Swarthmore student again in campus sex-assault dispute

Mia Ferguson (right), with fellow student Hope Brinn, says Swarthmore is turning federal law against her.
Mia Ferguson (right), with fellow student Hope Brinn, says Swarthmore is turning federal law against her. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 31, 2013

A Swarthmore College junior already at the center of a nationally publicized row over how the elite suburban liberal-arts school deals with sexual-assault cases is embroiled in a new controversy - also over the explosive issue of rape on campus.

Swarthmore officials say they removed Mia Ferguson, 19, this week from her new job as a dormitory resident adviser, or RA, because she would not divulge the name of a rape victim whose alleged attacker still lives on the Delaware County campus.

Ferguson insists that she is under no such obligation and that Swarthmore's move is a case of retaliation. She is one of two students behind last spring's federal complaint that the school has been lax in investigating and reporting sexual-assault cases, an allegation that has roiled the leafy campus.

Students led by Ferguson and her classmate Hope Brinn and alumni maintained that Swarthmore violated the 1990 Clery Act, which requires full reporting of campus crimes, as well as the federal education law known as Title IX, which requires certain officers of the school to report misconduct to their superiors.

Now, said Ferguson, an engineering major, the college is using the Title IX requirement against her, insisting that she should have reported the alleged rape victim's name after a two-year-old allegation was brought up again during her training to become a resident adviser earlier this month.

"Clearly this is an issue of retaliation," she said.

Some of the basic facts of the new controversy are in dispute. Ferguson said that administrators twice pulled her out of RA training to press her for details on the past incident. College officials maintain that it was Ferguson who raised the matter and triggered what they say is an obligation as a school employee to divulge the rape accuser's name.

"As an RA, she's considered by law a responsible employee of the college," Swarthmore spokeswoman Alisa Giardinelli said.

Giardinelli had said earlier that the school has been working hard to change its culture regarding rape and other sexual misconduct since the federal complaints were lodged. Officials acted aggressively in this matter because the accused is said to still be on campus, she said.

"While the college would never otherwise require her to disclose information that she learned in the past, once she raised it as a current safety concern, she had a responsibility to share the information that would allow the college to investigate," Giardinelli wrote.

School officials asked Ferguson for the victim's name because they did not have it, she said.

Ferguson is mystified because she said the victim complained to the university when the alleged rape happened two years ago. She also insists that since she was not an employee when the incident happened, she should not be required to divulge the victim's name.

She said she was asked about the alleged rape - and another incident in which the same perpetrator is accused of pulling a knife at a party - during her RA training, which began the week of Aug. 18. After her training, she said, she was given a contract, which she signed Monday. On Tuesday, she was asked again to name the victim, and when she refused was let go from the program, which comes with a stipend and covers most housing costs.

"It's a really complicated case, but the school's policy right now is that every single student on campus who is a student employee is going to be required to report as a responsible authority under Title IX," Ferguson said.

But she said she was not an RA when the incident took place, or when she was questioned.

"There is no precedent set for the law to be retroactive," Ferguson said.

Gina Maisto Smith, a lawyer who is helping Swarthmore draft a new set of sexual-misconduct policies, said the law was clear.

"The school has a responsibility to act when it knows or should have known there is a sexual assault or harassing event," she said.

The law is silent on past events, but, Smith said, once the threat becomes current, the school would need the facts to investigate.

A victim's rights and campus safety group called the issue tricky.

"I'm conflicted," said S. Daniel Carter, director of the national campus safety initiative at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, created by families of victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

While he supports the college's efforts to address a potential threat that was brought to its attention, he said he was concerned that the situation could have a chilling effect on other victims.

If a student confides in a friend and that friend then becomes an RA, "you could theoretically require all RAs to create a list of every assault they are aware of involving anyone at the college or university," he said.

Ferguson says colleges are interpreting federal law "in ways that are really hurtful to students."

"I wanted to be an RA because I love this institution," she said. "And that's getting harder and harder to say."


Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8232 or follow @kathboccella on Twitter.

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