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.

Whether Swarthmore is in violation of federal law for ignoring or underreporting sexual misconduct is for government investigators to determine. But until recently, it wasn’t so obvious that schools would be punished for such lapses. Indeed, many observers argue that focusing the blame on wayward administrators misses the larger point: Colleges shouldn’t be involved in this stuff at all.

The group best known for taking this view is the right-leaning nonprofit FIRE, or Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has made a living defending the trammeled due-process rights of alleged bad guys. But even certain women’s-rights advocates are squeamish about a bunch of physics PhDs on an adjudication panel deciding the guilt or innocence of an accused rapist, without lawyers, evidence, or any other trappings of a typical court case. “My grave concern is the capacity, the competence, and the appropriateness of colleges dealing with rape outside the criminal justice system,” says Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project. Even if a college justly expels a student for rape, Tracy points out, he can transfer to another college and rape again.

One counterargument, which colleges have been making for decades, is that administrators steeped in campus culture are better equipped to resolve student-vs.-student disputes than unfeeling law enforcement. “What Swarthmore will claim is, ‘We want to make sure it’s educational, we’re not here to punish students, we’re here to help them grow and learn,’” says Mia Ferguson. “Which makes sense … but that is a way they skirted around punishment to a certain extent.”

Indeed, it was largely out of the school’s good intentions that its scandal took root. What current students see as shocking complacency is in fact consistent with an unofficial disciplinary policy that’s long governed Swarthmore.

Twenty years ago, Swarthmore also found itself embroiled in a national controversy over alleged sexual impropriety. The story involved two 18-year-old freshmen: Alexis Clinansmith, a white girl from the wealthy Detroit suburbs, and Ewart Yearwood, a Hispanic kid from Washington Heights in Manhattan. Clinansmith claimed Yearwood had been stalking and harassing her. Yearwood claimed he was just playing Romeo and was being maligned for his Latino assertiveness.

Clinansmith took the matter to a disciplinary hearing, where a jury deadlocked over Yearwood’s guilt. Then-president Al Bloom decided Yearwood had “intimidated” but not harassed Clinansmith and devised what he felt was an ingenious solution: He would pay for Yearwood to transfer to another institution for a semester while everybody cooled down. Bad move. The Wall Street Journal slammed the school for capitulating to the feminist lobby, while other conservative commentators attacked Swarthmore for going soft on Yearwood in deference to the (still vaguer) Hispanic lobby. Political correctness, the commentariat railed, had run amok.

The school had an obligation to be “just and compassionate,” Bloom told the Washington Post. Yearwood’s transgressions, he added, were “not a reason to abandon him.” Or as one freshman put it at the time, “I guess Swarthmore tried to do the right thing and not ruin this guy’s life, which reflects the college’s Quaker traditions.”

Such resistance to traditional punitive measures, it turns out, is a Swarthmore trademark. Edward Parrish, one of the founders of the college, was forced out by the school’s board for his disinclination to crack down on student misbehavior. One hundred fifty years later, an articulation of that ethos was broadcast to the graduating class of 2013. Myrt Westphal, the dean who came under fire last year for allegedly not taking student complaints seriously, delivered the baccalaureate address at Commencement. “Laws and rules and punishments don’t always work,” she said, standing at the base of the grassy campus amphitheater. “They are a necessary underpinning, but they don’t always fix the problem. It is too easy to turn to the law, but I feel if you have to use the law, broadly speaking, you have lost. We need more human and personal techniques to reduce the conflicts.”

There is admirable idealism in that strain of thinking. But placid Quaker utopianism wasn’t the brand of reform students were looking for. “The problem that a lot of us have with ‘constructive dialogue’ is that ‘constructive’ is a code word for ‘nice,’” says sophomore Allison Hrabar, who went public with her assault story and who says her perpetrator was expelled last fall. “I had a lot of conversations with the school, but it wasn’t until the Title IX complaint that things started changing. And it wasn’t until I started dropping the word ‘lawyer’ that things started changing.”

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