No e-mails carry as much weight as those from Fred C. Behr. So far in the 2014-2015 school year, students have seen an unnerving rise in messages tagged “Crime Alert.” As of Nov. 7, there have already been five reports of sexual assault – as many as there were in the entire 2013-2014 academic year.
This increase in assault reporting on our campus – as well as increased attention to the issue on a national scale – has understandably sparked concern and confusion. St. Olaf Student Government Association SGA responded with the launch of “It’s On Us,” a campaign to foster community accountability for sexual assault on campus. The sense of urgency spiked, though, after a student reported an assault that took place at this year’s SGA-sponsored Halloween Pause dance. To generate feedback on how to move forward, SGA hosted a “Town Hall” meeting and open forum on Tuesday, Nov. 18.
In the spirit of discussion, chairs were arranged in a circle, with a central ring consisting of administrative figures and representatives from SGA and the Sexual Assault Resource Network SARN. Vice President for Student Life Greg Kneser, Dean of Students Rosalyn Eaton-Neeb ’87 and Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life Pamela McDowell were present to field questions regarding the institutional end of assault procedures.
Students filled the available seating and flowed over into standing room. Though the event was Wellness swiped, less than half of attendees lined up to swipe their cards.
SGA President Rachel Palermo ’15 kicked off the conversation by addressing the student body’s concerns about increased assault reporting. She emphasized that although frequent reports are upsetting, they can be “a step in the right direction.” More reporting does not necessarily indicate a surge in actual rates of assault; it is more likely that more students feel empowered to speak up.
Maren McGill ’15, Co-Chair of SARN, took the floor next to establish a common understanding of the terms “rape” and “consent.” She clarified the need to refer to “survivors” and “perpetrators” rather than “women” and “men,” since sexual assault does not always adhere to the stereotypical man-attacks-woman model. McGill then explained the difference between confidential Boe House, pastor’s office, SARN and non-confidential residence life, faculty, Public Safety, EMTs resources, which is that non-confidential resources act as mandated reporters. Eaton-Neeb rounded off the introduction by breaking down St. Olaf’s sexual assault statistics from the past several years, and elucidating the action that the College takes when an assault is reported.
“When a complaint is received by the college, a no-contact order is issued and an investigator is assigned,” she said. If there are witnesses, they are called upon. Throughout the proceedings, the complainant and respondent never meet in the same room.
A disturbing trend in reported cases at St. Olaf is the near-universal presence of alcohol. Eaton-Neeb noted that of the cases brought to her attention over the past five years, all but one of them involved alcohol and/or other substances.
The discussion was then opened up to questions from the group as a whole. SGA members passed around microphones to participants who raised their hands. The first question – posed by Olivia Slack ’15 – asked why college and police discipline are separate, with the latter often completely absent from the proceedings. Kneser explained that the decision to report assault to the police is at the discretion of the survivor.
“We encourage people to make the report to the Northfield police, but ultimately, it is [the survivor’s] choice,” he said. Jo Treat ’15, Co-Chair of SARN, reiterated that survivors often make the decision not to involve the police.
“For a survivor, it’s whatever they choose… we never push them to a certain option,” Treat said. She acknowledged that going to college authorities rather than the police tends to be “a lot less traumatic.”
Further questions focused on the degrees of punishment available to perpetrators. A general sense of dissatisfaction with disciplinary measures pervaded the conversation. In an emotional moment, a survivor rose and spoke about her dismay that her assailant still attends St. Olaf, and stated that he was in the room. Josiah Mosqueda ’15 also questioned the apparently limited range of discipline.
“Why is expulsion not on the table?” Mosqueda said. Though the Deans were eager to engage in the dialogue, it was difficult to do so while respecting the confidentiality of individual cases.
“We can’t release the outcome of cases. We can’t say exactly what happened,” Kneser said. “Expulsion is on the table… ‘suspension’ often means four years.”
“Suspension does not mean automatic return,” Eaton-Neeb said.
Two other survivors shared their experiences near the end of the conversation, receiving thunderous applause for their courage. One of them suggested having a SARN advocate present at Pause dances, rather than flat-out canceling them. The other – a survivor of male-on-male sexual assault – also suggested taking another path.
“If you cancel Pause dances, it won’t eradicate the problem,” he said.
Some students were interested in the concrete steps that the campus community could take to prevent assault. The possibility of mandatory bystander training was discussed, though SARN’s first-year corridor training remains voluntary. McGill mentioned that SARN is seeking “increased support from Residence Life.”
The conversation was still heated as the SGA leadership drew the event to a close. Though it was emotionally-charged and wide-ranging in subject matter, SGA regarded it as a success.
“I think it was good that we got people together for a dialogue. These are the conversations we should be having,” said Nick Stumo-Langer ’15, SGA Vice President.
“Seeing 300 people show up to the event meant a lot to us. We were proud to see so many of our peers and friends thoughtfully share their questions, comments and ideas, especially when it was about difficult topics,” Palermo said.
Although many attendees were grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in an open forum, there is still a limit to the tangible change that can stem from such an event.
“There were many helpful questions asked and points made at the town hall meeting. Students are right to ask what the college is doing,” said Campus Pastor Matt Marohl. “But, a truly safe campus requires every individual student to be part of the solution.”
Photo Credit: HAILEY SALAZAR/MANITOU MESSENGER