Monday, July 14, 2014

Thoughts on Hobart and William Smith Colleges case

Walt Bogdanich's article this weekend on the case of Anna, an undergraduate at William Smith College, who was sexually assaulted her freshman year likely raised awareness of campus sexual assault and shocked many readers. The details of Anna's story of her assaults and how the school handled them are disturbing. They are not unusual, though. And unfortunately, though horrifying, they are not shocking to many of us who have been talking about this issue for years.
There are almost 70 open investigations into schools' handling of sexual assault. Schools are added weekly.
Anna mentions that one person on her panel questioned her about how she conducted herself at the party at which she was assaulted making her think that administrators are a little out of touch with student life on their campuses. What this suggests is more than just that some administrators don't know that grinding is the preferred form of dancing, but that they are not aware of the culture on their campuses.
Changing campus culture has been a focus of the movement.
But is it happening?
The Hobart and William Smith Colleges case points to no. Again, the story is not shocking, but it is dismaying. Because it looks like the school was more concerned with handling this quickly, than with handling it properly.
Members on Anna's panel were not trained. They lacked information about sexual assault and their own school culture; they asked irrelevant questions. The hearing was convened before the results of Anna's rape kit were known to all. They did not protect her anonymity. She had no advocate with her. A 60-day window is provided for investigations; this one took less than two weeks.
This is not simply an unfortunate situation. This is a situation born out of public image.
The student activism on this issue and the government response has put every school on notice. And public images--something I myself have said to media outlets is a motivator for compliance--are suffering. Groups like Ultra Violet are also pushing the public image aspect as they seek greater transparency about the number of sexual assaults on campuses and how they are handled.
But hearing about Anna's case has made me wonder if public image concerns are overriding actual changes to campus culture and policies and procedures.
But the image versus compliance issue was most palpable when I read this:
College administrators have their own incentive to deal with such cases on campus, since a public prosecution could frighten parents, prospective students and donors. Until last year, Hobart and William Smith’s chief fund-raiser also helped oversee the school’s handling of sexual assaults. The two functions are now separate.

If a school is approaching sexual assault as a PR issue, there will be no compliance, no change in culture.