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Survey results force univ. to confront sexual misconduct on campus

Multiple high-ranking members of the Brandeis administration held a town hall in Sherman Function Hall Thursday night, Oct. 9 to discuss the results of a “campus climate survey” sent out last semester. The survey was designed to gauge the effect of sexual misconduct and assault on Brandeis students. The results, which were released Thursday morning and called “deeply troubling” by Interim President Lisa Lynch, reflected 34.5 percent of the Brandeis student body. “This will be the first of many discussions we are going to have about what we have learned and how we need to improve,” Lynch said.

Of the respondents, 22 percent of women, five percent of men and 35 of trans* or otherwise non-binary identifying students had “indicated they had been sexually assaulted, including inappropriate sexual touching, fondling, grabbing and groping.” Six percent of female-identifying undergraduate respondents and one percent of male-identifying undergraduate respondents said they had been sexually assaulted or raped. Despite these numbers, and insistence by student activists over the years that sexual violence is very prevalent at Brandeis, a total of six people have been found “responsible for sexual misconduct” by the university in the past three years. Five of these individuals were “removed” from campus, according to Vice President of Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel.

What disturbed administrators most, however, was that only 54 percent of the survey’s respondents said they had told another person about their assault, and less than five percent had ever reported an incident to the university. “This is not the Brandeis way,” Lynch told the audience. “This disturbing and heartbreaking statistic cannot be the Brandeis way.” Many on the function hall’s stage with Lynch were familiar with the issue of assault at Brandeis, including Flagel, Sexual Assault and Prevention Specialist Sheila McMahon, Brandeis Title IX Coordinator Linda Shinomoto and Title IX Investigator Rebecca Tiller.

Also sitting on the stage were Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Kim Godsoe, Assistant Dean of Students Monique Pillow Gnanaratnam and Director of Community Living Timothy Touchette. In the audience were Dean of Students Jamele Adams, a representative from the Department of Public Safety and Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS), a feminist activist and member of Brandeis’ Sexual Assault Task Force.

After Lynch and Flagel spoke and the team introduced themselves, the floor was opened. Many of the students in attendance were recognizable as longtime anti-assault activists, including members of Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence and student coordinators at the Rape Crisis Center. The students came prepared with questions and criticisms for the administrators, and used the statistics from the survey to their advantage. The administrators, Lynch and Flagel in particular, were visibly shaken by the results of the survey, and were very open to input from students. Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Sheryl Sousa ’90 asked outright for student suggestions on how to handle the building of trust between survivors and the administration.

One attendee had a very different view on how to handle the situation. “I want Brandeis to consider issues of housing and alcohol when talking about this,” she said. “Back in the old days, there were no co-ed dorms for first-years and underage drinking was strictly punished.” The woman proposed an outright ban on alcohol at Brandeis, in order to discourage what she called “a significant part” of some cases of assault. The comment drew grumbles in the audience, prompting one student to stand up and declare “co-ed dorms don’t cause rape, and neither does drinking. Rapists cause rape,” to a rounding applause.

But more than anything, the panel was focused on figuring out how to proceed in order to make Brandeis a safer place, which meant a lot of clarification about the university’s processes and dedication to improving education and prevention. “We have to continue to do more with things like our bystander training programs,” McMahon said. “As a campus, part of what we need to be thinking about is … if someone is in a target position how we can educate others while addressing their specific needs.” In regard to the high amount of harassment and abuse reported by trans* identifying and gender-nonconforming students, McMahon promoted more education among students, staff and faculty.

Taking a microphone, Brooten advocated for a focus on diversity training to be implemented in bystander training. “I do believe all training should have a focus on racial, cultural, gender-based and economic differences,” Brooten said. “This way we can confront and defeat implicit biases some people may have about who can and cannot be assaulted, and who can or cannot assault someone.”

Multiple students focused on the treatment of survivors of sexual assault and violence, with activists taking issue with what they viewed as a disparity between students found “responsible” for misconduct and the amount of offenders still on campus. Questions and statements also demanded the administration do more to support survivors and build trust, in order to help survivors feel that they will be able get the help they need from the university. “One thing that I want to clear up is that when you make a report, that does not mean an invasive CSI team will mobilize to bother you and publicize your case,” said Title IX investigator Rebecca Tiller. “It just means that an investigation will be opened and you will be contacted by [Title IX Coordinator] Linda [Shinomoto] and be offered support.”

The town hall adjourned after two hours of discussion and listening, with continued private talks between administrators and attendees.

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