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Byron '15, Gaines '16, Stewart '15, Yu '15: Money, power have no place in Brown’s procedures

We are writing as undergraduate representatives on the Task Force on Sexual Assault. Our charge is to create “a safe and secure campus environment.” Fundamental to this, we are told, is protection against sexual assault. “Sexual assault cannot be tolerated on campus and must be addressed in the context of all forms of sexual harassment and misconduct.” We believe we have an obligation to hold the University accountable for its recent actions that are inconsistent with this mission and the institution’s legal and moral obligations.

We would like, first of all, to express gratitude to the members of the task force for their hard work and dedication to addressing the issues of assault and harassment on campus. Members have spent hours educating themselves on this issue so as to discuss policies that might work best for Brown. We hope that the recommendations of the task force will be robust, creating a safer, more compassionate environment for survivors of sexual violence and a culture that does not tolerate sexual violence in any of its forms.

But changes to Brown’s written policies are meaningless if they fail in their implementation. It is profoundly disturbing to us that many of the obvious problems identified in the task force’s interim report, released in December, were repeated in the University’s handling of a recent sexual misconduct case. 

Through our work on the task force, we have seen first hand the difficulties in creating change in a bureaucratic system and understand that this process can be lengthy and frustrating. But the issues that the cases discussed over the past week have raised are not mere procedural hiccups. They are clear examples of the impact of bias, power and influence on this process. We strongly believe that policies protecting students who have experienced sexual violence must be implemented consistently and fairly, regardless of the power dynamics at play.

From our personal experiences of the process, we know that hearings are held when it has been determined that an incident could plausibly have occurred. As The Herald outlined in a March 4 article, Brown dropped charges against the student accused of serving a drink with GHB. This alleged perpetrator has a father who sits on the Corporation’s Board of Trustees. The decision surprised both women involved, with one writing to an administrator that she thought the University would hold a hearing given the witness testimony provided.

This was our understanding of the hearing process, and we find it highly unusual that these women were not even allowed to present their case in a hearing. The University decided that the testimony of these survivors was not credible enough to be heard.

It is uncommon for there to be conclusive physical evidence in such cases. Most, both in university hearings and in the criminal justice system, are decided not on physical evidence but on the testimony of survivors, respondents and witnesses. It is our responsibility as a community to understand that the absence of a positive GHB test does not mean that we cannot adjudicate these cases, and the University must ensure that we have mechanisms to hold individuals accountable for actions and harms that surely still exist. The University must protect its students, and we must hold the University accountable for equitable treatment of all who report such incidents.

In the other case — involving a different student, who was accused of sexually assaulting one of the women — the experience of one of the survivors was disregarded because she could not clearly remember what had happened to her. Memory loss being one of the key symptoms of having ingested GHB, we find this decision inexplicable. It is clear from witness accounts that the complainant exhibited outward signs of intoxication, including diminished motor skills. She also reported flash memories where she recalled not being able to move.

The task force’s interim report clearly stated that consent required an outward demonstration, through mutually understandable words or actions, indicating that an individual was freely choosing to engage in a sexual activity. Consent cannot be obtained by taking advantage of the incapacitation of another individual. Silence, passivity or the absence of resistance does not imply consent. Yet in this case the panel was not convinced that incapacitation — however induced — negated the possibility of consent.  There is a clear discrepancy between the definition of consent in the University’s policy and that which was applied in this case. This uneven application of policy undermines students’ faith in the University’s disciplinary process and the school’s commitment to addressing sexual violence on campus.  

One of the task force’s major goals has been to foster an environment of safety and support for survivors. In its handling of these cases, the University has failed in its mission. Through a series of unclear and inconsistent community notifications, the University muddled the narrative, which resulted in discrediting the survivors. Furthermore, when the survivors expressed that the postering by Phi Kappa Psi made them feel unsafe and the target of retaliation — an act prohibited by Title IX — the University failed to take their concerns seriously and did not act accordingly. The University denied agency to the survivors, who had already had their agency taken from them through the alleged assault.

It is imperative that University policies and procedures are carried out equitably and consistently, regardless of connections, power, money or other extenuating factors. Definitions of consent need to be clear and consistent in policy and implementation and incorporate an understanding of the ways that date-rape drugs impact an individual’s ability to consent.

In order to regain the trust of the student body, the University needs to take seriously its obligation to protect all students, create a safe learning environment and take a stronger stance against external influence on the adjudication and sanctioning processes for sexual violence. It is our hope that the task force’s substantial efforts will not be undermined by unfair and inconsistent implementation.

Katie Byron ’15, Justice Gaines ’16, Lauren Stewart ’15 and Yvonne Yu ’15 are the undergraduate members of the Task Force on Sexual Assault.


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