On the night of Thursday, Nov 20, Lyle’s Pub hosted an event called “Title IX Rewind” as a part of “It’s On Us,” a national campaign that stresses communal responsibility in preventing sexual assault. Moderated by SGA president Opeyemi Awe and Loosehead Senator Hanna Lee, a panel of faculty, staff and administrators answered student questions about Grinnell’s policies concerning Title IX.
Part way through the event, a group of silent student protesters came in dressed in black and wearing red tape over their mouths, carrying signs with bold-faced questions for the administrators.
After the event, I spoke with several of the protesters to ask why they were protesting and what they hoped to see change. I also spoke with Andrea Conner and Angela Voos, the Dean of Students and the Title IX Coordinator, respectively, to follow-up about some of the concerns student protesters had raised. While the two conversations revolved around similar themes, there were several areas of discrepancy, which together point to a larger disconnect between students and the administration. I will highlight areas of concern from both parties, though there are many more concerns that I do not have space here to address. I will also address some of the inconsistencies between the two conversations. I would like to stress, however, that both my interview with protesters and my interview with Voos and Conner should be seen as two conversations amongst small groups of individuals rather than conversations between the monolithic bodies of “The Students” and “The Administration.”
In our interview Thursday night, the first concern that the protesters raised was that of silencing. The red tape they had worn over their mouths is a nod to the Red Tape Campaign, a movement at many other colleges and universities that “protests the silencing of rape survivors and meaningful conversations about sexual violence.” Many of the signs that the protesters carried addressed concerns of silencing, both regarding which words victim-survivors are allowed to use and the ways that they feel college policy impedes them from fully describing their experiences in public forums.
In response to these concerns, Voos assured me that “an individual who’s experienced something has every right to describe what they’ve experienced in their own words” to whomever they want at any time, but she clarified that the word ‘rape’ is not in college policy language simply because they “wrote the policy to be as expansive…as it could be.” At the panel, Voos said that the college will not use the word rape in its policies because ‘rape’ is a criminal offense and Grinnell, as an educational institution, cannot find someone guilty of rape as a crime. Conner furthermore suggested that some of the silencing people feel may be due to college and legal policies about retaliation.
Retaliation is defined as discrimination or harassment by either party involved in the sexual misconduct process towards the other. A complainant or a respondent may retaliate against witnesses, respondents, or complainants, to punish them for engaging in the conduct process or to dissuade them from further participation. The idea is that students are allowed to tell their story and name names within their own support network, but in a public setting they must speak “broadly” and not use names or identifying characteristics.
Voos claims to be unsure about the source of confusion regarding freedoms and limitations that students have when speaking about their experiences. “There is a misperception. I do think that we need to specifically state in our policy that people are encouraged to use the language that best describes their experience.” However, the student protester reported having been instructed specifically not to use the word rape. Anna Banker, one of the protesters, maintains that “they’re [the administration] telling student-survivors that they can’t talk about the outcomes of a hearing in which a student is found responsible.” Ian Byrd, another protester, chimed in that “they’re not allowing people to use the word rape.”
“Right,” Banker corroborated, asking, “why does the college report sexual misconduct as rape in the Clery Act, but then not allow students to [use that terminology]?”
Another key issue was that of students feeling safe on campus. This is very much related to the perception among students that consequences for those found responsible for sexual misconduct are neither strict enough nor sufficiently enforced. As no-contact orders are a consequence directly related to students’ feelings of safety, I started my interview with Conner and Voos by asking about how these are enforced on campus once they have been served.
Conner said that “if a student believes that the no-contact order has been violated in some way, then they can come forward to campus safety or to myself to raise that in an official way.” She explained that, unlike a restraining order, there is not a specific distance required between the two parties. In the case in which there is a no-contact order between two people, the college asks that “the second person arriving to smaller places take the initiative to leave.”
This neat assessment glosses over two issues of concern that the protesters raised. The first is that the no-contact orders seem utterly bidirectional. For example, take the fictional case of Alex and Sam. Say that Alex is found responsible of sexual misconduct and Sam requests a no-contact order against them. If Sam is served a no-contact order, the order places the same onus on Sam to avoid Alex as it does Alex to avoid Sam. Is this policy a fair way to give responsibility to both parties and to speak to the notion of retaliation that Conner addressed? Or does it privilege the guilty party over the victim?
But more concerning than the policy aspects of no-contact orders are the way in which they are enforced. Conner informed me that if a person feels that their no-contact order has been violated, they can talk to the administration. However, if students feel that they are in imminent danger, they should “call campus safety and security, [who] would come right away to dispel the conflict.” However, anecdotes from students suggest that security does not always respond as promptly or as effectively as Conner promises.
Besides no-contact orders, there is a question of consequences more generally. Banker said“the fact that they allow students whom they have found responsible for multiple counts of sexual misconduct back on campus” is particularly alarming. The protesters shared with me several anecdotes, both with specific names and without, of students who had been found responsible for one or more cases of sexual misconduct, sometimes violent or egregious, who had been allowed back on campus after only a brief suspension. In other cases, even a suspension is not employed, which Banker characterized as a mere “slap on the wrist.”
At the pub on Thursday, students asked the panel why those found responsible for sexual misconduct are not expelled. While Voos later said that “students have been expelled and it is an appropriate and important consequence,” at the talk, Conner explained that instituting automatic dismissal for students found responsible for sexual misconduct neglects the variations across cases of sexual misconduct.
Some victim survivors do not seek expulsion as a punishment for a finding of responsibility for sexual misconduct, and that should be respected. While Voos and Conner acknowledged that expulsion is an option that they sometimes will use when considering cases of sexual misconduct, the protestors I spoke with, and those who raised the issue at the pub, felt as though the option is not exercised frequently enough. Instead, students who have really hurt others are allowed to remain on campus.
When pressed about the way in which overly light consequences (or the perception thereof) may diminish students’ feelings of safety, Voos and Conner walked me through the range of consequences they can dole out. Conner maintains that student perception of consequences is tricky, however, because “the complainant doesn’t always see the whole complement of outcomes.” For example, the college may confidentially require an alcohol assessment for a respondent found to have a substance abuse problem. Alternately, a respondent may “downplay what was required of them.” But Conner acknowledges that that is “only a tiny layer of the answer…because typically when something feels not serious enough [to the complainant] it means because it was not dismissal.”
Voos insisted that “we try to make the best judgments we can about safety…if we think there’s imminent danger, we’re gonna act. We have acted.” Perhaps these actions are insufficient, or perhaps they are merely perceived as insufficient; either way, both the protesters and other students at the pub event expressed that they do not feel safe on campus.
For their part, the protesters I talked to are livid with administrators for a myriad of reasons, not least because, from their perspectives, they’ve seen and experienced silencing, lying and hypocrisy from the administration in regards to sexual assault cases. I asked the administrators if they perceive this anger and to respond to this undercurrent of Us vs. Them, Student vs. Administration sentiment. Conner acknowledged the sentiment, saying that it would be “generous to call it an undercurrent.”
When asked about the cause of this divide, Voos suggested that sexual assault is a thorny issue and that people are never going to be happy, per se, with the outcome. Conner mentioned the need to “keep the dialogue [between students and administrators] going…One of the ways that we can [bridge this gap] is to continually take little risks to try to earn people’s trust.” The focus on trust is not entirely off-base, as the protesters I spoke with blatantly said that “the administration lies.”
Ultimately, there are two facets to this issue. There is the way in which the college adjudicates cases of sexual misconduct, and then there is the dissatisfaction and anger of some students toward the administration, sentiment which fuels a growing sense of divide between some Grinnell students and some of the administrators. Before we can even hope for cases involving sexual misconduct to be handled in a way that does not leave victim-survivors picking up the pieces, we will have to examine, understand, and address the growing sense of divide between some students and the administrators responsible for the handling of these cases. Conner may not have been wrong in saying that such work will require open and honest dialogue. But it requires much more than that. Turning this Us vs. Them mentality into a functional relationship will require honest and critical assessment about the differences in circumstance between students and the administration. I do believe Voos and Conner when they say they are trying to help students in a rough position. But I also believe that they are juggling the ever-present legal pressure of potential lawsuits and the top-down social and financial pressure from alumni, trustees and other donors of maintaining the College’s reputation.
The tenure of each student here is very brief. We are not professionals; we are intelligent individuals with a wealth of knowledge and competence, but we are students. We are learning. It is the responsibility of administrators, who have been here and will be here for much longer than us, who have or should have the benefit of professional training and experience, and who find themselves on the advantageous side of a power dynamic, to take a position of leadership in understanding the experiences and feelings of students who have been involved in cases of sexual misconduct at Grinnell.
Adjudication of sexual misconduct is never going to be clean cut. But there is a gap between college policy and student experience. For their part, the students I spoke with feel mistrustful of the school’s title IX processes, and even unsafe. When talking about student health, mental health, and safety, the stakes are too high to ignore these feelings, or to address them ineffectively or blindly. And if, in the adjudication of these cases, the administration prioritizes any concerns other than those of student health and safety, then there is a problem with the way sexual assault cases are handled on this campus. It is a problem that will not be solved until students and administrators can better understand one another. It is a problem that will require administrators to be willing not just to answer questions, but also to ask them.