Time to end sexual violence

By Roy Ribitzky

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about violence and sexism on the University of Massachusetts campus.

It was early spring semester my sophomore year when the Boston Globe published the article “No Crackdown on Assaults at Colleges.” After conducting an investigation, the Globe reported that the Dean of Students Office, then under the leadership of Dean Jo-Anne Vanin, reportedly failed to expel an admitted rapist.

According to the report, a male student raped a female alumnus during Homecoming Weekend in 2009. When confronted by the Dean of Students Office, the student admitted to raping his acquaintance. Instead of immediate dismissal, his sanction comprised of a deferred suspension, meaning any policy he violated in the future could be met with an expulsion. In the mean time, he could go to classes, live in the dorms and keep track with graduating on time that May. The Code of Student Conduct (CSC), not revised since the 1990s, did not allow for a complaining witness to challenge the appeals of a charged student.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jean Kim called the situation “regrettable” during an open meeting the first week of March, which was originally going to be behind closed doors, “to discuss the sexual assault that has recently been reported in the media,” according to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.

It was the publicity of this case that set it apart from any others. The increased conversation around the case and the subsequent policy change should not have depended on media coverage.

On behalf of the University, and because according to Kim, “we take the situation of sexual assault and the safety of all of students very seriously,” Kim pledged to formulate solutions and look at possible policy changes. A committee was formed to look at making relevant changes to the CSC – which can only be approved by the Board of Trustees – and looking at ways to end violence on campus. This will be referred to as the CSC review committee.

Unbeknownst to much of the community, a separate committee was already established to assess the way health services addressed violence on campus. Dean Vanin approved the Violence Prevention Working Group during the summer of 2009, co-founded by Dr. Thomas Schiff, a health educator from the Center for Health Promotion (CHP) at University Health Services (UHS), Dr. Bob Horowitz, a doctor at UHS and Dr. Robin Walsh, a clinical manager at UHS. The working group had just finished its findings when the mishandling of the rape case was made public.

Following the publicity of the mishandled rape case, I, along with at least 15 others, joined this working group for two semesters.

Kim charged this new, expanded group to look into preventing violence on campus. Our charge was simple: figure out a comprehensive, educational, campus-wide approach to recognize and prevent all types of violence at UMass. This committee was comprised of student, faculty and staff members of the Everywoman’s Center (EWC), UMass Police Department (UMPD), Student Government Association (SGA), Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), UHS, Dean of Students Office and Residential Life. We divided the committee into five groups to look at data gathering, reporting, support services, policies and prevention. In parallel, an additional committee was established to review the entire CSC.

Soon after assembling, Kim changed our name to “Catalysts for Campus Culture Change (CCCC).” Apart from sounding like another boring and powerless branch of the former CCCP, the name change reflected a familiar tone at UMass: our inability to call something what it is.

The University has a tough time talking about unpleasant but real issues on campus, especially rape and violence. By changing the name from “Violence Prevention,” something crystal clear, “Catalysts for Campus Culture Change” leaves people scratching their heads as to what our committee is about.

Efforts of the committee became ignored and two years later, forgotten. While changing the overall culture of UMass was a key aspect of the committee, our focus was on violence. If we can’t even name what the problem is, how can we expect to solve it?

Yevin Roh, the former SGA president, served on both the CCCC and CSC review committee. Despite being a non-voting member, Roh attended the open CSC review meetings to help provide policy recommendation.

“I found out the entire code was being reviewed because of a mishandled rape case, so I showed up and offered recommendations,” said Roh. By serving on the data gathering and reporting subcommittees of the CCCC, “I would go back to CSC review committee and give feedback,” said Roh.

The Everywoman’s Center, perhaps the most relevant campus organization to University sexual assault policy, was not given a voting-member status, nor initially invited to the CSC review meetings. The lack of inclusion of such a critical woman’s presence on the CSC review committee only reinforced doubts that the review process was not being handled properly.

The CSC review committee eventually suggested a policy to allow the complainant to appeal the sanction of the accused student. But some people in the CSC review committee were against such a proposal.

“People were concerned that it would be a ‘double jeopardy’ if the complaining witness was allowed to appeal,” said Roh.

Ultimately, the opposition was overruled. Our new code now contains that policy revision.

But what was left out of the revised code should still be cause for concern. The committee proposed adding definitions of cyber bullying, rape, date rape and consent. Roh said that the proposed definitions were denied because they were deemed “too legalistic” and that “Dr. Kim picked and chose what to leave in the review, adding and deleting things that the committee hadn’t talked about” before submitting the full review to the Board of Trustees.

Last spring, the CCCC sent a 45-page report to the vice chancellor. We suggested improvements in access to information online, creating updated reporting guidelines, developing specific training for personnel involved in reported incidents, developing and implementing wide scale bystander intervention and violence prevention into class curricula and more that can be found in the full report.

Kim responded via a short email to the committee’s report in summer 2011. She stated that many of our proposals were already in place and others were implemented in the new CSC. However there was no follow up, no confirmation of changes and no continued communication between the Kim and the CCCC.

After the vice chancellor notified us of her decisions, the CCCC never met again.

This is the first in a three day series on violence and sexism on the UMass Amherst campus. Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]