Brown University Takes on Sexual Assault… Again

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Commentary Violence

Brown University Takes on Sexual Assault… Again

Martha Kempner

Administrators at the Ivy League school are scrambling to deal with negative publicity stemming from the mishandling of a sexual assault case—just as they did in the early '90s, when the university made promises to improve its practices surrounding cases of sexual assault. It's been 25 years; has Brown not made any progress?

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

Among the many colleges making headlines for the botched handling of sexual assault on campus is Brown University, an Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island. Last month, 22-year-old student Lena Sclove held a press conference to draw attention to the administration’s verdict allowing the student found guilty of raping her to come back to campus in September. Sclove’s decision to speak out, and the national attention it has received, has the school’s administration scrambling and promising students and alumni alike that it will take steps to improve the way the university handles sexual assault cases in the future.

As I read about this case, I couldn’t help but flash back to the early ’90s, when I was first in college. At the time, a group of students on the Brown University campus staged a protest, which made national headlines and had school administrators scrambling and promising students and alumni alike that they would take steps to do better in the future. That was almost 25 years ago. Could it really be true that we’re stuck in the same place a quarter of a century later?

To answer that question, I spoke with Toby Simon, who is currently the director of the Hochberg Women’s Center at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island. In the ’90s, Simon was an associate dean of students at Brown and one of the administrators responsible for talking to students who had been sexually assaulted.

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Simon explained that at the time nobody wanted to believe that the incidence of sexual assault was as high as it really was. There was some prevention education done with incoming freshman and there was an adjudication process in place, but it was not very good. In many ways, the response to an assault depended on which administrator a survivor ended up seeing. Some administrators, Simon told me, would say things to students like, “Sounds like you had a little romance problem” or “Get your grades up and you can transfer out of here and it will all be fine.”

Then came the “rape list.” Apparently, there was a long tradition on campus of using the walls of the women’s bathrooms—especially the library bathrooms—as message boards. The list seems to have been started by a survivor frustrated with the lack of action against her attacker. She wrote on the wall of the bathroom, “Beware of _______, he doesn’t take no for an answer.” Other women followed suit: “Neither does _____.”  And the list grew. It got a lot of attention both on campus and off. (I remember reading about it in my college’s newspaper.)

In response, Simon explained, the dean of student life held a forum in which administrators, Simon included, were going to explain how the school was responding to sexual assault and students were going to be able to ask questions. The evening didn’t go as planned, however, because students staged a unique and very effective protest. Three minutes into the dean’s speech, one student, dressed in red, stood up but did not say a word or ask a question. Three minutes later another student, also dressed in red, stood up. It continued like this as the administrators stumbled through their planned presentations. Simon told me, “It was a brilliant tactic. It took us a while to realize what they were doing—showing that in this country a woman is raped every three minutes. It made it hard to concentrate on what we were saying.”

The activism led to the formation of committees to create new adjudication procedures. It also led to a renewed effort to provide sexual assault prevention education on campus. Simon started a program called SAPE (Sexual Assault Peer Education), in which students were trained as peer educators and workshop leaders. She said the attention that the issue was getting on campus at the time meant that a lot of students wanted to participate—at its peak, SAPE had 40 to 60 trained peer educators who did workshops on campus and also traveled to high schools throughout New England. SAPE became, in Simon’s words, “a well-oiled, finely tooled program” that was used as a model for other schools across the country.

The model started with a skit during which peer educators acted out a typical college scene of drinking and flirting in someone’s dorm room. One of the flirting couples then goes back to the woman’s room alone and begins to fool around. At first they’re both into it, but then she wants to stop. In the original skit, she says no but he keeps going anyhow. After the skit is over, the peer educators led a discussion with the audience, first in character and then as themselves. At some events, the skit would be followed by small group discussions and other activities.

In the first few years of the program, its main message was pretty simple: No means no. Remember, this was 25 years ago, when most people still thought rape only happened if a stranger jumped out of the bushes or someone held a knife to a woman’s throat. The term “date rape” was just becoming widely used. Interestingly, Simon says that after a few years of the program, the “no means no” message was pretty much understood, and if the character in the skit actually said “no” or “I don’t want to,” the audience would unanimously agree she’d been raped. So they tweaked the skit to represent the gray area into which so many cases of sexual assault fall—she might say “slow down,” or “wait a minute,” or send other signals that she wanted to stop, but she never said no.

I saw a SAPE performance in the fall of 1995. The peer educators had been invited to do a workshop for incoming freshmen students at Columbia University in New York City. By this point, the skit did not include the word “no” but, at least from my point of view, the actress playing the young women who gets raped made it pretty clear that she did not want to have sex. The audience, however, saw it differently. Especially the young women. During the discussion following the skit, they went after the character, analyzing every bit of her behavior—from drinking, to letting him into her room, to kissing—and essentially declared the whole thing her fault. I was shocked until I realized that what they were doing was trying to convince themselves that this could never happen to them; it’s like hearing that someone has cancer and immediately asking if they smoked. They were just starting college, in the big city for that matter, and if the skit’s character was raped because of something she did wrong, it would be reasonable to believe that they could control their own fate by not making the same mistakes. If it wasn’t her fault, the world was a scarier place. Simon said that this was a pretty common reaction to the skit—that the women in the audience often went after the victim with a whole list of what she should or shouldn’t have done.

Still, Simon thinks we’ve made progress on our victim blaming attitude: “The fact that the young woman from Brown stepped up and became very public, and that other survivors are coming forward, can be attributed to activism over the years and to an improved climate. When it comes to shame and stigma, we’ve moved the needle just enough to make it possible for some women to come forward.” The hope, of course, is that the action of these women will move the needle even further.

As for college administrations in this country changing and becoming more responsive, Simon is cautiously optimistic. The fact that the White House is now drawing attention to the issue is good, she says, but it will only really help if the Obama administration puts some real consequences behind Title IX violations. Such investigations are not new, says Simon, but have always been considered a “toothless tiger.”

As for releasing the names of 55 schools under investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases, which the Obama administration did earlier this month, Simon argues that it might cause the schools minor embarrassment but that nothing will change unless the publicity affects either alumni support or enrollment.

“Despite the rhetoric of ‘one victim is one too many,’ victims are usually on the bottom of the list,” said Simon. “Ultimately, it’s all about fundraising. 20 years ago Brown and all of these other schools worried about what the graduates from the 1950s who were giving them money would think if the school admitted to having a sexual assault problem.”

Today, however, at least some of the alumni donors are graduates of the SAPE era—the very same people who as students demanded that the university acknowledge the problem and do more to solve it. Maybe the threat that they will withhold their money can spur action by administrators.

Maybe the Lena Sclove case will bring about that threat, because university officials clearly botched it. Sclove was raped last summer and informed the university of the incident within two weeks, but the school’s conduct board didn’t meet until October. When it did convene, it found that her attacker was responsible for four violations of the school’s code of conduct, including sexual violence involving force and physical injury. The board recommended that the attacker not be allowed on campus for two years, which would have given Sclove enough time to graduate before he could return. (Though some Brown alumni I have spoken with wonder why he was not expelled, especially given the violent nature of the incident.) An associate dean of student life, however, decided to reduce his punishment to just one year. Because he was allowed to stay on campus until Sclove’s appeal of this decision was heard (it was rejected), he did not end up leaving until Thanksgiving 2013 and would be allowed back at the beginning of the fall semester in 2015.

In her press conference, Scolve explained that she had to take a semester off because of injuries sustained during the attack—she had trouble walking as a result of being strangled—which meant she and her attacker would be returning to school at the same time, a situation she found unacceptable. She said that if he came back, she would have to switch to another school.

The university was spared having to review its decision under media scrutiny, however; the male student decided not to come back. Nonetheless, administrators have been forced by the publicity to address the topic both with students and alumni. In her email to students, Brown President Christina Paxson promised to create a committee to spearhead changes to how the school handles sexual assault, and to hire experts to help. “Consultants will engage with students, faculty and administrative staff to determine best practices for prevention, education and training, providing student support and enhancing the effectiveness of disciplinary procedures,” wrote Paxson. “Our goal is to move Brown to a position of national leadership for prevention, advocacy, and response to issues of sexual assault.”

Of course, the way I see it, Brown was in a position of national leadership for prevention, advocacy, and response. At least it was 25 years ago. Simon is not sure what has happened on the campus since she left her position in 1997, SAPE apparently still exists but seems to have shrunk in both size and visibility. And the adjudication process clearly needs some work.

I find it sad that the momentum built by student activists and educators in the 1990s seems to have dwindled, and that even places like Brown—which took on the issue with full force, albeit under duress even at the time—have sunk back to the point where it takes embarrassing headlines to force administrative action. If we could have kept up the pace, hundreds and hundreds of women could have been spared the trauma of a rape.

At this point, I suppose, the only thing to do is to make sure that the momentum we have now—as a result of the White House’s interest and the activism of brave women like Lena Sclove—never fades. Today, the bathroom wall is a World Wide Web, which gives survivors and advocates a platform to stand up, speak out, and demand action. Now, we just have to keep using it.