It’s February 2014. Thanks to a number of survivor-activists, the media has thrust the issue of sexual assault on college campuses into the mainstream. The Department of Education has received federal complaints against, investigated, and/or is in the process of investigating numerous American colleges and universities, including Yale, UNC, USC, Occidental,Dartmouth, UConn, Emerson, Amherst, Carnegie Mellon, Hanover College, and Penn State over their sexual assault policies’ and procedures’ alleged non-compliance with the Clery Act and/or the Title IX statute. Even so, universities continue to operate with varying degrees of ineffectiveness, such as when Yale makes the news for calling rape “nonconsensual sex” punishable by “written reprimand.” The number of complaints received, as well as media attention around them have spurred a response from President Obama himself, who signed a memorandum in late January 2014 creating a taskforce to address campus sexual assault from the highest echelons of government.
We never imagined that this issue would get so much attention when we began working to reform the sexual assault policy and judicial process at our own alma mater, Tufts University, over five years ago.
Then why do we feel so disappointed?
Back in the spring of 2013, on April 29th, current Tufts students wrote an open letter to their administration (signed by over 378 current students, alumni, and faculty/staff), asking for further institutional changes to make sure that survivors are supported and that Tufts truly is a space where people are as safe as possible from sexual violence.
The administration replied publicly at the end of the 2013 school year, suggesting something all-too-familiar, a working group:
“Several years ago, we created a similar working group when we developed the new sexual misconduct policy and found the sharing of information to be very beneficial.”
We were actually part of one of those working groups during our senior year at Tufts, and while we found the outcome partially beneficial, what happened after we graduated tempers the success that came out of that experience.
But, to put such a quote in its rightful context, let us back up to several years ago.
Wagatwe Wanjuki didn’t want to file charges with the police after two years of abuse and rape by another student. So she put her faith in the Tufts Student Judicial Process:
“First I found out about [the judicial process] because a police officer told me. I didn’t even know that you could go through the judicial process, and when I found that out I thought ‘Oh this is great because you hear all these horror stories about the court system. Clearly the school would be better!’”
At first, the school seemed helpful. However, as she explained to us in a phone interview:
“Once I started following through with filing the report, that’s when the shadiness started happening.”
She had read that the judicial process at the time imposed a one-year statute of limitations on people who file complaints, even though most students attend college for at least four years, and the Massachusetts statute of limitations for sexual assault was and still is 15 years. By the time Wagatwe filed her complaint, in the spring of 2008, the statute of limitations had passed for some incidents, but not for others. Just in case, though, Wagatwe tried to clear this up in one of her meetings with a school official:
“I strongly remember being in a meeting with [the school official] who told me that the one year statute of limitations will not be an issue for my case and to file everything.
Plus, the process said it made exceptions to the statute for assailants who could jeopardize the safety of other Tufts students. So I figure, Clearly if a student is violent, they’re a threat to the bigger community, but they didn’t make an exception for that.”
First, they asked for more time, and then they became less forthcoming:
“The issue is that when I was dealing with the administration—up until I filed the complaint—they were very, I guess you could say, assertive, in terms of reaching out to me. So they would call, they would leave voicemails, they would email me…”
But, as Wagatwe described, after the administration chose not to pursue the complaint, the communication stopped.
Wagatwe told us that she has never gotten an explanation as to why the administration ruled the way they did; she just knew for sure that they decided unilaterally to drop the case. She was never even granted a hearing.
“I think it really hit me when I returned to school the following year where I felt like I’m surrounded by people who don’t care about what happens to students, who didn’t care about what happened to me, so it was something psychologically that was a very draining and upsetting thing, because you’re also dealing with various triggers and memories all over the campus, and you’re technically under the care of people who just don’t give a shit.”
Wagatwe’s perpetrator stayed on campus until he graduated that year. When the Fall 2008 semester started, she was left with the memory of what had happened, and had trouble concentrating in class.
At the same time, that anger and disappointment motivated her to do something:
“I think part of it was…a way to process what had happened and prevent it, sort of feel better about it, making sure that what happened to me wasn’t in vain. Even if what happened to me happened, you know–the consequences of it will last forever, but I felt like who better to get involved than someone who has dealt with the failing of the system? If I could provide a unique point of view and—so, that’s basically why I got involved.”
“The failing of the system” lay in Tufts’ inability to make their sexual assault policy clear to her, specifically how they interpreted the policy when deciding not to pursue her case.
“I felt that the administration took advantage of my ignorance in procedures and knowledge in laws. I think a lot of it was also centering on empowering people through knowledge, or even empowering myself and being able just to be like, ‘You can’t use that ignorance anymore to your benefit—to get away with not taking gender-based violence seriously.’”
She joined PACT (Prevention, Awareness, Community at Tufts), a student health group run under the Health Education Department, that focused its efforts largely on issues surrounding sexual health and sexual violence. She also met another survivor who told her about SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape), an organization started at Columbia University in 2000, and then grew into a national organization that helps students across the country to revise their colleges’ sexual assault policies.
One chilly Saturday morning during the spring of 2009, a small group of Tufts students, mostly women, met up with a representative from National SAFER to train us on how to demand change to our school’s institutional response to sexual assault. This representative passed out printouts of the Tufts sexual assault policy, which at the time was on the Student Affairs website:
The University supports the right of the victim/survivor of a sexual assault to decide how best to utilize various University, community, private, and public remedies to address crimes of sexual assault.
Within the University, instances of sexual assault may be reported to the following offices:
What followed were five phone numbers for the Dean of Students, the Office of Equal Opportunity, and various police departments. Most of us hadn’t seen this policy before, and were astonished at all the negative space. The policy included no contact numbers for the Sexual Assault Clinician, the Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator, area hospitals, or the local rape crisis center. Sexual assault/misconduct in all of its forms was not defined, so survivors would have no way of determining exactly how what happened to them would be defined and adjudicated at Tufts.Just a few sentences and five phone numbers with no indication of what would happen to survivors if one of them happened to dial a number and tell their story.
The judicial processes were equally infuriating, as there was no separate process for sexual violence, and sexual misconduct claims were handled with the same process as other minor offenses. This meant that completely inappropriate measures such as mediation (later deemed unacceptable by the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter) were being used and even encouraged for sexual violence claims, and care was not being taken to address the severity and specific sensitivity of sexual misconduct offenses.
The SAFER representative asked us to share concrete points about what was wrong with the policy and judicial processes, and then vote on them. What we came up with is excerpted here:
Problems with Tufts Policy
No commitment to holding perpetrators accountable
No definition of sexual assault
No minimum disciplinary sanctions
After that, she asked us to describe and vote on our ideal sexual assault policy. Since the policy was so lacking, we did our best to come up with a few of the most achievable and immediate aspects of a good policy and judicial process. Again, this is just an excerpt of what we came up with:
The “Perfect” Tufts Policy
Clear, accessible, easy to understand
Sexual assault should be defined
People involved in disciplinary procedures/handling sexual assault should be trained
Survivor should have protection from harassment and retaliation
Correspondence between survivor/accused and administration should be monitored by oversight person/body
Which resource to call when should be made clear to students
The rest of the time was spent discussing how we could create the opportunity to fill in the blanks with these measures.