The responsibilty of campus culture

Let’s start with disclosure. I survived sexual abuse, so I know what it’s like to feel shame, guilt and helplessness. I wrote about that for the Trinitonian. If you are curious, you can search the archives. I’m not rehashing it now. I have a limited word count that I will probably exceed (sorry, boss!).

First, I praise all of the survivors who shared their stories during the SGA Town Hall on the University Sexual Assault Policy. I praise the students who organized it, and the ones who asked all the poignant and necessary questions. You have shown incredible dignity, respect and empathy. Kudos!

I was at the SGA Town Hall. I did try to educate myself on the issue beforehand, so I read the current Trinity policy and the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), a document by the Department of Education dated April 4, 2011.  After the town hall, I thought about what I heard from the university in light of the DCL, as it is meant to clarify our Title IX obligations.

The DCL states that cases of sexual misconduct must be adjudicated in ways that are “prompt, thorough and impartial.” That said, I have no doubts that the university’s policy is in line with Title IX. We have procedures and sanctions to deal with “Sexual Misconduct.”

For example, the policy acknowledges survivors’ wishes, especially regarding confidentiality. In fact, a student who contacted me afterward commended Trinity on this. Describing the experience, the student said, “I admitted to Sargent Lopez (sic) that I wished to end the process immediately, with the least amount of people hurt and informed. No parents, no friends, no SAPD and definitely no therapy. Lopez graciously informed me of all my options and directions I could take the case, essentially putting me in as much control as the policy allows. THIS is what I appreciated so deeply about the policy here at Trinity: It can be tailored to the victim’s comfort level and puts the victim in control of the extent to which her/his case is taken.”

This student also praised Dean Tuttle for being “extremely invested in my well-being thereafter,” and “consistently [helping the student] to find outlets and support other than counseling on campus.” That said, nothing prevents us from improving. Even this student agrees because, “The Trinity policy is not bad, it is flawed. It has room for perfection, but doesn’t lack direction.”

I concur wholeheartedly. We can do better. For example, the current policy states that a student found “responsible” of “non-consensual sexual intercourse” (any act that involves penetration) can expect “suspension or expulsion” What exactly mitigates the penalty for acts that involve penetration? From the town hall, I gathered that one factor was the survivor’s wishes.

I beg to differ, and here is why. Even the DCL states that confidentiality requests should be weighed against the “school’s responsibility to provide a safe and non-discriminatory environment for all students.” Wouldn’t that responsibility be equally important even if the survivor feels they “just wanted to let the other person know that they did something wrong,” as was said in the town hall?  In other words, should mercy override the common good? I don’t know if I can answer that, but it is an important question.

I have other questions as well. First, why should students take the lead in educating the campus on issues of sexual violence, as was suggested? Doesn’t the DCL state that it is the school’s responsibility to “take proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment and violence”? Second, is it appropriate to tell students that preventing sexual assault is up to them? That it’s a matter of “not drinking too much punch at the party”? Shouldn’t our message stress DON’T RAPE, rather than DON’T GET YOURSELF RAPED? Third, why do we only have two female police officers in TUPD? When will they receive training on handling sexual misconduct claims, since we were informed they had none? Fourth, why do we have enough resources to build an imposing new building, but don’t seem to have enough budget for staff that will counsel students through the complaint and appeals process?  Fifth, since allegations have been made about undue pressure on sexual abuse survivors not to report to SAPD or pursue appeals, will the university look into that? If it has already happened, what did the university find?

I know we are all responsible for the culture on campus, but with greater power comes greater responsibility. Trinity students and alumni came to us. They asked questions, and they asked for changes. Will we hear them out or shut them out?

Cynara Medina is a professor of communication.