Last week we reported on the case of a female student at Dartmouth College who came forward, claiming she'd been sexual assaulted after being named in the now infamous "rape guide." Soon after, during a scheduled meeting, the Board of Trustees discussed possible changes to their current disciplinary policy on sexual assault. While the student handbook's section on sexual misconduct explains that "students and recognized organizations are prohibited from engaging in sexual misconduct of any kind. The wide spectrum of behaviors encompassed by this regulation calls for a variety of sanctions," including the possibility of "permanent separation," it is clear that many students and activist groups feel strongly that this policy has failed to effectively protect the student body. This belief was echoed by the assaulted student in this case as well. "I asked the administration for help in the Fall," she wrote in her own post, after reporting the online harassment to staff. "No one found my rapist, the person who assaulted me had nothing happen to him. I'm the only one hurting and standing up for myself does nothing. The administration standing up for me does nothing." It should be noted that Dartmouth is among 41 schools under investigation by the Department of Education for possible violations of Title IX. Earlier last year, students and alumni also filed a complaint against the school, alleging violation of the Clery Act.
In response to all of this, advocacy group UltraViolet began actively circulating a petition directed at the administration, demanding mandatory expulsion in cases of sexual assault, as well as blocking access to the "rape guide." Bored@Baker, the message board on which the guide was posted is not hosted by Dartmouth, but it is open only to people with a Dartmouth email address. The college counters the blockage demand by noting that neither is the site under their control, nor can they effectively prevent a student from accessing it on a server other than theirs.
Dartmouth reached out to us in response, informing Refinery29 of a new statement regarding the college's actions and discussions about addressing the rape culture on its campus. While its first statement has been removed from the college's website, associate director for media relations John Cramer informed us of a new statement, regarding the proposed changes it plans to enable as of June 2014:
- Mandatory expulsion in cases involving penetration accomplished by force, threat, or purposeful incapacitation or where an assault involving penetration is motivated by bias;
- Mandatory expulsion where the charged student has previously been found responsible for sexual assault; and
- In other cases involving penetration, a strong presumption in favor of expulsion.
While we're glad to see specifics on the proposed expulsion policy, the language of these points raises an immediate red flag. Judging by this statement, proposed policy change appears specifically limited to acts of penetration. To be clear, "sexual assault" as defined by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is:
-Vaginal, anal, or oral penetration
-Sexual intercourse that you say no to
Dartmouth's own handbook reflects most of these scenarios in its description of sexual misconduct, however, in regards to mandatory expulsion, it is only this specific scenario currently proposed. We responded to Cramer, asking him for clarification regarding this language, as well as on the meaning of the second point — did it refer to a student found guilty in the legal sense? He replied that this point referred to "a student who has been found responsible through the campus judiciary process, not necessarily a criminal conviction."
As for "penetration," he had no further comment.
But, that's where this whole thing becomes fairly problematic. Certainly, penetrative rape should be punished with expulsion, in addition to immediate legal action. (While Dartmouth defers to Hanover police when an investigation is underway, "a sexual assault survivor must make a report to Dartmouth before disciplinary action can begin and to police before judiciary action can begin," says Cramer.) But, so, too, should every aspect of sexual assault as it is legally defined. Obviously, there is a vast array of possible offenses, and each should be treated with appropriate severity, but we find this current statement with its antiquated emphasis on penetration, frankly, alarming. Where it is intending to strengthen policy, it manages to do just the opposite — limiting its action to one very specific type of sexual assault.
Of course, we don't know the specifics of what happened to the victimized student in this case. But, we do know that she was sexually assaulted, harassed by her perpetrator, dubbed a "whore" in dozens of public online messages, then assaulted again months later on the same college campus. We know she had to spend nights in a secured dorm room for her own safety. After all of that, do we really need to know if she was "penetrated" in order to define her attack as valid?
Dartmouth's current statement concludes, "It is important to note that when assault occurs Dartmouth takes action." But, in light of these new remarks, we are even more concerned as to the strength and efficacy of those actions. If supporters doubted whether or not the college had mishandled its sexual assault cases before, we hope that this will shine a light on the real issue at hand. On a hopeful note, we're glad to report that last week the college administration did invite the entire Dartmouth community — students, faculty, and alumni — to comment on the proposed policy change in detail. Given the current climate, we're hopeful that this process will lead to the strongest possible policy, keeping all students safe from molestation, rape, forced sexual contact, or assault of any kind.