Friday, October 26, 2012

A safe space

Amherst is evidently one of several elite colleges incapable of properly dealing with sexual violence. Going by what I've read and my own anecdotal evidence, it's the same story all over the place, at least at the more elite schools: young women are given the impression that the school has replaced somehow both parents and police, and when problems arise, the obvious authority figures are campus administrators. Who are not, in fact, police, and who do not necessarily do whichever basic things would be necessary to remove whichever imminent threat. (Does it build character to keep a girl in the same dorm as her rapist?) Schools may have some infrastructure or bureaucracy aimed at reassuring victims, but they may not want to or have the authority to meaningfully address the problem. I'd be curious if anyone's anecdotal evidence doesn't match this, but I understand that it's a sensitive topic, so I'm not necessarily soliciting comments.

Anyway, I think that "holistic" once again enters into the equation. Schools first admit not an applicant but a whole person. This, in turn, gives admitted, matriculated students the impression that they don't merely attend a residential college, taking classes for credit while living with fellow students. They are an intentional, hand-picked part of a community. It seems inconceivable that something scary could happen on campus. It seems straightforward, then, if something does come up, to deal with campus authorities, or with deans, when maybe the regular ol' police would be the way to go. (Or maybe not. Eep.)

There's even such a cliché of the liberal-arts-college male, the guy who's so hyper-sensitive that he will apologize profusely if he says transgendered rather than transgender, and will beat himself up over this for weeks to come. How could such a Nice Guy, one who's had seminars on the significance of holding a door open for a woman, do anything wrong? He should be posting earnest pleas to be a good person on Facebook, not, you know, raping his classmates. And yet. All of these carefully selected individuals, whom experts have picked to balance harmoniously, are nevertheless fallible, at times seriously criminal, human beings. Maybe - and I'll admit to cynicism here - what needs to happen is, rather than beefing up on-campus façades, we need to remember that students are members not only of a campus community, but a broader one, as well as a jurisdiction of some kind.

9 comments:

PG said...

The tendency to report internally instead of to external law enforcement authorities has been an almost necessary component of all the big pedophilia scandals (Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, Penn State), so it's not surprising that it's also cropping up in the "barely legal" age group. Particularly with the Catholic Church, it's not just the young victims who trusted the institution to do right by them; it's the parents who assumed that the Church wouldn't be covering up molestation and just moving the priests around. And I don't think that has so much to do with a belief that the institution has zero members who were ill-chosen, but simply a trust in the institution qua institution; that even if the seminary/ BSA training screwed up and a bad priest/ Scout leader got through, you can depend on the institution's integrity and concern for its members.

PG said...

On a less cultural and more legal note, I'd add that colleges being crap about dealing with sexual assault is an important of constitutional law: the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was used early on by a woman who alleged that she'd been sexually assaulted by athletes and sued them under the federal law when the state university failed to take any serious action against the athletes. Unfortunately the Supreme Court decided that giving victims of gender-motivated violence the right to sue their attackers in federal court was unconstitutional.

CW said...

My one real experience with seeing how unwilling people are to believe that rape occurs happened at college. The victim did report to the police (not the administration) and the alleged perp fled the country (he was an international student and was later extradited back to the US). I was constantly running into fellow students convinced that the perp couldn't have possibly raped anyone. He seemed so nice. We hung out together at German House that one time. She's always seemed a little unstable. This came from people, many of them women, who'd recently been chanting anti-rape slogans as part of the Take Back The Night march. Everyone seemed convinced that such a thing couldn't have possibly happened in our community.

In response to the incident it became harder to enter a dorm if you weren't a student. That, of course, had nothing to do with the rape that had been reported. It seemed easier for everyone to believe that rape is a crime committed by outsiders.

I suppose it is fortunate that the police weren't employed by the college and didn't have any particular emotional investment in the idea of the college.

Moebius Stripper said...

God, this is appalling. I agree with your assesment, Phoebe, of this being a consequence of young women getting the impression that campus administrators are taking the place of their parents, but things wouldn't have gotten to this point if it were just young women who thought this way. Alas, young men, and *campus administrators themselves* are also under this impression, leading the deans to deal with violent crimes in "evenhanded" manners, balancing rape victims ' interests with rapists' when the two are in conflict, like mediating a quarrel between siblings. She wants the guy punished or at least removed; he just wants everyone to get along! Who's being unreasonable here?

CW- that's the rule, not the exception. Every time an alleged rape is in the news, some reporter manages to find a friend or relative of the accused who swears up and down that their pal/relation would *never* commit rape. All the more reason to have the accuser's claims aired in a court of law, where, one hopes, "but he's such a nice guy!" is irrelevant.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"The tendency to report internally instead of to external law enforcement authorities has been an almost necessary component of all the big pedophilia scandals (Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, Penn State)"

True.

But here, we see how the current American model of what a college consists of makes colleges more like the Catholic Church than might otherwise be the case. If there were just schools 18-22-year-olds with good grades and test scores attended and lived near, there wouldn't be the same faith in the individual institutions. The hand-picked-ness does matter, because it's what brings an institution of this world into a different realm.

And... kind of confused re: the law here. Was the problem that this woman didn't accuse her attackers, but the school?

CW,

"In response to the incident it became harder to enter a dorm if you weren't a student."

Indeed. Sexual violence on campus - sketchiness of all kinds on campus! - is often (mostly?) among the students themselves.

Moebius,

"balancing rape victims ' interests with rapists' when the two are in conflict, like mediating a quarrel between siblings."

Yes - the guy's right to be a promising young mind needs to be thoroughly considered.

What's important here, and maybe not obvious, is that in cases like this, it's not necessarily that the administration doesn't believe the woman's claim. It's not necessarily a case of a school wanting to protect a man from what it believes may be false accusations. It can perfectly well be that they do believe whatever happened happened, but the 'punishment' is nonexistent or unenforced.

Moebius Stripper said...

For sure. I don't have any personal experience, even as an observer, of allegations of sexual assault on campus, but as an instructor at a postsecondary, I can tell you that "nonexistent or unenforced" punishment is certainly the case with the far lesser crime of cheating. Oh, sure, we tell students that we have zero tolerance, but the fact of the matter is, every single time an accused student shows up with a lawyer, the university folds. It's just too much work and money to pursue the matter. I have no trouble believing that campuses are even more poorly equipped to deal with rape, especially since history shows that accused rapists are more likely than victims to make noise if they feel they're being wronged.

PG said...

The hand-picked-ness does matter, because it's what brings an institution of this world into a different realm.

The Boy Scouts are also a worldly institution, but don't really hand-pick their membership. I don't think it's necessarily the care with which an institution picks its membership, but more the success it has in putting over the idea that it has high ideals and really cares about its members and deserves their trust.

And... kind of confused re: the law here. Was the problem that this woman didn't accuse her attackers, but the school?

I'm not sure whom you are referencing as "this woman."

It can perfectly well be that they do believe whatever happened happened, but the 'punishment' is nonexistent or unenforced.

Yep. And even when there are supposed to be established procedures, In my experience, it's not just sexual assault and not just having crimes reported only to school administrators that leaves schools somewhat unclear on what's the appropriate response.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I don't think it's necessarily the care with which an institution picks its membership, but more the success it has in putting over the idea that it has high ideals and really cares about its members and deserves their trust."

In different cases, different things factor into it. With elite colleges, where the students are ostensibly adults, where there's no religious affiliation, the mystique has to come from somewhere different. These schools aren't just places to take classes.

By "this woman" I mean the woman you're referring to in your comment ("a woman who alleged that she'd been sexually assaulted by athletes"). I just wasn't following the trajectory.

And I agree that the only relevant act isn't sexual assault. But if outside authorities are involved, it matters that much less how an institution itself responds.

PG said...

With elite colleges

I'm not even sure the college has to be very elite. I would bet that many institutions, that take practically anyone who can pay admission, nonetheless successfully give their students the belief that the school cares about them and looks after them, and that they might even owe some sort of loyalty to the school.

Virginia Tech (where the legal care I referenced occurred) is a large public school and not at all of the Amherst type in expecting everyone to be sensitive and PC. Yet a woman gang-raped by football players (i.e. demigods) there filed her complaint initially under the school's Sexual Assault Policy. After the school folded in the face of the rapists' legal challenges, eventually not giving them any meaningful punishment at all, the victim dropped out of school so she wouldn't have to attend with her assailants. "In December 1995, Brzonkala sued Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Her complaint alleged that Morrison’s and Crawford’s attack violated §13981 and that Virginia Tech’s handling of her complaint violated Title IX."

Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, giving victims the right to sue civilly in federal court, in the first place because state institutions (whether universities or actual cops and prosecutors) didn't have a great record of taking the crimes seriously.

But if outside authorities are involved, it matters that much less how an institution itself responds.

Depends on what you think is important. If it's that there be procedures of justice, then yes, the institution's response doesn't matter as much. Though the chances that the Amherst rape survivor could have gotten far with a prosecutor by bringing the charges a year after the crime, with zero evidence or witnesses, and the rapist pointing to their emails and meetings as a sign that there couldn't have been a rape because what kind of victim keeps in touch with her rapist, are not good.

However, if we're concerned about general safety, the justice system may not suffice. The perpetrators in the UVa assault case plead out to disorderly conduct and got a minimal punishment that left them free to continue their educations. The ongoing controversy was over whether the University's student-run Judiciary Committee should allow them to do so. The victim of the assault opposed it, as did the mother of a kid who claimed to have been assaulted by one of the perpetrators when they were in high school, on the grounds that these young men were a menace to other students and particularly to prior victims. Hence the perpetrators' frustration: from their perspective, they'd cooperated with the criminal justice system, submitted to punishment, and yet were not being treated as though they'd fully paid up their debt to society. That other people might not feel safe around guys who'd crack someone's jaw for literally giving them the middle finger did not seem to them a concern that should get them kicked out of school.