Toward a healthier campus culture surrounding sexual assault: panelists discuss resources and challenges

PASA board members and college administrators came together to educate students on sexual assault resources on campus.(Photo by Kathryn Kelly ’19)

Student board members of Pards Against Sexual Assault (PASA) told a packed audience on Wednesday that “we are all participating in the culture surrounding sexual misconduct.”

Dean of Conduct Jennifer Dize and Educational Equity Coordinator Jessica Brown joined Reeve Lanigan ’19 and Nahin Ferdousi ’19 of PASA in a panel discussion on sexual assault Wednesday afternooon. The panel covered a variety of topics related to the college’s resources for victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and dispelled some common misconceptions about the process of reporting.

The panel was held as a part of the ongoing Criminal Justice Reform and Awareness Week. Brown, who had worked as a public defender prior to coming to Lafayette, highlighted some of the ways in which the criminal justice system and the college system differ in their sexual assault and harassment policies.

There’s a lot of differences between the internal process and the criminal system,” said Brown. “One is outcomes…in the college process, if someone is found responsible for violating one of our policies, the outcomes can range in severity from…possible probationary sanctions, up to expulsion for students, for faculty and staff it can be removal from the college, versus the criminal system…the outcome when you’re found guilty is prison time or probation.”

Part of the internal process is looking at whether or not someone has violated Lafayette’s policies,” she added. “The definitions contained in [the school’s policies] are specific to this school and look very different from the definitions [in the criminal justice system].”

Brown also dispelled some common misconceptions surrounding the college’s process for those who report sexual assault. She noted that an investigation, and the involvement of Public Safety or the Easton Police, only occurs if the reporter chooses to take that path, and does not occur at the time of reporting. Similarly, the accused party is not notified of the report unless the reporter chooses to “move forward with formal grievance procedures.”

“The reporting party may request a criminal investigation, college investigation, both or neither. If the reporting party requests an internal college investigation, this would be led by an investigator appointed by the college rather than a police officer,” Brown wrote in an email after the panel.

The panel also discussed some of the challenges that students can face in the reporting process. Ferdousi noted that the repeated recounting of traumatic events that occurs as a part of the investigation process can be very difficult for survivors of sexual assault.

“[The people involved on the hearing panel] are trained in trauma-informed practices, so [even though] it isn’t possible to get through the hearing without asking what happened, we do try to make sure that those questions are asked sensitively,” Dize said. “I also try to be really transparent with both of the parties about what the hearing is going to look like.”

Brown noted that all of the investigators used in the process are also trained in trauma informed practices.

“During these investigations there’s no way to 100-percent avoid asking some really difficult questions, but they are trained and try as hard as they can to avoid re-traumatizing people to the extent possible,” she added.

Ferdousi also brought up the specific challenges that arise for members of minority communities, particularly people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

The Human Rights Campaign reports much higher rates of sexual violence committed against members of the LGBTQ community, including the fact that nearly half of all transgender people experience sexual assault at some point in their lives. Ferdousi also mentioned that cultural differences, especially for people of color, may make it more difficult to report instances of sexual assault or harassment.

Dize mentioned the emphasis the school has put on representation on the hearing committees as a way to help alleviate these issues. The Student Conduct Committee, from which the panel members are drawn, is a formal faculty committee and involves the full appointment process. Each hearing involves two faculty members and one staff member, who is drawn from the Office of Campus Life.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve actually had really good representation,” Dize said. “Campus Life has a broad representation of different identities.”

“People of color have been a little bit more limited, just to be honest, but that’s due to the way that things are appointed and selected,” she added. “I’m aware when we’re deciding who’s going to be on these committees that we should have good representation of our general student body…because the entire reason behind having a hearing is that its a community process, that our community is going to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not. We do our best to make sure people are equally represented.”

Brown also added that, prior to the hearing, students are notified of who will be on their panel, and can raise concerns if there is a potential issue with a panelist member.

PASA has been holding workshops with groups on campus to educate Lafayette on the resources available to sexual assault survivors. Brown said that these group meetings help them reach men to provide resources and information, since they can connect with all-male groups on campus. The crowd at the panel discussion was mostly women, with a handful of men present.

They emphasized the fact that reporting can be a helpful process for victims of sexual assault and harassment, and it also helps the school gather statistics that assist in future prevention efforts.

“This data helps us understand what is happening on campus and helps identify areas for prevention and education efforts,” Brown wrote in an email to The Lafayette.

“We are doing this peer education for a reason, because we are peers, just like you guys, we’re students here,” Lanigan said.

“We’re not saying don’t ever drink, don’t go out,” she added. “I think that’s the benefit of having PASA here, is that we’re with the administration but we’re also not with the administration.”

The college offers fully confidential resources through Chaplain Alex Hendrickson and through the Counseling Center, and private resources including the Support Advisers, a group of volunteer faculty and staff members, as well as online through the SASH website.

“‘Private’ (not confidential) resources can talk to a party without being required to disclose the name of the that individual or other personally identifiable information to the Educational Equity Coordinator, except under limited circumstances.  Fully confidential resources report nothing except as required by their licenses,” Brown wrote in an email. “Private resources include Bailey’s Health Center and the Sexual Misconduct Support Advisers.”

About Benjamin Fuller

Ben Fuller '21 is the editor-in-chief of The Lafayette. He studies math and computer science, with a minor in religious studies.

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