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Students seek update of college sexual assault policy

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DEMONSTRATORS MARCH PAST Middlebury College’s Old Chapel last week in an effort to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus.<br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — A group of Middlebury College students hoping to overhaul the college’s nearly 20-year-old sexual assault policy is finding the administration is also ready for change.

Junior Aki Ito has been working with students, faculty and administrators drawing up a proposal to update the school’s policy, pushing for more preventative approaches to sexual violence and a more extensive support system for students who have experienced it.

“When you look at the handbook, it talks about what sexual assault is at Middlebury and how you can decide to proceed with a judicial proceeding, but it doesn’t talk about what that specifically entails,” Ito said. “What we want is every single step mapped out. We want a document that says if you’re sexually assaulted, these are the things you want to do, and then list every single thing that’s going to happen.”

But Ito and her team want more than a chapter in the college handbook.

They are proposing everything from mandatory attendance to a freshman orientation show that looks at dating, sex and rape on college campuses, to implementing a system to anonymously report sexual assaults, to hiring a response team that would handle every aspect of a victim’s recovery, including counseling and gathering evidence, should that person choose to press charges.

They are modeling their proposal after programs and policies they’ve found at other colleges, particularly Bowdoin College and Lewis and Clark College.

Last year the college’s Department of Public Safety received two reports of forcible sex offenses and the year before it received four. But students say many more incidents go unreported. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, less than 5 percent of college student rapes are reported to authorities.

“There are definitely times when I don’t feel safe as a woman (on campus),” Ito said. “I think there’s a lot more that the school can do to change that, and that’s the conversation that we’ve been actively involved in with members of the community.”

At a demonstration last week that drew a couple dozen people to Old Chapel, Middlebury students talked about their experiences as victims of sexual assault.

“We wanted to provide a public venue for people to come together to address an important issue, a silenced issue,” Ito said.

The hesitancy of students to report sexual assaults on campus is evident in a report on the status of women at Middlebury recently released by a task force made up of students, faculty, staff and the administration. The report is the result of hundreds of interviews conducted with members of the college community earlier this year.

“There are so many students on this campus, some of whom we’ve been talking to, who consciously decided not to go forward with charges because they didn’t want to go through the judicial hearing process… and they feared retaliation,” Ito said.

 Secretary of the College John Emerson has been part of a group in the administration evaluating these issues for more than a year. He is thrilled that students are mobilizing to join the effort and is supportive of many of their ideas. He stressed, however, that they seem to all support the underlying philosophy of the college’s current sexual assault policy.

“A very important underlying assumption of the existing policy is that somebody who is allegedly a victim of assault is put in control of their own situation,” he said. “We don’t take away control from an individual who has been assaulted. We advise them of what options are available to them… but we don’t tell anybody you have to press charges, you have to go to the police.”

Ito hopes to complete the proposal this summer so she can present it next fall to the community council, a committee of students, faculty and staff. Meanwhile, members of the administration will spend the summer looking over the recommendations made in the status of women report, according to Shirley Ramirez, the vice president for institutional planning and diversity, who has worked closely with Ito. 

“Our existing sexual assault policy is long, thorough and very explicit, and was adopted with consultation of the community,” Ramirez said. “That said, it is in need of revisions.”

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