Swarthmore actions on sexual assault likely to help OCR case
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Not even a week after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced it would investigate a federal complaint against Swarthmore College, the institution's president said she will make numerous policy revisions and personnel changes and establish educational efforts to better support students affected by sexual misconduct.
The shifts are likely to help Swarthmore make a case that it is attempting to improve and comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination, as OCR proceeds with its investigation into whether the college violated Title IX by mishandling complaints of sexual assault. In recent resolution agreements that did not find the University of Montana and Yale University out of compliance, OCR cited actions taken “prior to and during” the investigation by the campuses as evidence that they were committed to the law.
The steps Swarthmore is taking – among them, hiring a full-time Title IX coordinator and an additional campus safety employee to investigate complaints, clarifying procedures for reporting assault, and educating students about misconduct -- are broad but reflective of OCR’s ramped-up focus on Title IX, which has led to many institutions making similar changes (mostly reactively).
“These are things that should have been in place at colleges and universities across the country for a long time, but commonly have not been. It’s nothing unique -- it’s not that Swarthmore is an outlier,” said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative for the VTV Family Outreach Foundation. “OCR is likely to recognize the steps that are being taken” -- “exactly the same steps” that OCR is telling others to take in their resolution agreements – “because ultimately their goal is to bring about compliance.”
The changes are in response to an outside review by Margolis Healy & Associates, which Chopp requested shortly before a federal complaint was filed. The firm’s report is an interim version, as the review continues through the fall.
Swarthmore’s is the latest in a string of federal complaints stemming from greater student awareness and activism after OCR’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which reminded and warned colleges of the consequences of not meeting their obligations under the law. Since then, and mostly in the past year or so, students have filed Title IX (and in some cases, Clery Act) complaints at campuses including the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and California at Berkeley, Occidental and Dartmouth Colleges, and the University of Southern California. On Friday, the Huffington Post reported that a Title IX complaint was filed last month at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
However, students are also calling on OCR to do a better job enforcing Title IX, despite this administration’s harder line on sexual harassment and its receipt and resolution of more discrimination complaints than ever before. On Monday, students rallied outside the Education Department in Washington to demand action and deliver signatures on a petition that has topped 159,000 signatures.
“Receiving this today was honestly a relief for me,” said Mia Ferguson, a rising junior at Swarthmore who co-filed the Title IX complaint as well as a Clery complaint, which the Department of Justice has not yet opted to investigate. “[Swarthmore President] Rebecca Chopp refers in her letter to a ‘sea change,’ and that’s the work we’ve been doing and the national change.”
Chopp sent that letter out shortly after the college posted the report Thursday morning. In it, she emphasizes that the goal is to prevent sexual misconduct by fostering a “safer and more supportive environment for all students.” Her letter, as well as the report, take care to note the importance of not impeding due process or the rights of the accused -- a point of concern for some groups and scholars who say OCR has overstepped its bounds with some mandates in the Dear Colleague letter and the Montana resolution agreement. (Following one of the recommendations, Swarthmore will hire a part-time staffer to advise students who are accused of a crime and brought up on charges. It’s an uncommon position.)
“My vision is really a culture of dignity and respect. I think that’s what colleges owe their students -- these are young people learning about how to make the right decisions and how to treat others,” Chopp said in an interview. Asked whether the changes will better position Swarthmore in its OCR investigation, she said, “I think they will certainly be looking at what we’ve done in the past several years, and the implementation of these recommendations will be part of what they consider.”
However, some of the changes may be controversial. For instance, the college will create an online sexual misconduct tutorial that students will be required to take at the beginning of each year. When Montana created a similar program last year in the midst of its OCR investigation, some criticized it as overly broad.
Now, administrators will start implementing the recommendations. The final report will be released this fall once Margolis Healy completes its review and suggestions.
While Ferguson was pleased with the announcement Thursday, she still wishes campus officials had reached out and collaborated more with her and other survivors -- who have created Know Your IX, a website and network educating students on their rights under Title IX – and is worried the college is being too reactive.
“Swarthmore has the resources both financially and culturally to be really a leader in compliance,” Ferguson said. “I have the highest hopes. That’s why we’re doing this – and also constantly not necessarily trusting everything they do.”