Rape Happens Here

For 150 years, leafy, progressive Swarthmore College tried to resolve student conflicts in the best Quaker tradition — peacefully and constructively. Then came 91 complaints of sexual misconduct. In a single year.

HEARD BY THEMSELVES, the claims leave open the possibility of a misunderstanding between student and administrator, of signals tragically crossed. Taken together, a pattern appears to emerge.

“Sally,” a 2012 graduate, said she was at a party in the fall of her freshman year when a fellow student cornered her, pushed her against a wall, and began to kiss her, before being pulled off by a mutual friend. Later that night, Sally awoke to find the same student had entered her room and climbed on top of her. She managed to push him off. When she told associate dean Myrt Westphal she wanted to pursue charges through the College Judiciary Committee (CJC), she says, Westphal asked her to say “harassment” rather than “assault,” and questioned whether she really wanted to “pit her two friends against each other.” Discouraged, Sally declined to pursue judiciary action. (Westphal, who retired last spring, declined to comment.)

Similar stories are legion. Jean Strout, a 2010 graduate now studying at Harvard Law School, says that after she was pinned to the ground by a naked, drunk rugby player, she spoke to a male administrator by phone, who told her it sounded like a “misunderstanding” and that she should ask the offender for an apology.

A recent graduate who now practices law in New York City says that when she told an administrator she had been raped, the administrator said, “You don’t sound as if you were raped,” and, noticing the cross hanging around her neck, asked if she wanted to see a priest. A first-semester freshman at the time of her assault, she says she sought support and guidance from multiple members of the administration in moving forward with her case. However, after months of conversations she calls “frustrating” and “invalidating,” she ultimately declined to pursue it: “I was tired of fighting, and wanted to focus on healing.”

Another student, according to the Title IX complaint, was raped in her dorm room by a friend of a friend with alcohol on his breath. Before he left the room, he looked at her, smiled, and told her, “It’s your word against mine.” After she recounted the incident in a long email to a member of the administration, her complaint says, school officials never got in touch with her or did any investigation.

As spokeswomen for fellow victims, Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson often underemphasized their own stories, but they too joined the complaints. Ferguson says she was raped her freshman year in a dorm room by someone she considered a friend. After keeping it bottled up for a semester, she told two resident advisers who were required to report what she told them. They proceeded to tell no one. Hope Brinn says a male student burst into her room while she was naked and refused to leave, after having harassed her via text message. According to her Title IX complaint, when she reported the incident, an administrator laughed and told her she might consider having him write “knock” on his hand as a reminder before he goes out. (Brinn has also spoken about a separate incident of sexual assault.)

The administration, along with the specific school employees involved in each case, is hamstrung in its ability to dispute such claims publicly, thanks to the strict confidentiality requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. When I asked a Swarthmore spokesperson if there were factual errors in student newspaper accounts of similar incidents, she said there were many, but the school wasn’t permitted to correct any of them. Swarthmore also declined to make any of its administrators available for interviews for this story, responding to written questions through the spokesperson. Regarding the Title IX complaint, it provided this statement: “These are allegations only, and the Department of Education has stated explicitly that its investigation ‘in no way implies that [the Office of Civil Rights] has decided merit.’” (Click here to read the entire Title IX complaint and Swarthmore’s response.)

Over the course of our conversations, a couple students teared up, while others couldn’t bear to recount their assaults. But for the most part, their testimonials had a somewhat bloodless, clinical aspect to them. Pain, it seemed, had hardened into disgust and cynicism. “Students still buy into this whole Quaker idealism,” says Ferguson. “You feel, ‘I really get this place, I know the administrators and I trust them intimately.’ So it’s this really disturbing level of deceit.”

IN 2011, THE OBAMA administration sent a letter to every college in the country, informing them that by neglecting to properly address claims of sexual violence, they were creating a “hostile environment” prohibited by the Title IX gender equity law. Early this year, Obama doubled down, announcing a task force on college sexual assault. The upshot? Schools that viewed Title IX in the context of athletics have been blindsided, while students have pounced. In 2009, a reported 11 student complaints were filed nationally with the federal government; in 2013, that number rose to 29.

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