Pressing Issues

How Reed Responds to Sexual Assault

Reed students held a "Take Back the Night" event in April 2014 to focus attention on sexual assault on campus.

By Chris Lydgate ’90

It has taken years—even decades—but the problem of sexual assault on college campuses has finally made its way into the national consciousness. The headlines are on virtually every media outlet in the nation. Students have held demonstrations at scores of colleges and universities—including Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Columbia, and Stanford—voicing outrage at the way in which their schools have addressed particular incidents. In May, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was investigating no fewer than 55 institutions over their handling of sexual assault and harassment. Meanwhile, the Department has issued a growing list of new and proposed regulations.

In truth, this is not a new issue at Reed or elsewhere. Activists have been fighting for change since the Seventies— a key milestone was the case of Alexander v. Yale, in which five female students sued Yale under Title IX, claiming that the university’s institutional indifference to the problem of sexual harassment constituted a form of discrimination.

Advocates at Reed have worked for many years to confront the problem of sexual assault. Their efforts gained momentum in 2011, when a group of students raised concerns about shortcomings in Reed’s approach. They waged a sophisticated campaign to change the college’s policies, including articles in the Quest, guerilla theater, and a petition signed by hundreds of students.

“This was a huge personal awakening,” Dean of Students Mike Brody told the Oregonian at the time. “And I have those students to thank for that. This place will never be the same. And that’s a positive thing. We needed a wake-up call, and we got one.”

The campaign was highly effective. Reed hired a new assistant dean to oversee prevention and response, created a Sexual Misconduct Board to adjudicate reports of sexual assault, enhanced its support for survivors, clarified its procedures, and intensified its efforts to train staff and educate students about the issue.

Nonetheless, there is more work to be done. “Sexual assault is one of the most serious problems on college and university campuses across the country,” President John Kroger wrote recently. “These cases are tragic and heartbreaking, and I am deeply committed to doing everything I can to ensure that survivors are treated with respect and compassion.”

A National Problem

It is worth taking a moment to consider the factors that have put this problem onto the national agenda. First and foremost is the alarming frequency of sexual violence among college students: a 2007 study concluded that approximately 20% of women and 6% of men are sexually assaulted during their college years.

Second, it is widely recognized that sexual assault is a traumatic and potentially life-changing event, which can inflict profound and lasting psychological damage, in addition to physical injury, regardless of whether the perpetrator and the survivor are strangers or friends, as is much more frequently the case.

Third, the definition of sexual assault has evolved. At Reed, for example, the term encompasses a range of dishonorable behavior, from unwanted touching to fondling another person’s genitals without consent to forcible penetration. It also includes situations where drugs or alcohol have rendered a person’s consent meaningless.

Finally, a succession of high-profile cases in the national media suggest that colleges often don’t provide proper support for survivors, don’t impose effective discipline on perpetrators, and have generally failed to confront the issue.

Looking at Reed

During 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 19 cases of sexual assault were reported to Reed’s Office of Community Safety. (The actual number may be higher, since experts say that many incidents go unreported, although, as Time magazine recently noted, the trend to report is on the rise).

Reed’s rate of reporting is high compared to many other institutions—a fact that may paradoxically reflect progress. Reed was mentioned in a recent Oregonian article about the wide disparity in the rates of reported sexual assaults on college campuses, as found in a study by the Washington Post. The Oregonian quoted John Clune, a Title IX attorney as saying: “A lot of the time, you see schools with higher rates who are doing a better job of dealing with sexual assault numbers on campus. It’s a bigger red flag to me if I see remarkably low numbers of sexual assault.”

Although the comparisons are imprecise, the figures reported to Reed’s community safety dovetail with a campus climate survey conducted in 2012, in which some 15% of the women students who responded to the survey said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact during their time at Reed.

How to respond to such a serious and life-changing issue? Reed’s approach rests on four key principles:

• preventing sexual violence through education;

• providing support for survivors;

• investigating incidents promptly and adjudicating them fairly;

• protecting the community from sexual predators.

“We are trying to change behavior one student at a time,” says Rowan Frost, Reed’s assistant dean for sexual assault prevention and response. “We want students to see violence as something that is not just between two people, but that affects the entire community.”

Prevention through Education

In the past, public-safety campaigns to prevent sexual assault typically focused on women, warning them to keep keys in their fists in the parking lot, shun mini-skirts, eschew high heels, and so on. This approach is fundamentally flawed, Frost says, because the thinking is backwards. It suggests that the responsibility rests on the victims, rather than on the perpetrators. It also stokes the misperception that perpetrators are most likely to be strangers—whereas in fact they are more likely to be acquaintances or friends.

Relationships between perpetrators and survivors

Reed’s approach is based on helping students understand the concept of effective consent—the key issue in sexual assault. To be effective, consent must be active: an affirmative Yes of agreement, not merely an absence of No. Consent must be ongoing: agreeing to one activity does not imply consenting to another, and having agreed in the past does not imply agreeing now. Consent must be given freely, without manipulation or duress. Finally, consent is meaningless if a student is mentally incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.

Alcohol and drugs (AOD) play a key role in the dynamics of sexual assault on college campuses. Some 82% of reported incidents of sexual assault at Reed involved AOD use by the survivor or the perpetrator. However, AOD use is actually more common among perpetrators than among survivors.

Role of Alcohol and Other Drugs

All Reed first-year students must take an online course on sexual violence, stalking, and domestic violence. Frost and a team of peer educators also do in-person training during Orientation and throughout the year. Peer educators and student advocates work on special projects such as Take Back the Night and the Clothesline Project, and maintain a presence on social media, such as with the “Consent is Reed” page on Facebook. Reed’s overall approach is based on a bystander-intervention model endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control.

Frost collaborates with other campus groups to organize regular events with speakers, films, or other activities designed to spark discussion and raise awareness about sexual assault, gender dynamics, and the central role of effective consent.

Protecting the Community

One of the first challenges in dealing with sexual violence is that many survivors are reluctant to report incidents in the first place. There are many reasons for this. Most assaults occur between people who know each other, and some survivors are afraid of reprisals. Some do not want to get the assailant in trouble. Some lack confidence in the system. Some feel that they share the blame. Some do not want to go through the emotional turmoil of reporting. Some do not recognize the incident as assault at the time or do not consider a particular incident serious enough to be worth reporting.

Time elapsed between incident and report

As a result of these factors, many incidents go unreported for weeks, months, or even years. Some are undoubtedly never reported at all.

When a student steps forward to report an incident of sexual assault to a Reed College official, a community safety supervisor trained in threat assessment evaluates the threat that the alleged perpetrator poses to the community. Depending on the severity of the threat, the college may exclude the alleged perpetrator from campus and/or contact the police directly, pending subsequent adjudication.

In addition, Reed provides students with resources to help guide them through the process, including professional counseling and assistance in calling the Portland Police Bureau. The college also launches a Title IX investigation. Depending on the survivor’s wishes, the results of the investigation may be submitted to Reed’s Sexual Misconduct Board or to the police for criminal prosecution.

Supporting Survivors

“You are not alone. You did nothing wrong. You are not to blame for the harm someone else did to you.” These are some of the key messages that Frost has for students who have been sexually assaulted. It is crucial that survivors work with an advocate, she says, because studies show that those who do feel more in control and are less likely to blame themselves.

The Reed Student Advocates are an important part of the support network for survivors. The group was formed by students in 2012 to ensure that on-campus crisis advocacy would be available regardless of whether or not a survivor wanted to report to the college. Advocates undergo substantial training and answer a crisis phone and can provide in-person advocacy and information. This year, the group became part of Reed’s sexual assault prevention and response program. Frost sees that advocates receive extensive training and support.

Frost makes sure survivors have unfettered access to medical attention and counseling. She supports them if they decide to file a police report, get a stalking order, file a case with Reed’s Sexual Misconduct Board, or any combination of the above. If the survivor requests, Frost can also help facilitate changes in housing and class or work schedules. Community Safety can arrange for campus escort services and no-contact orders.

Because many survivors experience severe stress that may affect performance in class, they are eligible for academic support through the DoJo and may ask their professors to make appropriate accommodations.

Reed also recognizes that being accused of sexual misconduct may be stressful. These students are also offered counseling and academic support.

The booklet titled Quick Guide to Sexual Assault Resources and Support at Reed College sets out some definitions, options, and rights, and explains how Reed handles reports of sexual assault.

Investigation and Adjudication

Reed encourages survivors to consider reporting an assault to the Portland police and to the Multnomah County District Attorney; doing so may result in a criminal charge.

In addition, whether or not survivors report an incident to the police, students always have the option to file a complaint with the Sexual Misconduct Board (SMB). The five-member SMB includes at least two students and at least two staff members, and hears cases alleging sexual assault, harassment, or any other dishonorable conduct of a sexual nature. The SMB makes a finding of fact, a finding of violations, and it recommends sanctions, which can range from counseling and community service to drug and alcohol treatment, suspension, or expulsion, depending on the particulars of the case.

Many colleges, including Reed, have come under fire for attempting to adjudicate sexual assault on campus. Critics have charged that campus judicial proceedings are slow and feeble or that the proceedings are biased toward survivors. Survivors at some colleges report that they have been discouraged from reporting to law enforcement, while others say their schools have simply referred cases to the police, taking no action of their own.

The fact is that the U.S. Department of Education requires that every college provide its own system for investigation and adjudicating sexual misconduct. The rationale is not hard to understand. Many survivors don’t report sexual assaults to the police because they don’t wish to risk being retraumatized by the legal system. Without a campus system for adjudicating these cases, there would be no way for the community to protect itself. In addition, the Department requires that campus judicial systems maintain a lower burden of proof than criminal courts, which makes it easier for survivors to prove that an assault took place—a crucial milestone on their path to recovery.

The SMB strives to provide a system that is fair and humane. As Evvy Archibald ’16 and other members of the SMB recently wrote:

“The Sexual Misconduct Board takes all allegations of sexual assault very seriously, and works very hard to make sure that each case is adjudicated fairly. We recognize that sexual assault is the most common, and one of the most severe, forms of violence that Reed students face, and that it often causes catastrophic and lasting damage to survivors . . . . Whenever we determine that someone is guilty of committing sexual assault, our top priorities in sanctioning the offenders are securing the safety of all community members from future assaults, ensuring the survivor’s well-being and unhampered access to a Reed education, and assigning sanctions of proportionate severity to the offender’s violations.”

Students may appeal the decisions of the SMB to the Appeals Board, and appeal the decisions of the Appeals Board to the President.

Continuing Criticism

Despite these changes, Reed continues to face criticism for the way it handles particular incidents. A group of alumni, known as the Alumni Sexual Assault Task Force (ASATF), recently wrote to President Kroger, contending that Reed is still too lenient with students who have committed sexual assault.

Federal regulations governing student confidentiality make it extremely difficult to write candidly about specific cases. In reply to the alumni, however, President Kroger reaffirmed the gravity with which Reed views sexual assault. “Sexual assault represents a far more serious offense than does a minor in possession, and the associated sanctions are, of course, more severe.”

In a separate response to the alumni, the SMB observed, “There is a wide range of offenses that fall under the definition of sexual misconduct in the DHSM [Discriminatory Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy], and the college’s harshest sanctions may not always be appropriate for all offenses.”

Without question, reasonable people can disagree about whether the verdict and sanctions in any particular case are fair. The disagreement is likely to be sharper when observers do not have access to the same information—as is inherently the case in disciplinary proceedings. Nonetheless, as the SMB wrote, “the community’s safety and the well-being of the survivor(s) are our top priorities when sanctioning students found guilty of sexual assault.”

After these letters were exchanged, President Kroger invited members of the ASATF to campus in August to discuss their concerns in person—a conversation that proved highly productive, according to ASATF member Elizabeth Martin ’12. “We got in contact with the administration… regarding a specific case that we felt was mishandled, and the conversation grew and evolved from there," she told Reed. "Through letters with President Kroger, we ended up coming to the decision that we should all work together on campus policy regarding sexual assault at Reed.”

“Our meeting in mid-August was really valuable and a great opportunity for everyone on ASATF and part of the administration to voice their concerns and to clarify any questions. We learned that the administration has been hard at work making information more transparent and readily available for sexual assault survivors and those curious about the SMB and judicial processes at Reed in general. President Kroger, as well as the rest of the administration, were very outspoken in their dedication to protecting survivors and the rest of the community.”

Hope on the Horizon

The statistics about sexual assault at college campuses, including Reed’s, are sobering. Nonetheless, Frost remains optimistic. Research indicates that prevention campaigns can indeed lower the risk of sexual assault. Moreover, she says that Reed has made significant progress on the issue recently. “I’ve been doing prevention work for 15 years, and am aware of how poorly some colleges approach this issue. I came to Reed because I saw a college that had been called out for its approach, and that took important steps to change it. I wanted to be part of that change.”

This article was published in August, 2014.

—Author info: Editor, Reed magazine