Johnny pulls out a pocket knife in class and bangs it on the desk to make his point and get everyone's attention. College administrators suspend Johnny straightaway. Judicial process to follow.
Peter is caught distributing heroin in his dorm. College administrators suspend Peter straightaway. Judicial process to follow.
Mary punches Julie in the face in the dining hall in front of tons of onlookers. College administrators suspend Mary straightaway. Judicial process to follow.
Cathy accuses Steven of sexually assaulting her. College administrators schedule endless meetings with Cathy and Steven to flesh out every minute detail of the incident. Officials then call in witnesses who may or may not have witnessed anything, followed by the tortuously long process of convening of a panel of faculty, staff and students who hopefully will be able to hear the case in the upcoming months, all the while as Steven remains in class and strolls around campus in plain view of Cathy.
In my most academic of vernacular: wtf?
Even as the chorus of voices decrying that college campuses have not done enough to both address and prevent sexual violence continues to crescendo, there still somehow is this universal sense that college officials are going out of their way to turn a blind eye to these issues on our campuses.
I'm writing to stand up, face that accusation right in the face and declare: Yes. Yes, they are.
But before we continue to point fingers, we have to find that space to pause and look at some of the structural issues that have supported college officials' inadequate responses to sexual violence. As someone who sat in that Dean's chair for years and had to address incident after incident (habitually to no one's satisfaction, including my own) there were actual elements at play that contributed to my wanting to bury my head in the sand.
College officials are not trained in how to address sexual misconduct.
The emotional facets at play in working with survivors and understanding the dynamics of sexual violence are wholly different than addressing the student who was busted for an open container of alcohol. College officials have to stop saying that they've been "trained" after they booked a speaker for a day or spent a few hours watching a webinar. You'd be amazed at how many "trained" campuses have done even less than that. Consider the fact that actual crises counselors undergo extensive training that not only provides grounding in advocacy and emergency response but also is connected to a larger movement that places incidents in a completely different context. College officials may be trained in FERPA and Chickering, but they are not trained in responding to sexual violence and should maybe stop saying that they have been?
College officials do not have the resources to address sexual misconduct.
I used to meet repeatedly with students who were demanding a full-time staff member devoted to addressing and preventing sexual violence. Guess what? Me freakin' too! I also wanted a full-time staff member to work with international students and another staff member to support students of color and another staff member to helm an LGBT Resource Center. But the funds just were never there.
Until colleges get serious about devoting these resources to sexual violence, change will be slow to come -- if at all. When the Title IX Coordinator addresses a complaint only when she takes a break from serving as the college's Registrar, it just can't work. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's announcement this week that she will be seeking more federal funding for campuses to create change is a glimmer of hope in world where college sexual violence panels are currently comprised of a biology professor, an RA and a reference librarian.
College officials can be painfully insular.
The refrains of "This is not a legal process" and "We're not the police" and "We do things differently on campus" may be familiar to anyone who has approached a college official about sexual assault. Whether fueled by a desire to convince families we are keeping their student safe, a paralyzing fear of bad press or that guiding mindset where everything is a teachable moment, complaints of sexual violence are often met with a circling of the wagons that shuts out the processes and support that agencies outside the campus can provide. Without an articulated town-and-gown relationship with law enforcement, crisis counselors, emergency rooms, district attorneys and public defenders, college officials simply cannot present the range of options that students should have before them.
There are, without question, some colleges that are really trying to address issues of sexual violence on campus. And some are even doing it absent a lawsuit. But without some core structural changes in the nuts-and-bolts way college administrators operate, our students simply will not get the support they both need and deserve.