Portland college students demand changes in sexual assault process

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A student member of Reed College’s Judicial Board has resigned over the school’s handling of sexual assault, and her public appeal to students and faculty to think critically about how the college is adjudicating sex crimes has inspired weeks of debate on the campus, likely to be central to a student forum April 4.

Isabel Manley served three semesters on the private Portland college’s Judicial Board. She offered a personal critique of Reed’s handling of sexual assault in a letter in the school newspaper The Quest Feb. 11, in which she resigned.

Manley’s resignation has stirred discussion on campus, subsequent letters to The Quest - including a formal response from faculty - and also prompted a group of 20 students identifying themselves as sexual assault survivors to issue a nine-point “manifesto” on sexual assault, outlining lapses in the college’s goal of providing resources to victims and offering solutions.

Reed’s policies for adjudicating sexual assaults and rapes on campus were criticized by two outside experts last year as part of articles by InvestigateWest in The Oregonian exploring the issue in Oregon and Washington. The articles were done in collaboration with a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., which found that students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assault on campuses across the nation often faced little or no consequence for their acts, while their victimsʼlives were frequently left in turmoil. Victims reported a lack of institutional support and disciplinary action. Often, victims left school while the alleged attackers graduated, the Center’s and InvestigateWest’s investigation found.

In a June 2010 article dealing with matters at Reed College, two experts in how colleges handle sexual assaults criticized the system used at Reed, a highly secretive process based on a student Honor Code and enforced by a student Judicial Board.

Though the board’s disciplinary recommendations are reviewed and implemented by Reed College President Colin Diver, the college does not investigate allegations of sexual misconduct with a trained investigator. Instead, students act as a fact-finding committee, holding hearings that often place victims and perpetrators in the same room. Many students are unaware that an alternative, faculty committee exists. Participants are barred from discussing their cases with anyone except a designated advocate, a procedural aide and medical professionals.

Three students interviewed last year said the forced silence cut them off from friends and faculty they normally would have relied on for support after being assaulted. One reported the process was so secretive she wasn’t sure she could tell her mother about it. And all three were dissatisfied with the outcome of the hearings.

The students also told similar stories of personal and academic upheaval after reporting sexual assault at Reed, which enrolls about 1,400 students. All three said they were discouraged from calling police after reporting sexual assault to authorities and instead were routed to the Judicial Board, where they faced intense pressure to keep quiet about their cases, with related documents stamped “confidential” and constant reminders about confidentiality rules.

Though Reed President Colin Diver convened an ad-hoc committee to explore the college’s sexual assault policies following the article, and Vice President and Dean of Students Mike Brody, in a letter to The Oregonian, noted the college would continue to fine-tune its processes with the help of a new faculty member Pete Meagher, a nationally recognized expert in the field of sexual assault and intimate-partner violence, some students now say few changes have resulted.

“I would say that the Judicial Board and the faculty and staff we work with are very aware and rightly concerned about the particular challenges that can arise if a potential sexual assault case is brought to the J-Board,” Manley wrote in her letter to the student newspaper. “However, I am discouraged because – despite numerous internal conversations, suggestions for procedural improvements and alternate resources, and concerns voiced both on campus and in the local press – I don’t really think I’ve seen concerted institutional efforts to implement the concrete changes that could give participants in a sexual assault case more potential options and adequate support in such an undoubtedly difficult situation.”

Brody declined to answer direct questions about the pace of change at Reed.

Manley also wrote that the Judicial Board lacks the training to make “informed decisions” regarding sexual assault, cannot adequately judge consent, and noted that the college’s current hearing procedure is “not only unduly stressful but even (re)traumatizing… for the people involved.”

Manley similarly declined to be interviewed for this story, citing concern about the confidentiality of cases heard by the Judicial Board. Students at Reed College can be disciplined for violating the confidentiality of a case, called an Honor Case.

Brody said Reed College continues to make improvements. In an email to a reporter, he said Reed remains steeped in an ongoing internal review expected to fine-tune the college’s approach to sexual assault. Brody said Meagher, now associate dean for student and campus life at Reed, co-chairs the college’s Sexual Assault Task Force and that, “his experience and expertise have enhanced the college’s capacity to prevent and respond effectively to sexual assault.”

In the last year, Brody said Reed College has taken a number of steps to refine its processes. They include creating response protocols for dormitory staff, reviewing Reed’s Honor Principle, conducting sexual assault training for Judicial Board members and for staff, offering more educational materials and student training, hiring a student coordinator for the Sexual Assault Task Force and convening a student-staff-faculty committee on sexual assault to, in Diver’s words, “do all that we can to reduce the likelihood that any Reed student will be the victim of sexual assault and ensure that any student who is a victim of sexual assault receives the best possible support.”

Brody declined to answer specific questions about how education for students and training for the Judicial Board had changed. He did not respond to questions about whether the college was conducting investigations of sexual assaults and rapes by campus security, trained sexual assault responders, or any entity other than the Judicial Board.

Following Manley’s letter, a group of 20 sexual assault victims drafted the “manifesto,” a document detailing changes Reed could make to improve the judiciary process for campus assault survivors. The document was signed by a woman who identified herself as a victim of sexual assault but asked not to be identified in this story. Brody did not respond to a question about whether the college would implement any of the suggested changes.

Students continue to weigh in on the debate through letters in the student paper. A recent campus-wide survey conducted by the Honor Council, a committee of faculty, students and staff that promotes the Honor Principle in the Reed community – a century old doctrine by which Reed students govern themselves –found sexual assault and its handling on campus topped concerns among student respondents. The subject will be discussed at a campus forum set for April 4 at 6 p.m. at Kaul Auditorium, along with other student concerns such as mental health and stealing. Students responding to the survey raised questions about whether the Judicial Board should be tasked with adjudicating sexual assaults on campus or whether they are best tackled by experts. Others suggested Reed should foster more discussion about sexual consent or, conversely, about whether the problem of sexual assault on campus is overblown.

 In interviews, some students questioned the college administration’s dedication to reforming the system.

 “They’ve been talking about doing this stuff for years,” said one female student, who also identified herself as a victim of sexual assault, and says she wants to see more protection of female students. She asked not to be named here for fear of repercussions on campus, but said Diver’s creation of a committee to research sexual assault is little more than a delay tactic when best practices for adjudicating the crime are already widely known and the college already staffs an expert, Meagher, to offer advice.

“Their main interest is in protecting the reputation of the school. They are already clearing up the reputation that Reed is a drug school and they don’t want another one that Reed is sexually permissive and dangerous for women,” she said. 

Following the deaths of two students from heroin overdoses - Alex Lluch in April 2008 in his dorm room, and Sam Tepper in March 2010 in an off-campus apartment - the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, along with Dwight Holton, U.S. attorney for Oregon, pressed the college to tamp down on illicit drug use, warning undercover police would patrol the school’s annual three-day spring festival Renn Fayre, prompting national media attention.

Some survivors of sexual assault who are unsatisfied with the current system and Reed’s stated efforts to improve them said they have considered seeking outside legal help to secure their safety and better access to education. They have discussed soliciting assistance from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, according to interviews with students who asked that their names not be used.

As policy efforts move slowly, the students said they continue to attend college with classmates found responsible for rape or sexual assault by the Judicial Board and with classmates accused of committing rape or assault but whose cases may be delayed. When an accusation is made against a member of the Judicial Board, which one student said occurred in a recent case, the difficulty of having an all-student board address such cases is even greater. The student said the college struggled to address how the case would be handled, and whether the accused student should step down from handling other cases of sexual assault in the meantime and in the future.

Brody did not respond to a question about whether a student accused of sexual assault continued to serve on the Judicial Board afterward.

 One recent Reed College graduate interviewed for this article said she found the school’s method of allowing peers to adjudicate cases so unappealing that she did not report being raped

“I didn’t want to go tell a bunch of my peers what happened,” she said, noting some of the members of the Judicial Board were in her classes at the time. “I wouldn’t feel like I had any privacy. I didn’t want them looking at me and thinking about what happened.”

She said she tried speaking with a Reed counselor after the rape, when she struggled with violent fantasies and friends complained she was becoming “mean,” but the counselor told her she would have to report it if the woman confessed to being injured by another student. Instead she took self-defense courses and began carrying a knife. She said she was fearful of what Reed administrators would do if they learned she was raped.

“I was struggling with my grades and afraid if something like this came to the administration they’d just ask me to go on leave and never let me come back or invite me back without financial aid,” she said. “I heard it happened to other girls.”

Reed’s Brody did not respond to inquiries about the student’s comments, or to specific questions about her reluctance to report being raped for fear of losing privacy and facing the man she said attacked her at hearings. Asked to comment on her perception of the Judicial Board process as something that, if involved with, could harm her educational prospects, Brody also did not respond.

This story was also published with our news partner The Oregonian.

InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center based in Seattle. For information on how you can support independent investigative reporting for the common good, go to invw.org

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