News, University News

Brown weighs reintegration options for sexual assaulters

Rehabilitation of assaulters remains open, contentious issue for students, staff

By
Senior Reporter
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
This article is part of the series The Undercurrent

The University has developed extensive sexual assault prevention education aiming to reduce sexual assault on campus by replacing a culture of entitlement with one of consent. Beyond having community members understand the way they perpetuate this culture of entitlement, advocates say that undoing the systemic issues that lead to sexual assault on campus requires proper support for sexual assault survivors and ensuring perpetrators understand the harm they have caused. Advocates and researchers alike have found that such support and accountability can help mitigate cycle of harm.

Supporting survivors

Alana Sacks and Elliot Ruggles, the sexual harassment and assault resources and education advocates, provide support for students who have experienced harm due to sexual assault either from recent incidents or those in the past. They view the individual “as the expert on their own experience and on what response or course of action would work best for them,” Sacks said.

In the aftermath of an assault, the pair helps students navigate the medical and legal decision-making process while also providing emotional support. They take a trauma-informed approach, which “takes into account the wide prevalence of abuse, assault and other traumatic experiences … and is tailored to an understanding of common reactions to trauma,” Sacks wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

SHARE advocates can help students understand options regarding insurance, external therapists, time-sensitive evidence collection and working with law enforcement, Sacks said.

“Brown offers several programs to help a student that has been sexually assaulted or raped, but … I was only aware of them after I became a victim,” wrote  a current student, who was granted anonymity for confidentiality reasons, in an email to The Herald. She turned to a Counseling and Psychological Services psychiatrist for resources: “I only had to see her once, and she didn’t ask me to talk through the story of what happened,” the student wrote.

The psychiatrist gave her medications to take for post-traumatic stress disorder. “It was up to me to take them or not. That choice was really important to me, as well as the privacy she provided for me,” she wrote.

Support services are also available to secondary survivors — people who are supporting survivors and who may experience “vicarious traumatization,” are part of a community with the survivor and question their own safety, Sacks said.

Sacks and Ruggles also provide case management for survivors, such as advocating for academic or housing accommodations for survivors and supporting students through the Title IX process should they opt to proceed with an investigation, Sacks said.

But “the healing process happens in parallel or completely separate from that accountability process,” Ruggles said.

Kirsten Wolfe, assistant dean of student life and interim Title IX undergraduate coordinator, said that, anecdotally, both survivors who go through the Title IX processes and those who opt out “don’t feel very healed. Even people who have a favorable (hearing) outcome don’t feel healed by the process.”

“I think privacy is easily the most important thing that Brown can offer a victim: After feeling so violated in the most unimaginably awful way, the best thing the University can do is to make the student feel safe and protected,” the anonymous student wrote.

“As soon as the University found out what had happened to me, they were quick to give me phone numbers, websites and plenty of other resources which I could seek out depending on my comfort level, but almost all of them were off-campus,” she wrote. “At the time, I didn’t feel safe leaving campus, so I didn’t really explore the resources they recommended, but at least I knew they were there.”

Offenders and the campus community

In the context of national and campus-wide discourse that affirms survivors, universities must balance survivor support with accountability for perpetrators. The University currently does not have an equivalent advisor to help those accused or found responsible of sexual assault navigate the Title IX process and guide rehabilitation. Nor does Brown formally reintegrate students sanctioned under Title IX upon their return to campus.

“We have not known what to do … as a community” in regards to rehabilitating sanctioned students, said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson.

“There’s a lot of stigma around asking this question,” said Maahika Srinivasan ’15, former Undergraduate Council of Students president. “I think you’ll see that particularly manifested if you look at older policy conversations.”

Srinivasan worked on the Task Force on Sexual Assault in 2014 and 2015, which evaluated the campus climate around sexual assault and issued policy and practice recommendations.

Task Force members felt that survivors might be less likely to report their assaulter if sanctions were too extreme, as survivors often know their assaulters. Twenty-three percent of female Brown students surveyed who had experienced nonconsensual penetration by force said they did not report the incidents because they did not want the perpetrators to get in trouble, according to the 2015 campus climate survey.

“Justice systems as they are set up now are largely punitive,” Ruggles said. SHARE advocates specifically provide assistance to survivors, and many of the office’s newer initiatives come from student activists who felt survivors lacked support, Sacks said.

“I don’t think we have to get away from all the supports we have for survivors to also provide support for offenders,” Wolfe said.

“There’s room to support (offenders) in learning from the incident and learning from the experience of having caused harm, which leaves them less likely to do so in the future,” she said. “It’s also a way of supporting survivors.”

Approaching the aftermath of assault

Some researchers believe that restorative justice can be a potential alternative to the traditional hearing process.

Unlike punitively assigning sanctions, restorative justice focuses on acknowledging and repairing harm, said David Karp, a professor of sociology at Skidmore College and director of Campus PRISM — a project that promotes restorative justice practices for sexual misconduct through a three-tiered process of prevention, responding to individual incidents and providing support for offenders re-entering campus. When sanctions are assigned through an adversarial model, the accused may deny their actions. “There is nothing worse for a survivor than to listen to the accused student deny, minimize and lie because the consequences (of being found responsible) are so great,” he added.

Karp advocates a restorative model in which facilitators meet individually with the survivor and offender to gather information, listen to their experiences and understand what the survivor wants to express to the offender. The entire process is contingent on the offender claiming responsibility for their misconduct.

Brown’s Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has begun formalizing a restorative justice process for behavioral misconduct — which does not include sexual misconduct, harassment or assault — under Wolfe’s leadership.

Wolfe arrived at Brown in 2013 and began informally implementing restorative practices in an attempt to give students who were harmed by others’ actions “a voice in the process.” When the Title IX Office was formalized in 2015, it relieved the Office of Student Conduct of sexual misconduct cases, and Wolfe began to create a restorative justice alternative to the traditional hearing process, which she aims to release this summer.

But Wolfe emphasized that her current efforts with Student Conduct do not extend to Title IX-related issues.

The current political climate and the lack of  student advocacy for restorative justice in sexual misconduct cases  is reflected in University priorities. In the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights bars universities from using mediation to address issues of sexual misconduct.

But Karp emphasized the distinction between mediation and restorative justice.

“We shouldn’t assume that the goal is to bring them together,” as in mediation. Rather, restorative justice aims “to address the harm,” and ensure the offender understands how they have impacted the survivor, Karp said. Both the survivor and offender must want to work toward healing through non-adversarial methods.

“Using restorative practices for sexual misconduct has been pretty controversial” despite Karp’s advocacy, Wolfe said. She added that the University does not envision using restorative justice practices regarding sexual misconduct.

But Wolfe also recognized that survivors may want an option besides an official hearing.

The Title IX Office’s official process notes that students can seek an informal resolution process, in which they are not subject to an official hearing. Because the U.S. Office for Civil Rights guidance restricts universities from using mediation for sexual assault or interpersonal violence, this informal process is limited in its reach.

Karp emphasized that restorative practices are especially applicable when the survivor and offender have overlapping social circles. In those cases, the survivor often “really wants to communicate about the harm they’ve experienced,” he said.

Re-entry and reintegration

Brown implements sanctions, such as suspensions, to hold accountable students who have been found responsible for sexual misconduct. But when these students return to campus, the University does not have a formal rehabilitation process to reintegrate them.

Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Eric Estes noted that working with respondents who return to campus should not “be seen as somehow mutually exclusive” with supporting the entire campus community.

Effective re-entry practices and methods to ensure students do not commit assault again “is an under-researched and implemented aspect of this procedure,” Cooper Nelson said.

In his Campus PRISM approach, Karp advocates a Circle of Support and Accountability that directly seeks to support offenders upon their re-entry and aims to reduce recidivism. In the few case studies available, friends, advisors and volunteers offer guidance to offenders as they return to their communities.

The volunteers who participate are sometimes activists who want to directly hold offenders accountable, Karp said. But he also noted that he is “not aware of any CoSA programs currently implemented in higher education at this time.”

With regards to the Office of Student Conduct’s jurisdiction, the office could more easily implement a program that connects offenders with a circle of support rather than implement restorative justice, as the former requires no training. Unlike survivors, offenders require more educational support than emotional.

“If we don’t have the supports in place for students to learn from that, it feels like an adversarial process,” Wolfe said. “Then there’s an (emotional) disconnection with no support to come back (to campus).”

— Additional reporting by Gwen Everett