Allies, trustees clash over college policy

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Author: Juliet Suess|

Emotions flared at the board of trustees spring dinner as members of the Occidental community presented statistics and expressed concern about sexual assault to members of the board as they exited the dinner. The conversation turned contentious once board members engaged in a heated discussion with students and faculty attending the vigil, prompting Associate Vice President Marsha Schnirring to intervene at one point. A trustee also pushed a camera into the face of an Occidental alumna, who was filming the encounter. President Jonathan Veitch and Dean of Students Barbara Avery left out the back of the event as concerned students held the vigil out front.

The incidents at the event indicated that tensions over sexual assault have not subsided on campus since the issue first gained significant media attention last spring. Activists have lobbied for administrators to be replaced and for more changes to the sexual misconduct policies.

“The board of trustees standing with President Veitch and not taking a stand for justice is the main issue,” politics major and vigil attendee Rachel Buckner (junior) said.

Trustee Cathy Selleck ‘55 pushed a camera into an alumna’s face. She contended that students need to present their concerns in a more constructive manner.

“We need more thought and more calm on behalf of the students,” she said.

Trustee Steven Hinchliffe ‘55 also raised concerns about the faculty members involved with the on-campus activism on sexual assault. He and Selleck partook in a heated discussion with associate professor of politics Caroline Heldman.

“Don’t you have any integrity at all?” Hinchliffe said to Heldman. Objecting to Heldman accusing him of bullying a student who was asking questions about sexual assault, he also told Heldman that she needed to consult help for some serious problems.

Hinchliffe repeatedly demanded a list of names of students who had been convicted of rape. He became increasingly irritated as the students and faculty present could not provide him that information due to privacy laws. He also was not convinced by activists that the administration acted improperly when addressing rape on campus.

“If I knew that a student at this college had at a particular point in time raped someone and that the administration had failed to act on that, I, as a trustee, would be outraged,” he said. “I have no such knowledge of that. If I did, I would act, and I believe every member of the board would act.”

The college still awaits the Title IX report that will potentially outline problems in the college’s previous handlings of sexual assault. There are currently 52 complainants that filed the original complaint and the related addendums. Part of the complaint covers the alleged lack of or light sanctions against those found responsible for sexual assault.

“I have asked [the administration] ‘Has anybody raped someone that you haven’t told me about?’” Henchliffe said. “And they haven’t. Nobody has said to me that someone has raped someone, and we won’t tell you who it is. That has not happened.”

When presented with cases in which those found responsible stayed on campus, Henchliffe said that he “had no knowledge of such instances” but maintained that the administration has kept the board completely informed.

Board of Trustees Chair Chris Calkins ‘67 echoed the sentiment that the administration continues to keep the board up to date.

“The college has taken significant steps, and the president has been committed to doing the right thing to make sure things are right, and they have kept the board fully informed,” Calkins said.

After the board members left the event, Heldman and the other participants gathered in a circle to debrief and collect themselves. “So this is where we are a year later,” Heldman said.

What’s the same

Since the filing of the TItle IX complaint one year ago, students have accused multiple high level administrators of discouraging survivors from going to the police about their alleged assaults.

“It’s not strictly prohibited by state or federal law to dissuade a student from going to the police, but I think the Department of Education would interpret it as a Clery violation if a university aggressively discouraged reporting, because Clery requires universities to make students aware of their right to go to the police,” Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte said. “That right would be meaningless if the school pressured you not to exercise it.”

The Department of Education’s “Dear Colleagues” Letter also lays out the problems with dissuading a survivor from reporting to the police.

“A school should notify a complainant of the right to file a criminal complaint, and should not dissuade a victim from doing so either during or after the school’s internal Title IX investigation,” the letter says. “For instance, if a complainant wants to file a police report, the school should not tell the complainant that it is working toward a solution and instruct, or ask, the complainant to wait to file the report.”

Members of Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) and other students have raised concerns with Occidental’s policy on effective consent. These students argue that only verbal consent is truly effective, especially in instances where sexual encounters do not follow the typical sexual continuum.

“We talked about why physical or verbal consent does not work because not all sexual encounters follow this sexual script,” biology major Hannah Kessel (junior), who authored the petition for sexual assault alerts, said of a meeting she had with Veitch. “We also talked about situations where it might be necessary for verbal consent to make sure that you weren’t forcing your partner into something.”

Despite these meetings, the contested “verbal or physical consent” language remains in the college’s policy.

“At the time I remember feeling really excited about working with administrators and giving them the opportunity to be on the forefront of policy changes,” Kessel said. “But since then I feel a lot more jaded on the form these conversations should take. I feel a lot more frustrated and less optimistic because I think that administrators and trustees have been given the opportunity and the information, the research to make the changes, and they have failed to do so. So they have missed the ability to be on the forefront, and now they are behind.”

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, alleges having gone to the administration to request accommodations after a sexual assault but was told that a person must report assaults to either the college or to the police in order to begin the process of getting accommodations.

Ruth Jones, the Title IX coordinator, said that should not be true. Although she would need to be made aware of an assault, a person would not need to go through the adjudication process in order to receive accommodations from the school.

Dean of Students Barbara Avery only said that accommodations went through Jones but would not comment if she was involved in arranging any accommodations previously.

The college hired lawyers Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez last April to report on Occidental’s sexual misconduct policy and the handling of previous cases. Their report has been delayed numerous times; it was slated to come out at the beginning of the school year, then at varying dates in the the school year and then at the end of this month. Veitch now says that the report will be out in six to eight weeks.

What’s different

Veitch stated that the college has made a number of changes over the course of the past year. These changes include the addition of a Title IX coordinator and a survivor advocate, increased mandatory education for students, the hiring of Smith and Gomez to evaluate policies and procedures, the creation of a hotline for survivors and a number of other changes. Jones plans to report yearly on the updates and changes her office makes.

“We have made pages and pages of changes so that this isn’t repeated. There’s a lot of misinformation that is going around,” Selleck said.

Calkins believes that students simply do not understand how many changes have been made.

“I believe that the president and the administration have taken significant steps in dealing with this issue,” he said. “I regret that not everyone understands the scope of the changes being made or the conditions of the college today to address the issue. I think it is an important issue and it will remain important. It is an important issue in a series of issues.”

Despite the changes, a group of concerned alumni delivered a petition to Veitch demanding changes to the college. They gave him a deadline of April 30 to make the safety changes that they claim are needed.

“We have already made major changes,” Veitch said via email. “There will be other changes based on the reports and recommendations we receive as well as on [Jones]’s own professional analysis. Arbitrary deadlines that don’t take into consideration the complexities of the issue and the underlying facts aren’t going to be effective in moving us forward.”

The college also cites its sanctions statistics to demonstrate that it is serious about punishing sexual assault on campus.

Alleged perpetrators in 16 of 22 cases from August 2009 to December 2013 were found responsible for sexual misconduct. That misconduct ranged from sexual harassment to non-consensual intercourse. Nine of the 16 cases in which the respondent was found responsible resulted in expulsion, meaning 56 percent of those found guilty were expelled. The 16 cases involved 12 individual respondents, which means nine of the 12 were expelled, according to Director of Communications Jim Tranquada.

At the vigil, protesters demanded a zero-tolerance policy that would result in the expulsion of 100 percent of respondents found responsible for sexual assault.

OSAC announced last week that it was becoming an all-student organization in order to better serve students and survivors.

“In that past, the conflict between OSAC and the administration has been well known,” Latino/a Latin American Studies major Robert Rodriguez-Donoso (junior) said via email on behalf of OSAC. “As we recently announced via our facebook page, OSAC is moving in a new direction. We are now a completely student organized coalition, with new faculty advisors for the 2014-2015 school year. This was a collaborative decision made by OSAC. We want to bring back OSAC’s focus exclusively to serving Oxy by continuing to support survivors on this campus through advocating for policy, procedural, and cultural changes. OSAC will also continue to strive to be a supportive and resourceful group for survivors of all identities and backgrounds. OSAC also supports independent student organizing around issues of sexual assault, such as the recent candlelight vigil, but we maintain the autonomy of our organization. OSAC looks forward to working with students, faculty, and administration as a whole in the coming year to make Occidental a safer and more equitable environment for all students, with improved policies and procedures.”

Some faculty have grown weary of the constant fighting on campus. Some professors signed a letter last month to the faculty outlining their concerns about conduct in faculty meetings.

“We write to you today out of concern for the well being of the college, and out of a sense that our faculty participation in college issues is becoming increasingly unproductive. Although several of the issues currently on our minds might only have emerged through direct and forceful confrontation, we believe that the animosity and polarization that now characterize our participation have put the college in a dangerous position,” the letter says.

Professor of biology Gretchen North signed the petition because she wanted to give more faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions in a less hostile environment.

“My reason for signing the letter was at odds with the way it was interpreted, as an effort to silence dissenting voices,” North said. “My true purpose was to help more voices be heard, particularly from people who find it difficult to speak in a highly charged atmosphere. But stifle dissent? Never.”

Amid all of the controversy, Veitch said that he is still in negotiations regarding a contract extension with the board.

 

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