external review of Public Safety, surrounding the question of inequitable treatment by officers towards students of color, queer/trans students, and women.  Additionally, President Smith agreed to recommend the current Title IX Coordinator formalize time limits for formal proceedings; a longer appeal window following an adjudication decision; mechanisms to address external adjudicators potential impropriety; publicizing training requirements for relevant administrators and explicating job titles and obligations.

We look forward to the College confirming these changes have been made soon and working to educate the community on what they are entitled to, and protected from, after experiencing sexual violence.

Despite being promised these changes in meetings, the college has yet to formalize or implement them. We will hold the College accountable to our community’s standards-- this process has confirmed the necessity of our movement and its continued growth.

We also will continue pushing for the unmet demands, to which administration has shown to be more resistant. We know that they can choose to stand with us and with the principles of transformative justice. They have yet to do so.

We will formally update the community on which remaining demands are unmet or partially met after we are officially informed of their status.

Fraternity Updates

Last spring, we articulated a clear demand regarding the fraternities: that their leases be terminated and the houses they occupy be opened up for all students’ use.  The reasons for that demand have been made clear time and again by us and by others. Fraternities are not the singular problem causing sexual violence on any campus, though they hold disproportionate power and impact. Additionally, we are in continued conversation around how best to discuss the complex power dynamics of fraternities as they relate to sexual violence: we are striving to speak in nuanced ways on how the fraternity structure is built on layers of exclusion that shape student experiences in these spaces. That said, we consider their continued ownership of the houses to be an acute danger to Swarthmore students. In recognition of that danger, we remain committed to our demand and deeply disappointed by the recent developments surrounding addressing them.

In our second meeting with administrators, President Smith agreed to consider interim measures regarding their houses in our second meeting, but later decided not to implement them, citing a desire to see the outcome of the ad hoc committee first. Our understanding is that the ad hoc report contains a strong recommendation about interim measures for the fraternities, and are thus deeply disturbed that President Smith has neglected to share that report with the school all summer.

As the school year begins, and fraternities continue to engage in dangerous practices like throwing a “Disorientation” party (in which the premise is for attendees to be drunk to the point of “confused” and incoherent), we reiterate our stance that the College’s failure to act is directly responsible for harm in these spaces.

Reflections

Though we are disappointed our work must continue into this year, we are excited to be coming back to campus with renewed energy and support to fight for survivors’ rights. We hope you will join us at our teach-in.

We are currently in a deliberate, internal process both reflecting on the challenges of last year and continuously evolving our group into a model of inclusive, compassionate and transformative organizing. Currently, we are intentionally recruiting leadership that is representative of a the vast experiences of people who experience sexual harm. We are having conversations, and plan to extend them to the broader community, around the ways race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and ability structure not just sexual violence itself but also the movements that attempt to eradicate it. We hope to soon share our guidelines and principles, for internal and external practices, that reflect our commitments to centering marginalized voices, modeling accountability, and pushing for meaningful change.

For information about how O4S came to be, the events of last semester, our Transformative Justice approach, and how to become involved, come to our teach-in September 18, 8 PM in Shane Lounge.


If you are interested in leadership and/or structuring plans for the fall, please email organizingforsurvivors@gmail.com for information on our retreat next weekend.