At Swarthmore and Other Colleges, Students Say Sexual Assault Is a Persistent—and Often Mishandled—Problem
“I obviously went through it, but to put [it] into words is harder.”
The voice on the other end of the line is unsteady.
Joshua, a 21-year-old Swarthmore College student, is calling from his home in California—three time zones and 2,800 miles away from the prestigious campus 30 minutes outside Philadelphia. He’s back on the West Coast for the summer, tackling unfinished coursework after leaving school a few weeks early.
But, on this late July evening, he’s recalling the night last fall when he was raped, and the details of how Swarthmore mishandled his case. (Joshua is a pseudonym; he spoke to RH Reality Check on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by Swarthmore’s administration.)
Joshua’s story is one of 13 testimonies accompanying the May 22 federal complaint filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) alleging Swarthmore violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—which prohibits schools receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex, a mandate extended to sexual harassment and sexual violence—by creating a “hostile environment” and discouraging students from reporting or pursuing disciplinary action against sexual misconduct. The same day, students from the University of Southern California, the University of California, Berkeley, and Dartmouth College lodged similar complaints.
In September 2012, after a big fraternity party on campus, Joshua was brutally and violently raped in the bedroom of an apartment rented by a friend of his assailant—a member of one of Swarthmore’s fraternities who, sometime just before the attack, went on a rant about which male students were “‘faggots’ or ‘faggoty’ and if they were ‘so faggy,’ they needed to get slapped,” Joshua recounted.
He was then harassed by his offender through an online forum called (Like) Like a Little, which was created to gossip with and about Swarthmore students. Joshua considers the harassment an intimidation tactic intended to silence him. Under multiple pseudonyms, his rapist called him a “faggot,” “the admission’s mistake,” and “a pathological liar,” but his true identity was discovered after Swarthmore’s Department of Public Safety launched an investigation following a report filed by Joshua. Although the office found evidence of sexual harassment, Joshua said the rapist was at the time not penalized. “That’s … what caused me to really crack, because I watched him get away with something again,” he told RH Reality Check.
After having a long discussion with a fellow student, a graduating senior, who revealed the same offender raped him three times during his college years, Joshua reported the September assault to Department of Public Safety Director Michael Hill and Associate Director Joanna Gallagher, who was also Title IX deputy coordinator at the time.
“I felt angry to hear that somebody else also experienced the same thing and even more graphic, and repeated,” Joshua told RH Reality Check. “It was just a crazy amount of power that [he] exhibited over people on campus, and he has the ability to keep people quiet, so I just decided to break the silence finally.”
The Department of Public Safety, which oversees campus security and handles campus emergencies, launched an investigation. It also opened a case with the College Judiciary Committee (CJC), the judicial body that tries “major infractions of College regulations.” The CJC has the authority to impose punitive sanctions, including fines, community service, suspension, and expulsion.
The handling of his case, Joshua said, was “sub-par,” with red flags at every turn. For instance, he said the case was delayed so the defendant could submit more witnesses, but Joshua was told he wasn’t allowed to do the same. (Joshua also finds it suspicious that the defendant was allowed to use a school administrator as his trial support person; that is permitted under CJC procedure.)
Joshua then had to relive what happened “over and over again” during the four-and-a-half-hour trial. Swarthmore’s dean of students, Liz Braun, who served as convener, repeatedly questioned his state of intoxication the night of the assault, per alleged observations from a defendant’s witness, and the panel worked to determine how sexuality played a role in a male student’s rape—”how a gay person can rape another gay person.”
According to Joshua, the person who assaulted him argued he was aware of “inch measurements” and how deep the penetration went—the implication being that there was consensual sex. “Then I was asked by Dean Braun whether or not I could corroborate the inch measurements,” he said. “[The assailant] was acting like there was a ruler on site at the rape.” In an email, Joshua noted that the assailant “later proceeded to mold his account of events into a situation in which I was forcing him to have sex with me (forcing himself to insert).”
The rapist was found guilty of sexual assault and expelled in May—the first student to face expulsion at Swarthmore in ten years, claim Joshua and Hope Brinn (class of 2015), one of the main complainants behind the OCR charge.
“The College Judiciary Committee process is in the most dire need of reform,” Brinn told RH Reality Check. Brinn reported experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault on two separate occasions within the last two years, and said she was met with “deliberate administrative indifference” by the school. ”Students found responsible for committing sexual assault were able to appeal their decision and then before the appeal was final, transfer to another school without anything on their record or on the college’s.”
While campus judicial procedures do not explicitly state it’s possible for students to leave school without anything on their record during the appeals process, they do note that a CJC hearing will not move forward if a student accused of sexual misconduct withdraws from Swarthmore before the case is tried. The only way a trial will continue, though, is if the student applies for readmission; the case would have to be heard prior to re-entry. This means an accused student could conceivably withdraw from the college and attend a different one, with none the wiser to the accusations brought against him.
Under OCR’s Microscrope
On July 12, the OCR announced it’s opening an investigation into the Title IX complaint against Swarthmore. According to a letter obtained by RH Reality Check that was sent from the Philadelphia OCR office to the main complainants, Brinn and fellow student Mia Ferguson (class of 2015), the pair allege that Swarthmore contributed to a sexually hostile environment in part by retaliating against Brinn when a senior resident advisor told other students about Brinn’s experience with sexual assault.