A Yale College Council resolution passed last Wednesday night calls for Yale to overhaul its system of reporting and responding to accusations of sexual assault on campus, but administrators and student groups are divided about the merits of the YCC’s proposal for reform.
The resolution proposes the creation of an official University advocacy position dedicated solely to providing victims of sexual assault with emotional, medical and legal support. It also calls for the creation of a formal board to increase campus awareness of sexual assault and a new methodology for documenting sexual assaults claims more accurately.
“People have the right to know the prevalence of sexual assault because people need to know they are not isolated victims … and they deserve the support and recognition of the Yale campus,” YCC Representative Larry Wise ’08 said.
The resolution, which passed with 23 votes in favor and 1 abstention, follows a series of discussions between the YCC, the student group Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention, and the University’s Sexual Assault Grievance Board.
University officials said Yale’s sexual assault reporting system has improved over the last few years. At the end of this semester, the University’s Sexual Assault Grievance Board will publish a report on findings from an internal review currently underway, and the board will begin publishing anonymous listings of its cases in the Yale Bulletin and Calendar. But several student groups said they are concerned that Yale still lacks important resources — a centralized sexual assault response system, a consistent method for reporting statistics, and sufficient promotion of student awareness on the issue — to allow students who have been assaulted to come forward without fear.
Debate over centralization
There are currently several free counseling programs for assault victims, which are offered by University Health Services, the student-run Consent and WALDEN peer counseling groups, the Offices of the Dean and University Chaplain. In addition, the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, a seven-person body composed of administrators, faculty and students, rules on assault cases through informal discussions with involved parties, though it does not have the disciplinary powers of the Yale College Executive Committee.
Wise, who co-authored the resolution with YCC President Steven Syverud ’06, said he thinks that while Yale offers plenty of resources to support assault victims, the offerings are too decentralized to be effective.
“The problem at Yale is not that it has too many options, but it is like having a bunch of feet on an animal, but not a brain telling it where to go,” Wise said. “This person will help you pick the best option for you. You don’t just have seven options. You have a person who can help you pick between the seven.”
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he is willing to consider changes to Yale’s rape response system, but he said he wants to hear the recommendations in the Grievance Board’s report before making any final decisions.
“Dean Trachtenberg and I have met with students interested in these issues, and we’ve tried to talk about the advantages of the system we have in place,” Salovey wrote in an e-mail. “But that’s not the same as saying I’m opposed to something.”
Trachtenberg, Yale College’s dean of student affairs, said she favors the University’s current response system because it allows students to choose the form of guidance they find most comfortable. She said students may not feel at ease with a University counselor advocate they have never met before.
“If you have a centralized person, the student might not know that person, and would be talking to a stranger,” Trachtenberg said.
But Stephanie Urie DIV ’02, who alleges that she was assaulted by a Divinity School junior professor after graduating, said she thinks having a stranger help sort through the reporting process may help overcome sexual assault victims’ “fears of being a whistle-blower.”
“This is not an either-or situation into which [Trachtenberg] casts it,” Urie wrote in an e-mail. “A complainant can seek the initial advice of a trusted leader of the Yale community, while also availing his or herself of the objective, savvy and consistent liaison who is tasked with handling the complex implementation of Yale grievance policy.”
The YCC proposal also advocates increasing student awareness by creating an official Yale Web site listing available resources for victims — a project the University has already launched — and putting up information table tents, sending out campus-wide e-mails and holding discussion seminars.
Reaction to the resolution
Several members of student groups related to peer counseling and rape issues have voiced concerns about both the current decentralized response system for sexual assault victims and aspects of the YCC proposal.
RSVP co-coordinator Allyson Goldberg ’08 said she thinks Yale’s current assault reporting system makes it difficult for victims to find support.
“Dealing with sexual assault is a long and difficult, multidimensional process, and without proper support, some victims just give up,” Goldberg said. “It is important to have a non-biased person that will coordinate the visit to the hospital to get the rape kit, or to the lawyer, or to have the case heard with the Grievance Board.”
Freshman counselor Emma VanGenderen ’06 said that while she thinks some recommendations in the resolution — including increasing student awareness of sexual assault and establishing a Web site with a comprehensive flow chart of the sexual assault resolution process — would be helpful to students, she thinks the creation of counselor advocate position will only add to the current problem of having too many resources.
“The more options you have out there, the harder it is to advertise all of them and the efficacy of each of them because it starts to get confusing,” VanGenderen said. “Who takes on each role? Do you have one person in control of legal aspects, one person who is in charge of the psychological counseling, and then another person in charge of peer counseling?”
Grayson Walker ’07, a coordinator for Yale’s chapter of the National Organization of Men’s Outreach for Rape Education, said he is fairly optimistic about the proposals for promoting awareness.
“Will everyone attend? Probably not,” Walker said. “But STEP (the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership) has study breaks anytime they want to. … I could see that working here, too. I feel like you could get a lot of students in a room for at least 5 or 10 minutes and get a lot of information delivered there in that time, just to get people thinking about it.”
VanGenderen said she thinks that in addition to spreading awareness of sexual assault issues, there also needs to be greater publicity about the function and jurisdiction of the Grievance Board.
Controversy over the Grievance Board
While the Grievance Board cannot take formal disciplinary action against undergraduates, it can take formal action against professors and teaching assistants, Grievance Board Convenor Peter Parker said. Formed in the late 1970s, the Grievance Board was originally created to settle women’s harassment complaints against University faculty members, Parker said, but today, 80 to 90 percent of cases before the board involve incidents between undergraduates.
Grievance Board member Dara Young ’07 said the flexibility of Grievance Board discussions — which allow victims to choose whether they want to be identified to the accused party — ensures that victims are comfortable and in control of all actions taken.
Federal legislation requires college “campus security authorities” to document and report all cases of sexual assault to the government. In August 2004, the campus safety watchdog organization Security on Campus asked the Department of Education to investigate Yale’s crime reporting practices, because the University did not begin reporting cases heard before the Grievance Board until about three years ago. The dispute lay in whether the Grievance Board — which currently includes Trachtenberg and Branford College Dean Thomas McDow as administrators — constitutes a “campus security authority,” since the board uses an informal means of resolution and lacks disciplinary power.
According to the Department of Education Student Assistance General Provisions on Campus Safety, deans are not considered campus security authorities by title alone. But “an official of an institution who has significant responsibility for student and campus activities, but does not have significant counseling responsibilities” is considered a campus security authority.
While Harvard University reported 69 cases of forcible sexual offenses between 2002 and 2004, Yale reported 12, according to the U.S. Department of Education Campus Security Statistics Web site. Trachtenberg said the Grievance Board heard approximately eight to 12 cases of sexual assault and harassment last year.
“In the past [the Board] hasn’t even reported statistics, because no one asked for them,” Parker said.
While any sexual assault incident involving members of the Yale community may come before the Grievance Board, only incidents that occurred on campus property would be reported to the government, which accounts for the discrepancy between Trachtenberg’s statistics and the USDOE Web site’s statistics, Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said.
“Not all cases of sexual harassment involve sexual assault,” Highsmith said in an e-mail. “In addition, a matter of sexual harassment or sexual assault that involves members of the Yale community would come to the Grievance Board no matter where it took place, while the [law] requires reporting of sexual assaults on campus property, campus-owned or related property, non-campus property used in support of the institutional mission, and public property adjacent to campus — but not in someone’s private home or non-University apartment, for example.”
Parker said the issue of whether a sexual assault occurred on or off campus also makes accurately documenting statistics difficult.
“That is a very thorny issue, because how do you count what the legal situation asks for? Things that occur off campus is not what the law is looking for,” Parker said. “Will things be reported if you simply get an inquiry?”
RSVP co-coordinator Alexa Verme ’08 said that to ensure accurate sexual assault statistics, students also have a responsibility to seek help.
“No school has perfect reporting, because it’s up to the survivor to come forward,” Verme said.