Content warning: mentions of sexual violence, reporting.
As the anniversary of a specific rapist’s second removal from campus comes upon us, I think it is time for us as Lawrentians, and me, as SAASHA (Student Alliance against Sexual Harassment and Assault) Vice Chair, to be reflective. What has happened in the past year? Have we furthered education about safe sex and consent? Has our administration taken sexual violence more seriously? Have people been held accountable for their actions in our community? Has the work that survivors have spearheaded been recognized? Do people feel safer after a year of activism? Are people healing?
I will not recount his crimes; what happened is public knowledge and should not be credited with any change that has occurred on our campus. I will however, describe the first Wednesday of Spring Term 2016. At 8 p.m. nearly seventy people shoved into the Diversity Center, looking for a place to express their anger, sadness, confusion and questions. That night, Hannah Shryer told us what she knew about the arrest, any public knowledge and reviewed what SAASHA’s plans were. As a group we fielded questions, brainstormed what to do next, and tried to support each person in that room. Then, Oumou Cisse and Catherine Bentley ‘16 led a sign-making session, preparing for the daily protests that would take place outside both Sampson and Raymond house.
It was extremely painful. Honestly, it was hard for me to get up in the mornings, knowing I’d have days full of meetings and questions, trying to advocate for survivors and not scream “we told you so” at everyone I met was difficult. Campus felt cold and frightened. I know I was not alone in that sentiment.
Now, a year later, those feelings have shifted. Things at Lawrence are not perfect. As SAASHA members like to say—we wish we didn’t have to be here. I wish that sexual assault was nonexistent on our campus and that people knew how to talk about safe and good sex. So much of this problem is one of consent and communication. Yet the support of staff members like Erin Buenzli and other SHARE (Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education) members has convinced me that there are staff and faculty here who are just as willing as students to put in critical and difficult work on this subject.
First and foremost, the policy has changed. We used to function under a policy where when a complaint was filed, the Dean of the Faculty acting as the Title IX Coordinator would reach out, the outside investigator would start her investigation and compile a report of her findings, then that report would be given to the Vice President for Student Affairs. This has been changed as of Spring Term 2017. Now when a complaint is filed, the Title IX Coordinator reaches out, the outside investigator starts her investigation and compiles a report of her findings and that report is given to a hearing panel of five trained and screened staff and faculty members. The hearing panel decides sanctioning and a separate appeal board handles appeals.
In the past year, we have removed the Title IX Coordinator position from under the Dean of the Faculty; it is now a stand-alone position held by Kim Jones. I cannot stress the impact of this change. It gives anyone with an issue that falls under Title IX the attention their problem deserves. Kim Jones is a thoughtful, genuine alumna committed to supporting students. Erin Buenzli found a grant to fund Cathy Kaye’s (’13) position at Lawrence as our Campus Advocate. Cathy is completely confidential and works for the Sexual Assault Crisis Center (SACC) in Appleton. She is here to help students through any part of the process. She guides students through accommodations, support groups, counseling and the choice to report. She is energetic and full of ideas. Because of these staff and faculty, I no longer feel like the burden only rests on students’ shoulders to fight for survivors to be heard and perpetrators held accountable.
SAASHA and SHARE have also been given a slot at Welcome Week for the incoming freshman class. This gives us an opportunity to start a conversation about consent, healthy relationships and bystanderism with each student once they arrive. Unfortunately, this presentation is not mandatory, but I promise you that the people who are organizing it are trying to make it so.
The most important part about the work of the past year for me has been two-fold. First, I have been given the gift of statistics. The information that Kim has compiled and shared has been so important. Did you know that most assaults on our campus take place during a survivor’s freshman year? Did you know that many assaults take place after someone has been invited to sleep over, but not to have sex? Did you know that in the mid-2000s, there were years when there were zero reports of sexual violence? Learning all of this has given me a clearer picture of our campus and how we need to educate and provide support. Second, I’ve met so many people who feel less alone. I read once that “being a survivor is being a part of a club you never wanted to join. But once you’re in it, you’re in it for life. And it’s the strongest group of people you could ever imagine.” The people who have shared their stories with me give me more than I can say. I am so proud of you. I believe you.
After taking all the great work of both my peers and SHARE into account, I still am at a crossroads. I know that I feel safer on campus, yet I know that this most likely comes from the fact that I have spent three years here engaging with people about this topic and educating myself. People know me as “that loud feminist who does SAASHA and talks with her hands.” I also wonder if my safety is simply found in the fact that I have been at Lawrence for three years. I have not been in a room completely filled with strangers since my freshman year. I feel safe at parties because there is not a building I have not been in. I feel safe in Appleton because I do not go downtown. I feel safe on campus because my rapist does not go here; I know my safety is not analogous to anyone else’s.
I’ve been asking freshman how they experience rape culture at Lawrence. They seem to do what I did: stay with friends at parties, say that someone is their significant other, try to avoid eye contact with creeps. Yet, the same phrases come up: I didn’t explicitly say no. I didn’t want to be rude. I was so drunk. I asked them to stay over. I am so tired of hearing all the different ways we blame ourselves for our trauma. When I led a conversation with a group of survivors after the election, we talked about which kind of knives to keep on ourselves. There were mentions of creating an anonymous public list of our rapists. All these ideas and more are founded on the truth that we are not truly safe anywhere when we live in a culture that feeds on sexual violence. There are ghosts at Lawrence, wounds that may never fully heal, and there are still perpetrators on our campus.
I invite anyone who feels like they can to find Cathy Kaye at the Wellness Center and confidentially tell her your story. Even if it was years ago. Even if it did not happen here. Even if is your friend’s story but you still think about it all the time. Even if you do not really know what it is. She, or any other confidential resource, can help.
After a year, I do believe we are better. If I did not believe that, I could not do the work that I do. I feel comfortable telling freshman to come here and I love telling people about the progress we’ve made.