Robust student advocacy, ranging from painstaking committee work to broadsides in the Quest to guerrilla theatre, is prompting Reed to take additional steps to combat sexual assault on campus.
Addressing several hundred students at a campus forum on sexual assault on April 27, President Colin Diver declared: "You have stirred up a huge debate on an important issue that's got everybody's attention. The problem needs to be addressed. We want to do better."
The previous week, 847 students submitted a petition demanding that the college establish a special hearings board, staffed by trained professionals, to hear cases of sexual assault; that an assistant dean be appointed to co-ordinate Reed's policies; that the college hire an advocate for survivors; and that the college make public the names of individuals found guilty of sexual assault.
The petition anticipated several recommendations by a campus committee on sexual assault (COSA), established by President Diver last year, which released its findings on April 26. In particular, COSA called for Reed to step up its education and prevention programming; hire an expert in sexual assault prevention; provide more support for survivors; and establish a special hearings board for cases of sexual assault.
Discussions on campus, which have been going on for more than a year, have revolved around three key issues. Is Reed doing enough to prevent sexual assault on campus? Are survivors discouraged from going to the police? Is the J-Board an appropriate body to decide these cases?
Sexual assault is a problem on college campuses nationwide. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that as many as one in five women will be the target of a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault during their college years. Many of these assaults take place among individuals who may already know one another to a greater or lesser degree, have friends in common, attend the same classes, and so on. Alcohol is often a factor. These assaults can have devastating and traumatic effects on survivors even when force is not involved.
Reed already requires incoming students to take an online sexual assault education module, conducts workshops for students during O-Week and hosts other events during the year (For example, national expert Shira Tarrant spoke at Reed last month). However, President Diver said at last week's forum that the college will step up its efforts at prevention and education, especially on the difficult but crucial question of effective consent. To begin with, consent cannot be effective if the survivor is incapacitated as a result of intoxication. "Alcohol is the number one date rape drug," declared Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Don Reese at the forum. But many other factors come into play. As Diver explained, effective consent must be manifest, voluntary, informed, simultaneous, specific, and objective. "We have to do more to explain this to students," Diver said.
Another question at the forum had to do with house advisors, based on an allegation that five HAs had been convicted of sexual assault. On May 3, Dean Mike Brody announced that a cross-check of J-Board cases and HAs over the last 10 years has yielded no evidence that a person convicted of a sex offense by the J-Board has ever subsequently been hired as an HA. However, on two occasions HAs were removed from their positions after they were found to have violated Reed's sexual assault policy and/or the honor principle. Going forward, Brody said that Reed would strengthen the hiring procedures for HAs.
Survivors of sexual assault can always call the police. However, some anonymous students have been quoted in the media saying that they were discouraged from doing so.
College officials have since emphasized that survivors are encouraged to report sexual assault to the police and will receive help in placing the call if they want it. "Sexual assault is a crime, and we fully support students who would like our assistance in reporting incidents of sexual assault to the police," wrote Director of Community Safety Gary Granger in a letter to the Quest published April 21.
To underscore that message, several outside speakers were invited to the campus forum, including Deputy District Attorney Reese, Portland Police Detective Ken Whattam, and Multnomah County Victims Assistance Coordinator Helen O'Brien, who demystified how sexual assault cases are handled in the criminal justice system, and encouraged students to contact the police if they have been assaulted.
In addition, Reed has developed a checklist for staff members who receive a report of sexual assault, so that every survivor knows they have the right to call the police and will receive assistance in doing so.
Nonetheless, it appears that most survivors choose not to report these incidents to the police. According to Granger's letter, 11 reports of sexual assault have been made in this academic year by 9 individuals. Four of those reports were made within 24 hours of the incident; the remaining 7 were made between 30 days and two years after the incident. All 9 individuals were offered assistance in making a report to the police; all declined.
Advocates say that the J-Board has significant problems in dealing with this issue. The perceived shortcomings include insufficient training, bias, lack of investigative powers, weak sanctions, and suffocating confidentiality rules. Indeed, one survivor has been quoted in the media as saying that she believed the confidentiality rules prevented her from discussing the case with her own parents.
Reed's confidentiality rules were originally developed in response to requirements under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). At the forum, however, President Diver stated that federal requirements have since been revised. As a consequence, survivors are now explicitly notified that they have the right to disclose the name of their assailant and the sanctions imposed.
Many questions at the forum revolved around the J-Board. Several students expressed reservations about an all-student J-Board making decisions on cases of sexual assault. What happens if a member of the J-Board knows one of the parties, or has a bias against certain types of cases? Does the J-Board give equal weight to the testimony of both the accuser and the accused? How does the J-Board define effective consent?
J-Board chair Hannah Brannan ’12 explained that parties can challenge members of the J-Board if they are concerned about impartiality, that there is an appeals board, and that President Diver makes the final decision. She also explained that the J-Board's standard is "a preponderance of the evidence," as opposed to the standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" that governs criminal trials.
According to case summaries published by the J-Board, 9 cases of sexual assault have been adjudicated since Spring 2006. In each case, the J-Board found a violation and imposed sanctions. In six cases, the respondent was judged to have violated the sexual assault policy because there was no effective consent. One of these students was expelled; five were suspended. In the three other cases, the J-Board found that there was effective consent, but that the respondent had nonetheless behaved dishonorably. These respondents received sanctions that included community service, required workshops, mandatory evaluations, and no-contact orders. (These statistics do not include cases that have been filed but not yet fully adjudicated.)
President Diver stated at the campus forum that changing the jurisdiction of the J-Board requires a change to the judicial board code, which can be a complex and lengthy process under the community constitution. But he said he would take immediate action on some of the COSA recommendations. New confidentiality procedures are already in force, and Reed has begun preliminary steps to hire a full-time staff member to work on sexual assault prevention and outreach.
Diver has underscored the importance of this issue on several occasions. “I take with the utmost seriousness the petitioners' calls for reform and increased resources for the prevention and adjudication of sexual assault cases,” he wrote in a letter to the Reed community last week.
Dean Brody echoed these sentiments in a May 3 letter to the community. “The strength and compassion of any community is revealed when its members face and attempt to resolve its most difficult problems,” he wrote. “The town hall meeting showed Reed at its very best. As a community, we engaged an intensely difficult issue, aired our concerns, and took action toward making Reed a better, safer, and more responsive community.”