Swarthmore outlines changes to combat sexual violence

Students Hope Brinn (left) and Mia Ferguson filed complaints about Swarthmore's response to sexual assaults.
Students Hope Brinn (left) and Mia Ferguson filed complaints about Swarthmore's response to sexual assaults. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 20, 2013

Swarthmore College will hire an advocate for victims of sexual violence on its campus as part of a wide-ranging response to an outside consultant's report on its handling of assaults.

The 1,545-student Delaware County campus also will hire a full-time employee to oversee its compliance with federal regulations prohibiting sexual discrimination on campus. That person is to report directly to the college president and be supported by a team of deputies.

Swarthmore on Thursday released an interim report from its consultant, Margolis Healy & Associates, with the recommendations adopted by the college and a letter from president Rebecca Chopp.

More changes are likely to come this year as the consultant continues interviews on campus, college officials said.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights last week said it would investigate a complaint by students Mia Ferguson, Hope Brinn, and others that the college had created a sexually hostile environment by failing to properly handle sexual harassment and violence.

"We are taking these actions regardless of the investigation," Chopp said in an interview.

Swarthmore has been under scrutiny since Ferguson, Brinn, and others began complaining in the spring about the college's lack of response to sexual assaults. They filed two complaints with the Department of Education alleging that the school violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report crime on campus, and also another federal regulation, known as Title IX, that prohibits sex discrimination.

The Civil Rights Office is investigating the Title IX complaint.

The case at Swarthmore is part of a national movement in which women are speaking out about their colleges' handling of sexual assaults.

Swarthmore will conduct a national search for a full-time coordinator to monitor its compliance with Title IX. In the past, it had a part-time coordinator who also served in other roles. Patricia Flaherty Fischette, who has worked in counseling and psychological services, will take on the role in the interim, Chopp said.

"We've decided to go full out and make this extremely comprehensive," she said.

In creating the advocate's position for victims, Chopp said, she was addressing a major student concern about the lack of a point person to help victims navigate complaint and grievance procedures.

Swarthmore also will hire a "hearing adviser" to help students who are accused of assault or harassment through the grievance process.

The college also plans to upgrade policies around sexual misconduct, step up prevention, and train all workers who are responsible for reporting crimes. Employees should be trained to respond to complaints in a way that is "sensitive to the distinct experiences of victims of sexual assault," the consultant said.

In addition, the college will add an investigator to the public-safety department and look more deeply at the role of alcohol and drugs in assaults.

It will separate the roles of drug and alcohol counseling and fraternity advising as well, Chopp said.

"We will hire a new position to develop and present educational alcohol and drug prevention programing and provide individual and group counseling to students," she said.

Chopp said alcohol played a role in a high percentage of sexual-assault cases nationally.

"Alcohol impairs the ability to make choices and treat each other respectfully," Chopp said. "That's the conversation we want to have, and we want to have it with our students."

Ferguson, an engineering major from Cambridge, Mass., said she was glad to see the new plans, but would wait to see how they were implemented.

"We'll really know how effective Swarthmore is as a leader once we see it in action for an extended period of time," she said.

Ferguson, who reported that she was raped in her freshman year, said she and other students would continue with their complaint against the college.

This week, Ferguson and Brinn, an educational studies and sociology/anthropology major from Wilmington, received a letter signed by 20 faculty members offering support. The letter was sent to the women, both rising juniors, by Lynne A. Molter, professor and chair of the department of engineering.

"We are compelled to offer our voices in support of the young women who have courageously stepped forward to tell their stories of abuse and assault and to respectfully encourage the institution to act," the letter said.

Margolis Healy, the consultant, praised Swarthmore's efforts since the federal Education Department in 2011 issued a warning to colleges nationally to improve policies.

"In spite of these actions," the report said, "there is much work needed."

"We are convinced, based on our interactions to date, that the Swarthmore College community is committed to creating a campus environment and climate devoid of sexual misconduct in all its ugly forms, including sexual discrimination, harassment and sexual violence."

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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