[Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault]
Sexual assault is a tragic reality on college campuses nationwide, and Vassar is no exception. In recent years, cuts to peer support services and the reported difficulties with the Title IX reporting process have exacerbated tensions surrounding issues of sexual assault on campus. Now, it is clearer than ever that the College should be doing more to support survivors through institutional action.
One example of survivor-centered administrative policy comes in the form of a decision by Indiana University (IU). On April 19, IndyStar reported that IU had introduced a guideline prohibiting its programs from accepting any athlete with a history of sexual or domestic violence. The policy was created by Athletic Director Fred Glass, with input from Indiana’s Office of Student Welfare and Title IX and its Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. While Glass has supported instituting a similar rule across all Big Ten schools, the matter has so far been left up to individual universities (IndyStar, “New IU policy bans athletes with history of sexual or domestic violence,” 04.19.2017).
Despite the differences in terms of division levels and the ways in which student-athletes commit to schools, the Vassar administration has yet to institute a comparable admissions policy. Student athletes are required to attend a Mentors in Violence Prevention workshop that addresses gender-based violence in the context of sports. However, while Vassar would do well to implement a policy like IU’s, issues of administrative response to sexual assault are not prevalent solely in the athletic sphere. The Administration has repeatedly failed to respond to the needs of survivors—even at a time when jeopardization of peer resources has emphasized the need for more effective institutional support.
Vassar’s current sexual assault prevention programming begins during orientation with the online Think About It course, the skit-based Speak About It training, a seminar with CARES and the peer-led We Are Here bystander intervention workshop. Student organization leaders are also required to attend a bystander intervention training led by SAVP at the beginning of each school year. Unfortunately, these workshops have not always been survivor-centered or best addressed the topic of sexual assault. Moreover, while programming geared to prevent sexual assault is critical, it must be accompanied by appropriate support for students who do experience such violence. As it stands now, the Title IX reporting process is exhausting, lengthy and unreliable in producing convictions or disciplinary action.
As previously reported by The Miscellany News, filing a Title IX case can take up to a year for processing, and the adjudication process can be even longer. Moreover, frequent turnover in Vassar’s Title IX Office further destabilizes the already complex reporting process that forces survivors to relive traumatic experiences (The Miscellany News, “Title IX adjudication process needs critical examination,” 05.04.2017).
The results of Vassar’s 2015 Campus Climate survey corroborate anecdotal reports of student mistrust of the Title IX system. The study revealed that less than half of responders were confident in Title IX “conducting thorough and unbiased hearings,” “accurately determining what actually occurred” and “taking appropriate actions against perpetrators found responsible.” Rates of reporting were equally alarming, with just 10.3 percent of cis women, 6.3 percent of cis men, and 25 percent of non-cis responders reporting their experience with sexual assault (VC Campus Climate Survey, “Perceptions of Vassar’s Title IX Sexual Assault/Misconduct Procedures, Outcomes, and Information,” 2015).
In light of the readily available evidence suggesting the Vassar administration’s failure to support survivors or hold accused perpetrators accountable, the College’s decision to take CARES and TLC off call stands out starkly. Administrators made the choice to prohibit these organizations from acting as confidential listening services because of the concern of liability to the College, as well as the licensure of staff supervisors (Boilerplate Magazine, “CARES Off Call,” 06.01.2016). If the College chooses to remove student support networks, it is imperative that it fills the resulting gap with updated policies and professional services.
One such measure we encourage Vassar to take is implementing Callisto, a sexual assault reporting program that launched in 2015. Jessica Ladd—executive director of Sexual Health Innovations, the nonprofit that created Callisto—is a survivor of sexual assault, and her organization directly contacted survivors on college campuses for feedback on what features would be key in designing an effective platform. Callisto allows students three options: electronically submit the details of their assault to their school’s Title IX coordinator, save the report on Callisto’s database in case they wish to submit later on or reveal the report to administrators only if another student has reported or later reports the same perpetrator. The third option aims to target repeat offenders while providing peer support and shielding survivors from a deeply flawed and harmful system that isn’t survivor-centered. In addition, using a third-party reporting system may make people feel more comfortable filing reports.
Vassar is poised to become the fourth New York state college to implement Callisto out of eight nationwide. As of May 3, an online petition to bring the platform to campus has 189 signatures. The petition was initiated by student organization Yes to Equality and Safety for All Bodies (YES!), which reports that the Office of the President would be willing to cover half of the $18,000 cost for Callisto’s first year only if the other $9,000 was contributed by the VSA (Change.org, “Bring Callisto to our community at Vassar (Anti-sexual assault reporting program),” 05.2017). However, YES! member and co-founder Sophie Kaplan ’19 reported that this is an impossibility due to the VSA debt crisis. While the administration’s willingness to consider Callisto is promising, we at The Miscellany News believe that the College should cover the cost of the platform in full. Student initiatives addressing sexual assault are invaluable, but ultimately, financing safe and effective routes for survivors of sexual assault is not a responsibility that should fall to students.
For the Vassar administration, there is no time to waste in mitigating the gaps in campus support systems for survivors. Taking on the cost of Callisto would be a key step in the right direction, after which the College should consider tightening regulations that would ensure the safety of students and victims of sexual assault alike by instituting policy in the same vein as IU. Kaplan stressed that Callisto is not a one-step solution, and emphasized the importance of community accountability and involving the student body in the process of forming more effective policy. Students can contribute to the cause by signing the YES! petition through Change.org and by contacting Interim President Jonathan Chenette in support of Callisto. While reforming a system as tangled in red tape as Vassar’s sexual assault response protocol might seem to be a daunting task, raising our voices as a student body and encouraging administrators to act sooner rather than later will aid us in creating a campus climate that is safer for all.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.