Sexual Assault Town Hall

On October 4, members of Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education (SHARE) hosted a town hall as a platform for students and administration to discuss sexual harassment and assault. The event was moderated by Erin Buenzli and had support services and confidential resources present for students in the audience. It covered the results of last spring’s Campus Climate Survey, procedures the university takes in response to sexual assault and devoted time to students voicing concerns.

Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Kimberly Barrett summarized results of the Campus Climate Survey, also known as the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) survey. “The survey compares Lawrence with 75 other small liberal arts institutions, so we can put our situation in the context of other student groups,” Barrett said. According to the survey, over three quarters of Lawrence students are satisfied with the general campus climate and feel safe, with 89 percent feeling that the university is concerned with the welfare of its students.

In addition to this, the majority of students feel that they received a proper education on sexual assault, such as how to prevent and report and what confidential resources are available. However, fewer than half of students agreed that the number of sexual assaults at Lawrence is low, that they or their friends are safe or that fellow students would intervene in the event of an assault. These numbers are much lower than peer institutions, according to the survey.

Since the 2015 HED survey, reports of unwanted sexual contact have remained steady, whereas reports of assault have risen sharply and are currently happening at a rate slightly higher than our peer institutions. Barrett noted that this means more people are willing to report, not necessarily that more assaults are happening.

Director of Athletics Christyn Abaray revealed that there has been a leak regarding changes to Title IX at the federal level. While nothing is set in stone, Abaray named a few examples of what could happen. “One possibility is that an assault would have to occur on campus to trigger Title IX,” she said. “This doesn’t mean the university could not choose to intervene otherwise, but it would not be required to under federal law if the assault occurred at, say, Björklunden.” Other potential changes include religious exemptions to Title IX and cross examination at hearings.

Title IX Coordinator Emily Bowles and McCarty Law attorney Lora Zimmer presented formal and legal procedures taken by the university in response to reports and complaints. Zimmer discussed her process for finding evidence like phone records, interviewing each party and their witnesses and being a neutral voice advising the university’s decisions.

Bowles outlined how reports, complaints, hearings, appeals and sanctions work as outlined by university policy and offered encouraging words: “When you think about our policy, remember that it is foundational,” she said. “We decide what we build on that foundation through our actions. Policy becomes practice through empathy.”

Dr. Barrett and Vice President Christopher Card offered clarification on details of Bowles’ presentation. Barrett said, “One concern students have is how the school handles reports. Reports, which are often made by a third party, are just letting people know you think something happened, whereas complaints are formal accusations. Reports are for information, complaints are for action.”

Card followed up on this: “When you file a report or ask the university for assistance or accommodations, there’s no pressure to pick a course of action. You can talk to Emily about your experience or a friend’s, and she will only point you to resources. Nobody is going to tell anybody to make a certain choice unless there is immediate danger like threats or violence.”

Some tension occurred when a student in the audience could not be given a number for how many perpetrators are expelled yearly. Dr. Barrett defended the university, saying, “Sexual misconduct runs the gambit of severity, so the sanctions do as well.” She also mentioned that a rumor of a “three reports to get expelled rule” going around is false. President Mark Burstein added, “There are more than half a dozen dismissals from the university each year, some from as few as one complaint. As a rule, committees dismiss in the case of forcible sexual intercourse.”

The student replied saying, “My point is that people here know that there are many more assaults than expulsions each year. There have been a lot of warnings and a lot of conversations, but perpetrators are still allowed to be on campus.” Another student shared their experience with survivors on campus: “I’ve had friends come to me with their stories and say they were threatened with sanctions if they remained vocal about what happened. This makes me reluctant to tell people to report.” “I know of no such sanctions being made, and any such threats are against university policy and highly unacceptable from any employee,” President Burstein said in response.

Included in the talk was an acknowledgement that Lawrence has plenty of room for improvement in the handling of sexual assault, with several suggestions put on the table. One student remarked that prevention in general is Lawrence’s primary weakness, saying, “The attitude here seems to just be ‘you’re assaulted, you go to therapy,’ even though those programs are only for after the fact.” Another student added, “Steps in visibility are missing; the process is heteronormative and makes victims feel guilty. I think we could start by having students work with Title IX coordination.”

The general consensus among students and SHARE is that Lawrence’s approach to sexual assault needs to be more present and less passive. One student mentioned that while the online training is informative, it can simply be clicked through and is not nearly as interactive as in-person training. And so, we have questions: what places and spaces will consent advocacy occupy?

Could orientations like at Welcome Week be replaced with something more in tune with the reality of sexual assault? Abaray says that going forward, “We are looking to have sessions that target an audience beyond those who are outwardly interested or brave enough to come to talks.” However, sessions becoming more accommodating should not discourage new interest or bravery, as students are the best advocates for other students.