On campuses, speaking out on sexual assaults

Hope Brinn (left) and hall mate Mia Ferguson stand in front of a blackboard where they have written their complaints about sexual assaults at Swarthmore College.
Hope Brinn (left) and hall mate Mia Ferguson stand in front of a blackboard where they have written their complaints about sexual assaults at Swarthmore College. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 13, 2013

Mia Ferguson was raped in her freshman year at Swarthmore College, she said, leaving her traumatized and unsure of what to do for months.

When she decided to report the assault to the college more than a year later, she said, she received little support.

"I was never offered academic accommodations, living accommodations, psychological support, a no-contact order . . . until I very actively pursued them myself a few weeks later," said Ferguson, 19, an engineering major from Cambridge, Mass. "What is upsetting me almost more than my assault is the administration that is betraying me so much."

The rising junior is now focused on her role in a burgeoning campaign to get colleges across the country to report and deal with sexual assaults.

Ferguson, along with hall mate Hope Brinn and a group of other students and alumni, have filed two federal complaints against Swarthmore. They allege that the college violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report campus crime, and federal regulations that prohibit a sexually hostile environment and require equal access to educational opportunities.

Ferguson and Brinn, who said she was assaulted and harassed in two separate cases, have gone public in recent months, first telling the online student newspaper, the Daily Gazette, which published a series on sexual assault this spring. They have joined young women at Occidental College in Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, Yale, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where complaints also have been lodged. The women held a joint press conference in New York on May 22.

"There's a tsunami, and it's spreading all over the country," said Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who is representing women at Occidental and USC. "Women have rights, and they are learning what their rights are, and they are willing to assert their rights."

Colleges have scrambled to respond, hiring consultants to review procedures and recommend improvements. Swarthmore expects to announce recommendations from its consultant, Margolis Healy, in July.

"The physical and emotional safety of our students is paramount," Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp said. "Our goal is to ensure it, and to completely meet the letter and spirit of the law."

Swarthmore received 35 reports of sexual offenses last school year, said Michael Hill, Swarthmore's public safety director.

Of those, eight involved male victims. Seven reports were anonymous tips or cases in which the identity of the victim was not known, and some may have been duplicate reports of the same incidents.

Hill said he considered the total number of reported incidents "preliminary" because many cases were still under investigation and some might not have to be reported under federal law.

The issue of campus sexual assault has proved thorny for universities. They must balance victims' rights with those of the accused in a landscape often tainted by alcohol and drug use, contradictory evidence, he said/she said scenarios, and boundary issues, as students live away from home for the first time in dorms with the opposite sex.

"I don't think any college or university is intentionally doing a bad job of dealing with these issues," said Ada Meloy, general counsel to the American Counsel on Education, a national higher education umbrella group. "But these are very complex issues. There are almost always two sides of a story, and a college has to be fair to both the victim and the accused."

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education issued a letter to colleges, warning them to report and respond to all complaints of sexual misconduct, even if the victim didn't want to press charges. The warning set off a flurry of activity on campuses to upgrade policies.

But the work didn't quell concern among students on some of the country's most elite campuses. Last fall, a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts wrote a first-person account of her rape and criticized the college's response. Earlier, students at Yale went public.

But it wasn't until Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, connected with students on their campus and others that the campaign went national.

Pino, a rising senior, said the group is in touch with more than 500 students at 50 campuses, including Swarthmore, Haverford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania State University. They researched the law and wrote federal complaints against North Carolina, and they have helped students at other schools, including Swarthmore, to do the same.

"When I saw this many women coming forward, I knew it was a systemic problem," said Pino, 21, a high school valedictorian from Miami who said she was raped last year.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Occidental, and Amherst all turned to Philadelphia lawyer Gina Maisto Smith for guidance on how to handle the onslaught.

Smith, an expert in sexual-assault cases, helps schools understand the law and their responsibility in reporting and responding to assaults. The need is great: Statistics show that one in four women is a victim of sexual assault or attempted assault by the time she graduates from college.

The rash of complaints, she said, is indicative of a "paradigm shift," driven by: the Education Department's warning letter; students' use of social media to connect; young women feeling empowered to speak out; and the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State, which spurred national conversation about "campus culture."

"Society was ready to talk about institutional response to sexual misconduct," said Smith, who is working with more than four dozen colleges.

On the other side is Allred, a lawyer who has represented high-profile clients including the family of Nicole Brown Simpson. Allred said students who commit assaults on campus should be expelled, and schools should encourage victims to report.

"We are going to hold them accountable," said Allred, a Philadelphia native and Girls High graduate.

At Swarthmore, a most-selective college on an upscale campus of 1,545 students in Delaware County, concerns emerged in the spring as students debated the future of fraternities. Some felt that Greek life led to heavy drinking and sexual assaults.

Students scrawled in chalk around campus complaints about sexual assault - a popular method of expressing discontent. When the chalkings disappeared, Ferguson and Brinn saw it as the administration's attempt to hide the problem from prospective students and their families taking tours.

President Chopp said the administration gave no such order.

Brinn said she and other students marked Swarthmore with a new round of chalkings.

"We wanted them to cover campus so they wouldn't have time to wash it away by the 10 o'clock tour," Brinn said.

Brinn, 19, an educational studies and sociology/anthropology major from Wilmington, said she twice was a victim on Swarthmore's campus. Most recently, she said, she was repeatedly harassed by a fellow student.

"He would call me in the middle of the night screaming at me about random things," Brinn said. "He would send me threatening text messages: 'Expect consequences in coming days.' "

The student ultimately burst into her room late one evening when she was naked and refused to leave, she said.

School officials, she said, told her they didn't see the case as sexual harassment but agreed to issue a "no contact" order to both students, Brinn said.

She said college officials advised that she could press charges or take the case to the judiciary committee. But the student stayed away, and she decided not to pursue it.

Then she read a New York Times article about the North Carolina women. She found Pino on LinkedIn.

After speaking with her, Brinn decided to pursue action against another student who she said had sexually assaulted her. The case is pending. She declined to discuss it because a college investigation is underway.

Ferguson's rape occurred in November of her freshman year. Her assailant was someone she had thought of as a friend.

"I didn't really tell anyone," she said. "It was hard for me to figure out. I saw him every day in the dining hall and classes. I was very confused."

She confided in friends, and last winter, she told two student residential advisers, but neither reported the case, she said.

"They didn't really understand what it meant to report. Their lack of knowledge combined with my lack of knowledge was more a reflection of what the administration wasn't teaching us."

She later reported the assault to a dean. An investigation is continuing, said Hill, the public safety director. The college also referred the case to borough police.

Since the women went public, more than a dozen alumni have contacted them and confided their own sexual assaults, Ferguson said.

 The same day the student newspaper launched its series, Swarthmore announced it was hiring a consultant to review its handling of sexual assaults. The college also hired a trained investigator and added staff to oversee the judicial process. It named an internal task force of faculty, students, and administrators and launched a website that offers news and resources about sexual assault.

Chopp said the school will offer workshops on the issue of sexual consent and training on responsible use of alcohol at parties.

"What we want to do is as much prevention as possible," she said.

Victor Brady, outgoing co-chair of student council, is pleased with that result.

"We're a much better campus as a result of everything that has happened," said Brady, 22, a political science major from White Plains, N.Y., who graduated in June. "I think the administration realizes the severity of the issue and the passion around it and is beginning to address the very real problem."

Contact Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at http://www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/campus_inq.

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