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Swarthmore College Announces Big Changes In Sexual Assault Policy Ahead of Federal Investigation

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"Swarthmore College Announces Big Changes In Sexual Assault Policy Ahead of Federal Investigation"

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Swarthmore student activists Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson (Credit: Michael Bryant/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Swarthmore College announced on Thursday that it would make several changes in its approach to sexual violence and harassment on campus, including hiring a victims’ advocate as a resource for rape survivors and mandating that incoming students take a sexual violence prevention course. The announcement comes ahead of a major federal investigation into Swarthmore’s sexual assault policies and heightening student protest.

The changes were outlined in a letter from College President Rebecca Chopp which also promises a continuing review of all policies and procedures related to sexual violence and harassment, as well as increased training for relevant campus personnel. A new, interim Title IX coordinator will be appointed immediately as the College searches for a permanent replacement.

Chopp’s letter comes one week after the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced that it will be investigating the College for violations of federal guidelines on colleges’ obligations in preventing and responding to sexual violence and harassment. The OCR will investigate a complaint from 12 Swarthmore students who allege that Swarthmore has under-reported assaults and prevented survivors from coming forward.

One complainant, Hope Brinn, explained that an administrator asked her what she could have done to “provoke the behavior” when she reported her assault, and told her that her assailants admission of guilt “was punishment enough.” Another, Mia Ferguson, said that the college’s current mediation process between victims and assailants placed students in an “unsafe situation.”

“A lot of us were very pleased when we received the letter,” Miriam Hauser, an activist and recent graduate of Swarthmore, told ThinkProgress. “This past semester, we’ve been receiving all these emails that change was going to happen, but not seeing any concrete steps. Actually having these concrete actions and steps is great.”

Hauser said that campus activists were particularly heartened by the creation of an independent Title IX coordinator position, as the previous coordinator was also a legal directors charged with maintaining the school’s reputation. She also highlighted the importance of a victims’ advocate for Swarthmore, explaining, “In the past, a lot of survivors have had confusion about who to turn to, especially as if you talked to different administrators, you got different answers on what to do.”

Hauser and other student activists are still cautious about the new developments. “A lot of these are still only promises. We’ll see what happens in the fall,” she said. “Swarthmore has the resources both financially and culturally to be really a leader in compliance,” Ferguson told Iniside Higher Ed. “I have the highest hopes. That’s why we’re doing this – and also constantly not necessarily trusting everything they do.”

Since the heightening activism and protest around Swarthmore’s sexual assault policies and treatment of survivors, the College has fired an administrator specifically mentioned in the students’ complaint and initiated an external review of the College’s policies. Many of the changes outlined in Chopp’s letter were based on recommendations included in that review’s interim report and mirror some of the recommendations made by the OCR following previous investigations.

Swarthmore’s battle with campus rape culture is part of a national trend with student activism and federal Title IX investigations into campus sexual assault on the rise. Other schools facing protests or investigations include Amherst College, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and many more. On Monday, federal officials announced fresh Title IX investigations into Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California.

Last week, college students from across the country (and including Swarthmore) rallied at the Department of Education to deliver a petition with over 120,000 signatures demanding stricter and more proactive enforcement of Title IX.

Update

Swarthmore maintains that Elverson was not fired. “After very careful consideration and following a review of best practices including those being conducted by the external review team, the College decided it should separate the roles of alcohol and drug counseling and fraternity advising. This necessarily meant eliminating the Alcohol and Drug Intervention Specialist position, which included both roles and was held by Mr. Elverson,” spokesperson Mark Anskis said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Kumar Ramanathan is an intern for ThinkProgress.

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