Changes made to handling of sexual misconduct cases

Rachel Alexander

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The Whitman administration made significant changes in its procedures for handling sexual assault over the summer, with an emphasis on improved communication with the Walla Walla YWCA and police department. These changes were made in response to student complaints about Whitman’s handling of sexual assault on campus.

Specifically, the Whitman administration said they were addressing concerns raised in a March 1, 2012 Pioneer article, in which two students who had been sexually assaulted on campus spoke about the difficulties they encountered in reporting their rapes to the police and going through Whitman’s sexual misconduct hearing process.

Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland said that his office met with these two students last spring and asked them to make recommendations for changes to Whitman’s practices.

“We went over in detail every issue that they had. That was difficult, and it was helpful,” he said.

Based on these conversations, Cleveland presented a verbal report to the college’s governing board detailing the students’ suggestions, as well as the March 1, 2012 Pioneer board editorial which criticized Whitman’s handling of sexual assault cases. Cleveland said that his office is working the students’ suggestions into the college’s practices for dealing with future cases. He is also working with Sexual Misconduct Prevention Coordinator Barbara Maxwell to ensure that victims who come forward receive more systematic support from Whitman, whether they choose to pursue a formal case  or not.

Maxwell redesigned the opening week consent program to have a more serious tone, since the students in question felt that using too much humor detracted from the importance of consent. Maxwell said she is also planning to do follow-up sessions with individual first-year sections over the course of the semester.

“We’re going to do some more follow-ups and not put all our eggs in the Green Dot basket,” she said.

Additionally, the Health Center will now automatically contact a victim’s advocate from the Walla Walla YWCA  if a student comes in alleging sexual assault. While the student will be able to choose whether or not they wish to speak to an advocate, the college’s default position is to provide one.

“The Y is thrilled about it,” said Maxwell.

Whitman alumna Zoe* ’12, who came forward last spring with allegations that Whitman mishandled her sexual misconduct complaint, said that she appreciated the chance to speak about what happened to her.

“It was really nice, because I was able to sit down [with the administration] and be like, ‘These things are failing your students,'” she said.

Still, she’s not sure that the recent changes will be enough to address the issues she raised last spring.

“Any change is good change, [but] it’s really hard to have faith in an institution that’s betrayed you,” she said.

The Whitman administration also met with the Walla Walla Police Department to clarify Whitman’s responsibilities with regard to sexual assault. Although sexual assault is a crime which can be handled by local police, Whitman is legally obligated to investigate claims of sexual assault under Title IX, a federal law pertaining to gender discrimination in education.

“Most law enforcement don’t understand Title IX or our obligations to comply with that federal regulation,” said Cleveland.

Cleveland believes that clarifying procedural issues with the police will make it easier for students who choose to report these crimes to law enforcement.

“If a student wants to make a contact [with the police], we’re going to be much more effective in helping students do that,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that students understand that this is an option. We’re not going to force them to do it.”

Maxwell hopes that students will continue the conversation about sexual assault that began last semester.

“Last semester, it was on everybody’s minds. I don’t know that the first-year class will think too much about it,” she said. She added that a number of students have come to her with ideas for additional programming related to consent and sexual misconduct.

“I’m really optimistic about it,” she said.

Maxwell said that last spring’s discussion of sexual assault also helped her clarify her own thinking about her role on campus.

“Green Dot is a really amazing program, but it’s only one side of the issue. I hadn’t been spending enough time on the other side of the issue,” she said.

Note: Zoe is this student’s real name. She asked that her last name not be used  so that this article would not appear in search results.

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