Originally published in The Collegian
Sexual assault is not an easily approachable topic. It is oftentimes difficult to address sexual assault among peers or loved ones on an individual level, and it is so difficult of a topic for colleges that consultants have encouraged several of them, including Princeton, to ‘rebrand rape’ under the far less severe but more confusing term ‘nonconsensual sex.’
So when sexual assault reaches the attention of the national spotlight at the White House, it makes headlines. Following the Obama administration’s creation of a special task force responding to mounting concerns nationwide over campus safety, the Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault released a report on Apr. 29 providing guidelines for colleges and universities in effectively responding to sexual assault.
The 20-page report recommends that all colleges conduct campus climate surveys in order to determine campus safety, engaging men to help in preventing sexual assault, proper administrative response in handling a student who is sexually assaulted, and greater transparency and enforcement in sexual assault investigations. The U.S. Department of Education also publicly released on May 1 a list of 55 higher education institutions that are currently under investigation for possible Title IX violations in improperly responding to reports of sexual violence and harassment. University of California Berkeley, University of Southern California, Harvard, Amherst, and Catholic University are all currently under investigation. No Lasallian college, including Saint Mary’s, is on the same list.
After years of activist lobbying and grassroots movements, problems with sexual assault procedures on college campuses have reached the frontlines of national conversation. But how does Saint Mary’s College compare to other colleges?
Saint Mary’s faced public scrutiny of the mishandling of several reported rapes throughout the mid- to late-1990s. In early 2001, Saint Mary’s administration found a 24-year-old male student guilty of raping a 21-year-old female student and was expelled, only for the victim to find out that the perpetrator’s sanction had been reduced to only a suspension. This specific case reached a crescendo of student outrage with a hunger strike, resulting in across-the-board changes in internal Saint Mary’s procedures, hard-line sanctions for students found guilty of sexual assault, clarification of the College’s definition of sexual assault, and the permanent creation of a director of the Women’s Resource Center in July 2001, among other changes.
In an interview with Gillian Cutshaw, the coordinator of sexual assault awareness, outreach, and education at the Women’s Resource Center, Saint Mary’s appears to have adjusted its policies and attitudes far beyond what the White House is asking other colleges to only begin considering now. Not only are all official College documents in universal agreement with using the term ‘sexual assault’ and its definition, but strict sanctions of expulsion for any student found in violation of the sexual assault policies have also been implemented.
As a confidential resource, Cutshaw could not share specific details, but she did say that of the students who report sexual violence and ultimately choose to begin a formal hearing in front of the Disciplinary Hearing Board, most of them usually see a resolution within a few weeks. Cutshaw also said that Saint Mary’s is ahead of the Task Force’s report in that the College already conducts a campus climate report every two years, where students can anonymously report crimes that are not necessarily quantifiable in Clery crime statistics. The next Saint Mary’s campus climate survey is scheduled for 2016, though it is considering conducting another one next year in light of the Task Force’s recommendations, according to Cutshaw. She also cited Saint Mary’s robust confidentiality system, a feature that many other colleges lack, as a means of being more accessible to victims. A 24/7 support hotline at (925) 878-9207 is available for all students to report any potential cases of sexual violence.
“One of the things about Saint Mary’s that I think gives us this step-up is that we have an administration that is very committed to supporting survivors on campus and to being in compliance with Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Clery Act,” Cutshaw said. “We know our stuff, and we really care about making sure that we’re survivor-centered.”
Saint Mary’s sexual assault policies have undergone a transformation from where they were over a decade ago. The disturbing fact remains that sexual assault will continue to exist as long as the culture of rape remains, but the open, national dialogue gives hope that students can and have made a difference in how colleges consider handling sexual assault, including Saint Mary’s.
“I think that we can really look back and thank student activists for [these changes],” Cutshaw said. “Sometimes, I think that’s what it takes on these universities. It takes a lot of people pointing out that something is wrong before action gets done. I think for us, we happen to just be in that boat ten years earlier than all these other colleges that we’re seeing. We’ve had a lot of time to really focus our efforts and move forward in a way that I think has been very positive.”