Swarthmore College Allegedly Underreported Sexual Assaults, Dissuaded Victims From Coming Forward

(Credit: New York City's National Organization for Women)

A group of Swarthmore students are filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against their Philadelphia-area college, alleging the elite private institution has been mishandling the sexual crimes that occur on campus. The students say that Swarthmore has violated federal law by failing to accurately report sexual assault cases, as well as by creating a hostile environment on campus where victims are discouraged from coming forward.

Two sophomores at the college, Mia Ferguson and Hope Brinn, filed the complaint along with other testimonials from 10 of their fellow students. They allege that Swarthmore officials have failed to report sexual crimes, intimidated the students and staff who complained about the persistent underreporting, and discouraged some rape victims from going to local law enforcement or initiating formal judicial processes on campus. They say that’s a clear violation of the Clery Act, which stipulates that colleges and universities must disclose crime statistics to the federal government each year.

Based on the recent concerns that students have raised about the college’s sexual assault policies, Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp announced earlier this month that the administration would launch an external review of its current process for dealing with sexual crimes. But Brinn told Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Daily Gazette, that the formal complaint is still a necessary step for students to take.

“We have a huge history of not complying with the law, and I think that needs to be addressed,” Brinn said. “We have 12 individuals coming forward, which demonstrates clearly a systemic issue that needs to be addressed with policy changes.”

Particularly at elite institutions, sexual assault is often something that administrators would rather sweep under the rug — largely in order to preserve the college’s reputation and ensure that prospective students won’t be dissuaded from attending. That’s why college campuses across the country are currently grappling with addressing rape culture. Many have recently made headlines amid reports of administrators mishandling sexual assault cases, protecting rapists’ grades and reputations rather than delivering justice for their victims, and punishing students who speak out against inadequate sexual assault policies.

But students are beginning to mobilize. In fact, the same activists who helped University of North Carolina students file a similar federal complaint against their administration, alleging that officials dramatically underreported instances of sexual assault, are helping Ferguson and Brinn organize their own effort. Ferguson pointed out to the Daily Gazette that the complaint against Swarthmore should be seen in the context of a broader movement on college campuses in the United States.

Swarthmore’s president has confirmed to the Huffington Post that her administration will fully cooperate with the Department of Education’s investigation into the formal complaint.