Sexual assault activism traced
As attention has been building around campus protests and recent cases that have put the spotlight on University policies and practices, Brandeis has worked to improve its grievance process, has hired a sexual assault and prevention specialist and is in the process of finalizing its rape crisis center. These changes, however, have been implemented after almost 30 years of advocacy on behalf of students, staff and faculty for better policies, procedures and resources.
Advocacy for victim protections and improved policies has been active since the 1970s, after the Education Amendments of 1972 incorporated Title IX. In the 1970s, a section in Brandeis’ student handbook—which was a precursor to the Rights and Responsibilities handbook that is given to students today—noted the existence of Title IX and provided an affirmative action officer as a contact to file complaints about potential discrimination issues.
The earliest signs of discourse about sexual harassment and assault at Brandeis came from Student Sexuality Information Service, which first appeared in the 1976 student handbook. The service was described as a source for peer counseling on relations, birth control, abortion, sexual identity, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, incest, sexual health, harassment and sexual dysfunction, according to the handbook. Although sexual assault was not its primary focus, it was a topic for which SSIS provided counseling.
In the same year, a Title IX officer was employed and is mentioned in an Oct. 5, 1976 Justice article. At that time, though, the primary staff member involved in sexual harassment policies appears to have been the affirmative action officer, as shown by the officer’s role in Title IX complaints and harassment grievance procedures.
The first clear action taken to implement a policy to formally discipline sexual harassment can be traced back to a Women’s Studies program’s subcommittee of 1981. The subcommittee requested that a University-wide committee be created to establish formal sexual harassment grievance policies, according to a Nov. 23, 1981 memo obtained by the Justice. The sub-committee also requested that the committee address distribution and education on regulations, training, women to be appointed to hear sexual harassment charges at the first level of reporting and to hold a day of lectures and workshops.
As a result of the 1981 memo from the Women’s Studies program’s sub-committee, a University-wide committee was formed, and faculty within the Women’s Studies program had some say in the decision-making process. It was not until February 1982 that a grievance procedure was formalized at Brandeis, according to an April 29, 1982 Justice article.
The previous procedure, according to a March 16, 1982 Justice article, had been an ad hoc and informal grievance procedure. The solidified process involved first filing an informal complaint and attempting conciliation. If an agreeable solution was not reached, the complaint could go through a formal process.
In 1986, an ad hoc Committee on Sexual Assault and Harassment formed, and was comprised primarily of faculty and staff. According to an Oct. 21, 1986 Justice article, the committee was formed in response to growing reports of sexual harassment. The goals of the committee were to initiate education, policy review and advocacy, and to help the survivor through the grievance process. Former Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer, who left the University in the summer of 2013, was one of the members of the committee along with former Director of Graduate Student Affairs Alwina Bennett, who left the University on June 30, and other faculty members and staff of student life. The committee maintained a significant presence on campus into the next decade and through even more grievance procedure changes.
In 1987, a new Equal Opportunity and Discrimination/Harassment Grievances Procedure was created. Around that time, the Prof. Emeritus David Jacobson (ANTH) harassment case, in which a student accused the professor of sexual harassment, had garnered attention at the University, as well as on a national level. Though Jacobson denied the allegations, he reached a settlement with the University, giving him a two-year leave of absence, a monetary settlement and restrictions on personal contact with students. The settlement was announced in August.
An Oct. 6 Justice article that year explained that, because the previous grievance procedure had been meant for all types of discriminatory harassment, including racial and gender-based, among others, the process was distressing for survivors of sexual assault and harassment. The new procedure was designed to “minimize formality” to ensure that assault survivors did not have to repeat their stories multiple times, according to the article. The committee that drafted this new policy also decided that the Affirmative Action Office would handle faculty and staff complaints, while the Judicial Board handled student-on-student complaints.
That year, the Student Senate, now referred to as the Student Union Senate, also created a committee on sexual harassment and rape, according to a Jan. 27, 1987 Justice article. The committee demanded protection for survivors of rape and the simplification of the process a survivor had to endure in filing complaints. However, the committee did not appear again in future archival documents or searches. The article mentioned that several unidentified individuals in Student Life objected to the committee’s existence, saying that senators were not qualified to begin education.
Student groups also formed to address the issue of sexual assault more specifically. The Rape Awareness Group, which established a support network for victims, was chartered by the Student Senate in 1985, as detailed by a Nov. 19, 1985 Justice article. The RAG established a rape hotline on Jan. 27 of the next year.
The University hired Sheila McMahon to take on a new role as sexual assault and prevention specialist in October 2013. However, suggestions to create such a position can be traced as far back as the 1990s. In a 1992 outline for a cabinet presentation obtained by the Justice, COSAH requested that a full or part-time employee be hired to educate the community on sexual harassment and other related topics. The outline stated that COSAH “does not have the skills or time needed to educate and train the Brandeis community” on sexual harassment and suggested that the University take on the responsibility of doing so. The committee noted that the best way to achieve this would be either to hire a part-time or full-time employee to educate the community or to bring in an outside consultant. The suggestion was made under former University President Samuel O. Thier’s administration. President Emeritus Jehuda Reinharz took over just a few years later in 1995. It was not until the administration of University President Frederick Lawrence, who took over in 2011, that a staff member was hired solely for this purpose.
“As the then young student judicial system matured, and as the student affairs/student life staff grew, the need for our existence as the almost sole entity on the issue began to fade. Our goals and our methodology crept out into many of the departments and services and organizations on campus,” wrote Sawyer in an email to the Justice. “Since you asked about this, I have enjoyed the look back and realize how much of what we did is still imbedded [sic] in the campus landscape. I also take some pride in realizing that though when we created this 30 years ago, it was very primitive by today’s standards, at the time it was leading edge in for New England higher education.”
Levels of reporting are now further outlined in the resource guide for sexual assault survivors, which was recently released in June after Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence submitted a petition expressing several concerns about the University’s handling of the sexual assault issue; however, levels of reporting have been noted in the handbook for several years. University Police Lt. Bette Reilly wrote in an email to the Justice that these levels of reporting have been in existence for “15 plus” years. The third party or anonymous form was developed so a person could report without formally coming forward while simultaneously giving the University information that assaults were happening. The confidential report was put into place because the majority of students that came forward did not want to press criminal charges or file a Community Standards Report, according to Reilly, “but they wanted it on record in case it happened to anyone else, or to have it documented in case they wanted to file a charge in the future.” The formal report is the standard reporting structure, she wrote.
“The only major change to these reports since the push on Title IX, is with the confidential report, when a student comes forward and wants the confidential report we now have to explain that we will have to share the information with the Title IX coordinator who will make the determination if the report can remain confidential,” Reilly wrote.