After much anticipation, the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources & Education (SHARE) committee released changes to Lawrence University’s sexual misconduct policy and the body’s own composition. Director of Wellness and Recreation and SHARE Chair Erin Buenzli communicated details in an email to the community on Monday, March 18. The updates are focused on concision, clarity and greater support for students in the policy.
According to senior and SHARE Advocate Hannah Shryer, “[SHARE] tried to put themselves in a survivor’s shoes.” While the language has been made more “victim centered […] and accessible,” Shryer emphasized that “support is available not only for complainants, but also for respondents.”
Other than general changes in tone, the update reflects three key changes in the policy. A section has been added to the policy that outlines available confidential resources. The updated policy also clarifies sanctioning procedures and sheds light on numerous decision-making factors. Perhaps most significantly, after months of conversation and demands made by the student body, the updated policy introduces a codification of a mandatory expulsion policy when “aggravating factors are present.”
Both Shryer and junior and SHARE Advocate Max Loebl expressed satisfaction at the mandatory expulsion policy. President Mark Burstein asserted, “In practice, expulsion because of [specific violations] has been practiced since August [of 2015],” but had not been put in policy due to research that suggested “a chilling effect on reporting.” Eventually, based on other research about repeat offenses, the university chose to formally codify its practice of mandatory expulsion in specific cases.
These changes have long been on the community’s radar, but discourse and action were accelerated following the arrest of senior Thomas Skoog on charges of “possession of child pornography.” Students had previously alleged his return to campus after some time away was an indication of the school’s inadequacy in dealing with campus safety and issues of sexual misconduct.
Knowledge of the arrest sparked protests across campus, as students and other members of the community directed outrage and blame toward the administration. Activists demanded greater accountability from senior members of staff and faculty, increased resources to prevent sexual misconduct and support survivors, and a more clarified policy, including mandatory expulsion stipulations. Two leaders of the student activists, seniors Catherine Bentley and Oumou Cisse, considered the bar they set to be “pretty low” and their demands to be “straightforward.” However, they were disappointed with the administration’s reaction and subsequent changes.
Following demands that he resign from his role as Title IX coordinator, Robert Williams sent a letter to The Lawrentian expressing his personal desire to step down and have the role become a stand-alone position. Coverage of the arrest, surrounding activism and Williams’ letter can be found in the April 8 issue of The Lawrentian.
Student organizers and activists helped spur meetings and conversations between a variety of students, staff and faculty. The makeup of these groups changed each time. However, regular attendees included Burstein, Williams and Buenzli from the staff and faculty. Shryer and Loebl—who also serve on the Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) as chair of the Student Alliance Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (SAASHA) and as president, respectively—represented student voices along with a few other peers.
Incoming Director of Athletics Christyn Abaray, who served as Title IX coordinator at her previous institution, Lecturer of Gender and Freshman Studies Helen Boyd Kramer, who has been involved with similar initiatives in the past, and Vice President for Student Affairs Nancy Truesdell were also frequent attendees of these meetings. This group also consulted with University Counsel Julia Messitte and Lora Zimmer, Lawrence’s outside Title IX investigator.
At these meetings, students, staff and faculty shared insights and discussed the best way forward. Loebl found Burstein to be “incredibly receptive” as he spent the first meeting “listening to [students].” Shryer also added, “[Burstein] really defers to students in these sorts of things when he knows that we’re really the experts on this stuff, while trying to keep a broader perspective for the institution.”
Ultimately, SHARE took on the bulk of the work, as it edited the sexual misconduct policy. According to Shryer, Williams and Buenzli constantly sent updated drafts of the policy, which were revised by the committee through meetings or email communication. “I maybe saw 11 to 13 different drafts [of the policy],” Shryer stated.
The students directly working on these revisions were not integral parts of the activism at the beginning of the term. Shryer, for instance, never “felt directly involved” in participating or helping to organize the protests. She also was not “in direct communication with the [organizers].” She added, “That lack of communication has, in the end, kind of hurt us in a way that is unfortunate, because it has driven a sort of metaphorical wedge between [the protest organizers and members of SHARE].”
In fact, protest organizers were largely absent from direct communication with the institution and other student platforms. According to Loebl, while the student protestors “have had their voices heard through SAASHA […] there did not appear to be an interest to work with LUCC as an institutional organization.”
Bentley and Cisse said they were deliberate in remaining separate from LUCC and SAASHA given their disappointment with institutional frameworks from the past. They believe students protesting as individuals catalyze greater action and prevent other students within institutional frameworks from having to undergo the exhaustion and trauma Bentley and Cisse are facing.
Truesdell also noted none of the protestors approached her for a conversation. “The protests related to the most recent developments have come from students with tape over their mouths who do not seem like they want to engage in conversation,” she remarked.
Bentley and Cisse, for their part, claim to have never been contacted for a meeting. Instead, they were approached “inappropriately” by various members of the administration to clarify statements from the past, some dating several years back. Even though the administration referred to SAASHA and SHARE for student input, Bentley and Cisse were sent drafts of the updated policy. This came off as a “face-saving” and soothing tactic to the two protestors.
Some members of the Lawrence community have viewed these protests and policy changes as an extension of a conversation that began last Spring Term. Almost one full year ago, students reacted to news of Skoog’s return to campus with activism and demands for upheaval in policy. Many believe Skoog’s absence was due to a violation of the sexual misconduct policy.
“Both sets of protests can be characterized by the same elicitation of emotion and just the deep pain that students felt that caused those protests to come to fruition in the first place,” said Shryer. “One of the interesting and kind of sad parts about this whole thing is that Thomas Skoog has been at the center of these changes and these protests each time.”
Burstein also views the current conversation as an extension of student concerns that began last year. “I see this [current activism] as a continuation [of events from last spring] and really a lack of the administration continuing the conversation with students,” Burstein said. “I think that we would have been in a much better place if we had continued to engage around these issues through the fall and winter.”
The absence of communication between administrators and students can largely be attributed to SHARE’s lack of activity during Fall and Winter Terms. Several members of SHARE report having few meetings during that time. “Fall Term and Winter Term, we did not have strict meeting times. We would just meet on an arbitrary day,” junior and SHARE Advocate Vijayashree Krishnan elaborated. “[In Winter Term,] I may have gone to just two meetings and Fall Term, maybe like three.”
Bentley and Cisse, too, noted SHARE’s lack of activity as an impediment to improvement on the issue. They questioned whether SHARE could serve its function and amend the policy in an appropriate manner without meeting regularly. Speaking from her own experience as a former member of SHARE’s predecessor board, Bentley considered the meetings to be “colloquial” and “unprofessional,” and recalled members of the administration pushing work onto students’ shoulders.
“On the whole, it’s extremely disconcerting that we had to experience such a disturbing pattern of events for these changes to come in place,” Loebl concluded. Kramer also supported students’ reactions to the Skoog case. “Much of the campus was concerned before, but there’s a very distinct and powerful charge for students to be able to say “we were right” now—because they were,” she wrote in an email response. “I hope that it encourages us to listen more carefully and move more quickly in the light of students’ concerns and expression about their own safety in future.”
Truesdell attributed the recent lack of activity to Williams’ transition time into his new multifaceted role at the beginning of the year and the departure of the Associate Dean of Students for Health and Wellness in Winter Term.
Noting that SHARE had been performing its role over the past year, Buenzli also clarified that the committee has met frequently this term and hopes to “meet weekly or biweekly” and enhance training for the next cycle.
Although SHARE was not actively meeting until the beginning of Spring Term, student groups, led by SAASHA, have been actively working on sexual assault education and prevention all year. SAASHA expanded the reach of its Bystander Intervention Training, while also hosting workshops, performances and informational events. “I think that what is equally important to this is the work that SAASHA and LUCC are doing for education in general, bystander training, more clearly stating the need to register events and parties,” Burstein said.
Across the board, those involved acknowledge that the recent conversations and updates have not ended. Considering the work still to be done, Truesdell said, “This is such an evolving set of processes across the country. […] There will be a continued conversation, and we will be part of that.” As the university brings the most recent set of updates into force, much more remains on the agenda.
One key remaining item, as stated in Buenzli’s email, is SHARE’s division of responsibilities between advocates and committee members. However, the selection process for each, particularly with regard to students, remains unfinalized. “It’s very hard [for LUCC to determine] who can fill an advocacy role for survivors of sexual assault,” Loebl said. “[Changes in the student selection process have] been certainly talked about, and it seems like [they are] going to happen, but it hasn’t been officially decided yet.”
Buenzli further clarified that the committee aspect will remain the same but the advocates will be made more static: “Rather than that group changing on a consistent basis, because faculty appointments are year-to-year, that group will be static.” However, she provided a slightly different update than Loebl in that “[students] will not remain in either [committee or advocacy] roles.” Simultaneously, “peer advocacy is something that we are also exploring—that would be the student role. But the same training would be in existence for both of them.”
Additionally, the university has formally accepted Williams’ request to step down as Title IX coordinator and is reconfiguring this position. “Even from last summer, there were conversations about whether or not the associate dean of the faculty was the right position to combine with the Title IX coordinator,” Burstein said. “We are now trying to figure out exactly what [our new direction will be], but at the very least, it will mean hiring someone who is not a tenured member of the faculty and either has training in the area or an interest in a deep training in the area and professional experience connected to Title IX.” The new coordinator is intended to be a stand-alone position.
Yet another important upcoming development concerns greater transparency regarding reporting of sexual misconduct on campus. Thus far, the university only released counts of confirmed instances of “sexual violence” for each calendar year in a public report in accordance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act). After demands for greater information, the university is in the final stages of releasing what will now be a regular report on summary or aggregate data about sexual misconduct. While the details are yet to be finalized, the report will be released shortly and will not include identifiable information.
Two further items are on the agenda for discussion over a longer period of time. First, the university is looking into the appropriateness and legality of disclosing names in specific instances of sexual misconduct policy violations. Second, after attempts to increase consistency in sanctioning procedures among three responsible individuals, the administration is also looking to streamline the process further. While these are far into the future and entail complications, conversations have already begun on these issues.
Looking ahead, Bentley and Cisse are looking for a formal apology from the institution, Truesdell’s resignation, greater accountability, and a better approach to listening to and understanding student concerns. Both remain unsatisfied with current state of the policy and are skeptical of the university’s ability to take the document up to par.
“The protests and activism and student outrage is really from years and years of institutional neglect in regards to sexual misconduct at Lawrence,” Loebl said. “And even though I’m happy to see expedition of these changes to the sexual misconduct policy and how SHARE functions, you can’t make up for all the wrong that has been done.”
Moving forward, Shryer hopes that Lawrentians can maintain focus on the larger culture shift that still needs to happen: “I hope that we can keep working on this stuff, but with more focus on preventing it from happening in the first place.”