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Littlefield '09, Pappas '08, Plant '10 and Shield '09: Sexual assault policy battle inspires deja vu

It was with a mixture of interest and pain — and a powerful sense of deja vu — that we read The Herald’s recent article on the newly formed Sexual Assault Policy Task Force. In the spring of 2007, when we were all undergrads on College Hill, we found ourselves having similar conversations about how many of our friends and peers had survived sexual assault on the Brown campus and then lacked the resources to support them through their recovery. We too organized a Sexual Assault Task Force to promote awareness and improve resources and support for survivors of sexual assault. We developed a list of demands for the University and spent the next few years working to accomplish our goals: a sexual assault resource center, a support group for survivors, a peer education program aimed at prevention, a full-time sexual assault staff person, a 24-hour on-campus sexual assault hotline and most importantly, a review of campus policy — in particular, a rewriting of the disciplinary code, more extensive training for Department of Public Safety and all other staff who come into direct contact with survivors as well as the development of a system of anonymous reporting to improve sexual assault statistics.

In 2006, DPS released its annual crime report stating zero sexual assaults were committed on campus in 2005. Zero. Brown later revised the number to four. To us, that number proved the system was broken. One in five women will be sexually assaulted during her college career.  That means that at Brown, well over one hundred students were likely assaulted in 2005, and almost none came forward. We wanted to help end the silence. And we knew that would take deep, systemic change.

We did extensive research both on sexual assault policy at other schools around the country and on Brown’s own history of providing sexual assault resources. We drew inspiration from the students who came before us — kudos to the women in the 1990s who wrote the names of perpetrators in a bathroom stall in the Rockefeller Library when the University ignored their requests for an improved sexual assault policy. We met with DPS and Health Services. We had an audience with President Simmons and the Brown University Community Council. We worked closely with then-Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services and Interim Dean of the College Margaret Klawunn and Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey to negotiate reasonable steps the University could take to accomplish our goals. We were invited to participate in the 2009 review of the disciplinary code. Our hope was that the changes we helped craft would ensure that any student who sexually assaults another would be expelled and that victims were no longer re-traumatized — or “slut-shamed” — by the disciplinary process.

We also held protests on campus, including one during parents’ weekend, to publicize our demands. We led the annual “Take Back the Night” march against sexual violence through residential buildings to emphasize that sexual assault was in fact happening at Brown. We formed our own survivor support group, established a resource center in the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and launched a peer education program. Some of us joined the University’s newly-formed Student Sexual Assault Advisory Board to represent the needs of students to the administration. We welcomed Trish Bakaitis-Glover, the first full-time staff person to focus on addressing sexual assault on campus. We were proud of the work that we did, proud to have had the opportunity to help shape the school we care about passionately.

After the four of us departed, we know the Task Force remained active, at least into the 2011-2012 year. The student momentum must eventually have lapsed, but Brown’s attention to this crucial issue should not have graduated with us.

We recognize that many large, brand name institutions like Brown University have trouble publicly acknowledging their weaknesses. But once you acknowledge a problem and take steps to remedy it, how can you let the change slip away? After all of that research, work and energy on the part of both Brown students and staff, how is it possible that five years later, current Brown students must reinvent the wheel to implement resources and change policy? This has been an alarming lesson in institutional progress and growth. Was Brown’s willingness to work with us simply a means to placate our public vocalization of the problems that we saw on campus so that we stopped drawing negative attention? Or is advancement on this painful issue simply so slow that each new generation of students is forced to start from scratch? We are not willing to accept either explanation.

The crisis of sexual assault on college campuses has become a topic of national conversation — even the White House is joining the call for change. When one in five women can expect to be sexually assaulted while at Brown, the time to act is long overdue. Brown’s recent crime data shows that 16 sexual assaults were reported on campus in 2012 with one more reported on “public property.” Seven were reported in 2011 and nine in 2010. That’s likely more accurate than four. But it’s not enough. Victims are still being silenced.

We cannot deny that the University has made progress. Students now have access to a coordinator of sexual assault prevention and advocacy and a sexual assault response line, for example. But addressing the epidemic of sexual assault requires a more profound change in attitude. It requires a larger commitment by Brown to stop blaming victims and tolerating perpetrators. It requires replacing the commitment to Brown’s reputation with a commitment to justice.

As alums, we commend the current members of the Sexual Assault Policy Task Force. Keep up the fight; we’re proud of you. And thanks for adding “Policy” to the name. Good move. In return, we will make the most of our position as part of the institutional history to hold Brown accountable for the promises it makes to students when offering them a place to live, learn and thrive for four years.

 

 

Amy Littlefield ’09 -- littlefield.amy@gmail.com; Allison Pappas ’08 -- allisonwpappas@gmail.com; Amelia Plant ’10 -- asiplant@gmail.com; and Lily Shield ’09 -- lilyshield@gmail.com were among the founding members of the Sexual Assault Task Force in 2007.



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