Response to Petition Regarding Sexual Assault at Williams

Dear Member of the Williams Community,

I’m writing to you as I believe you’ve signed or been made aware of the Change.org petition regarding sexual assault at Williams.

Nothing in my job as dean of the college is more important than student safety and well-being. And nothing can damage the fabric of our campus community more than sexual assault. As someone who’s worked closely with many survivors, I have a sense of the great harm that sexual assault creates—both its immediate effects for survivors and the longer-term consequences for them and their friends and family. It’s our knowledge of that pain, and the possibility of sparing students from it, that motivates my staff and me to press ahead with this work. I’m fortunate to do so at a college that fully embraces this effort, including sharing publicly what we know about ways we must do better. That support starts with President Falk and the Board of Trustees and runs through our students, faculty, and staff. We appreciate that you join us in caring so much about this topic.

President Falk shares with me a deep urgency in addressing sexual assault, and it has long been a primary concern for us both. Since 2010, we’ve been working with student and staff leaders who, in collaboration with an external consultant on best practices, have helped us build our work in every area, from prevention, awareness, and education to support and the disciplinary process.

Today we have two active groups of students and staff working both on our policies and practices, as well as on new ideas for student support. Our Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness group, which was founded in the fall of 2011, is made up of students and staff, including those on the front lines of activism and student support. This group meets biweekly, year-round, to examine each part of what we do, brainstorm ideas, and propose and enact changes.

The work done by these two groups has led to a strengthening of everything we do. We’ve created a website with information about how to get help and with answers to frequently asked questions; articulated a clear definition of consent; provided professional training for all student affairs staff, as well as for JAs and other campus leaders; and improved our orientation programming for first-year students.

Out of that work some policy changes have emerged, as well. Sexual assaults are no longer investigated by members of the dean’s office and campus safety and security, but by a professional from outside the college. And the determination of whether the college’s Code of Conduct has been violated and, if so, what sanction should be imposed, is made not by me alone but by three professionally trained members of the college’s staff.

We’ve also created the position of director of sexual assault prevention and response, and brought to that role this spring Meg Bossong ’05, formerly director of community engagement for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

While our policies and practices have changed significantly over the last few years, I’m certain that they’ll evolve further, with the help of students and increasingly good research and thinking about this issue nationally. Indeed, we must always be working to do better, until we can be certain that sexual assault doesn’t happen here. That’s why I welcome more, and more public, conversation. None of us has all the answers; I know that I don’t.

The petition offers a helpful framework to think about this work at Williams. The actions the petition seeks are ones that either we already do or would certainly adopt if we believed they would reduce the number of assaults or increase the safety and support of survivors and the accessibility of disciplinary and legal processes.

In that light, with apologies for the length of this letter, I’m happy now to respond specifically to each petition item.

1. Students who report victimization should not be discouraged by any member of the Williams College administration to report to the police and pursue criminal investigation in addition to seeking disciplinary action through the College’s own channels.

I agree. This is an essential part of any effective response to sexual assault. We actively encourage every survivor to pursue both a criminal investigation with police and a disciplinary process with the college. Reporting to police can occur at any time—before, during, or even years after a college investigation. We offer each reporting student the services of a staff member—one of several trained to provide survivors direct support through every step of the process of reporting to police. As is true nationally, most survivors at Williams choose not to pursue a police investigation. Even when that’s the case, we notify the Williamstown Police Department as soon as a report comes to us, without sharing the survivor’s name. This is our automatic practice: We immediately notify police of every report of sexual assault made to us. We then encourage all reporting students to pursue a police investigation, and we offer trained staff to go with them to the police department and to court, to connect them with victim witness advocates and other local resources, and to support their well-being throughout that process. It’s important that survivors have a choice about what actions they’ll pursue.

2. …the consequence in sexual assault cases involving penetration by force, deliberate incapacitation with intention of penetration by force, and cases regarding repeat offenders (students who have previously been found guilty of sexual assault) must be mandatory expulsion.

The issue of mandated sanctions is an important and complicated one, on which there’s ongoing national discussion. In setting and reviewing each part of our policy we do so with an eye to what’s most effective in reducing sexual assault on our campus and, when assault does occur, what’s most effective in supporting survivors and holding assailants accountable. We should adopt every policy that advances these goals.

Most colleges, including Williams, follow the current national understanding of this matter and do not mandate expulsion for violations involving sexual assault. Two reasons apply.

•      We can only support survivors and hold assailants accountable if survivors come forward and report. It’s widely understood that colleges with mandatory expulsion for sexual assault see lower rates of reporting. The reason seems to be the added social pressure survivors feel when expulsion is the only possible outcome. This means that in the current, widely held understanding of the effects of mandated expulsion, adopting it at Williams could make our campus less safe, not more. While not mandated, expulsion is indeed a sanction we’ve imposed.

•      The first step in the adjudication process is to determine whether a preponderance of the evidence supports the conclusion that there’s been a violation of our Code of Conduct regarding sexual misconduct. Determining this requires diligence and clear judgment, and from experience here and at other colleges it’s clear that even people trained to do this work often can’t help having their judgment influenced by a mandated sanction. This is particularly true when the evidence is complex and contradictory, as is often the case, and when the preponderance of evidence is difficult to determine.

We’ll continue to discuss sanctions with our students and to watch closely the national conversation on best practices in this regard. If there comes a time when we believe mandatory expulsion would make our students safer (rather than less safe, as now seems the case), I’m sure that we’d adopt it.

3. [The college should contract] with experienced investigators, skilled in areas of interviewing, assessment of statements and credibility, and detection of deception.

This is now our practice.

4. Confidentiality agreements should be sworn to by all parties — including witnesses who testify — and any violation of confidentiality or perjury should result in immediate disciplinary action.

Confidentiality is indeed a vital part of any effective system of response. We make clear our understanding to all participants in an investigation, including witnesses, the importance of maintaining it. Breaches in confidentiality and presentation of false evidence are violations of the Code of Conduct and are sanctioned whenever an investigation shows that they’ve taken place.

5. [B]oth parties should be allowed access to a transcript of any witness testimony.

In alignment with best practices, all witness statements that are relevant to assessing the violation are collected in the report of the professional investigator. Both the reporting student and the respondent are given copies of the investigator’s report and are offered the chance to respond and to suggest additional information, questions, and witnesses before it goes to the panel for review.

6. Any . . . process should be conducted in a thorough and efficient manner, and should not last longer than 60 days.

Our process (not including appeal) concludes within 60 days, as is mandated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

7. The [outcome] — and the rationale behind it — should be fully explained to both parties.

We issue a written notice of findings simultaneously to the reporting student and respondent, and we present these in person with the opportunity for discussion. This letter explains the outcome of the process and the reasoning behind it, as well as the processes available to appeal the decision. We also invite both students to discuss with a dean any concerns or questions that arise.

8. Any act of retaliation or harassment against the victim, by any member of the Williams community, should be punishable by expulsion.

Our Code of Conduct explicitly bans all violence, harassment, and retaliation. When a report of this kind is made, we investigate it immediately and fully. And whenever a violation of the code is determined to have taken place, we impose a sanction. Regarding automatic sanctioning, though, the comments in number 2 apply.

9. Accommodations for housing should encompass protection for the victim, not only from the assailant, but also from anyone involved in allegations of harassment or victimization.

This is absolutely crucial. From the moment of reporting, we attend to the housing and academic accommodations needed to advance reporting students’sense of safety and recovery. We continue this work throughout the investigation and through each reporting student’s remaining time at the college. We do this in a variety of ways, worked out in close consultation with the student. This can involve a change in the rooming or academic arrangements of the student against whom a claim has been made and of others involved in an investigation. At the reporting student’s wishes it could involve a change in arrangements for that student, and even for a group of the student’s friends. Accommodations can be altered, and even introduced, long after the conclusion of the disciplinary process, as students’ needs change.

10. [Meg] Bossong should revise the college website so that policies, rules, and procedures are more accessible and clearly expressed.

One of Meg’s responsibilities is indeed to continue the ongoing review of the website and to do so with these goals in mind, as they’re our goals, too.

11. Bossong should contact and interview all recent victims of sexual assault. She should specifically ask:

•      What the college did well in handling the case.

•      What the college did not do well in handling the case.

•      If the victim has suggestions for how to encourage other victims to report assaults.

•      If the victim has suggestions as to rules or policies that would discourage sexual assault.

We use meetings of our Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness group as the way to do this work without violating the privacy of survivors. Student advocates from our Rape and Sexual Assault Network, Women’s Center, and Queer Student Union, among others, bring us the concerns of survivors with whom they’re in conversation. It’s through this approach that we’ve come to the changes in the investigation and adjudication process implemented this year. We also invite survivors who’ve reported through our process to share their thoughts about what we could do better.

As part of the comprehensive review of our policies and practices we’re planning for next year, we’ll canvass students broadly to learn more about changes in process they’d like to see, ways to encourage reporting, and more. In this way we hope to hear from survivors who’ve reported and those who haven’t, allowing us to improve our processes without invading privacy.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this long letter. I know we all have the same goal: the safety and well-being of Williams students, about whom we all care so deeply. I’m glad that the circle of this conversation is expanding. It’s one that I can promise you will continue at Williams.

Sincerely,

Sarah Bolton
Dean of the College