Sexual assault policy consultants gather community input to make recommendations

Emma Lodes

Sexual assault policy consultants Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez returned to campus last week to speak with members of the Occidental community. Along with several private meetings with specific groups, Smith and Gomez’s visit included one open meeting for faculty and two for students. The consultants used the meetings to briefly explain their role within the school, their approach and their institutional responsibilities before they opened the floor to attendees for questions and feedback, stressing the importance of hearing community voices.

“If we don’t hear the voices of the Occidental community, anything we say will be anemic and, for lack of a better phrase, fall on ground that is not fertile,” Smith said.

In her introduction, Smith explained that she and Gomez are working to evaluate and make recommendations regarding Occidental’s sexual assault policy, its implementation and the school’s procedure for reviewing sexual assault cases as well as to facilitate community engagement and training. Originally, they were hired to review Occidental’s sexual assault policy and procedures to make recommendations, but last week President Veitch asked them to expand their mandate to review individual cases in order to inform policy.

“He asked us to look at cases to see what isn’t there and needs to be there or what is there and shouldn’t be there, so that the policy works for the students who are using the policy and not just who implements the policy,” Smith said.

Gomez explained that when reviewing policy, their recommendations fall into three categories: “musts” – what Occidental must change in order to obey the law; “shoulds” – what has proven to be the best practice at other schools; and “mays” – discretionary calls that the school can chose to make.

Smith and Gomez would not identify specific policy issues they had identified thus far but gave general information as to the types of reforms they have in mind. Their primary goal is to reword Occidental’s policy so that it is more accessible to the students, rather than being overly legalistic.

“I think [Smith and Gomez] have a really good sense of clarity about how you can turn a set of really complicated and difficult set of issues into policies and practices that are clear and equitable,” psychology professor Nancy Dess, who was present at the faculty meeting, said. “You have to take complicated things and make workable, institutional process and spell that out.”

Students who attended the meeting commented that institutions such as Project S.A.F.E. are underfunded and undervalued. Others students who have gone through the sexual assault reporting process noted the limited options in case investigators, and the pressure and stress of identifying an adviser when going through the reporting process.

Another student expressed concern over the neutrality of Occidental’s judicial board, given the college’s small size. Gomez explained that there is a wide range of types of judicial boards across schools: some purely student, some purely faculty, some a mix and some completely external from the school. Occidental’s current judicial board for sexual assault cases is restricted to faculty only.

Art History and Visual Arts major Michaela Bosch was present at the meeting and appreciated the chance to share her concerns with the consultants. She was concerned, however, with the amount of time spent talking about the legal workings of the policy compared to the amount of time allotted for student responses. “The meeting did not go as in-depth as I would have hoped,” Bosch said.

At the end of the meeting, Smith and Gomez discussed methods for educating the campus about sexual assault issues. They identified the importance of a strong orientation program as well as continued education program throughout the student experience, again emphasizing the importance of community collaboration. Gomez suggested sending a letter to students and their families before first-year orientation to raise awareness of the issue. She also recommended having a program led by Resident Advisers or Project S.A.F.E. about a month after orientation, coupled with ongoing community programs.

“We challenge you to build sexual assault education into your curriculum,” Smith said. “No other school has done that. And not just sexual assault issues, but mental health, alcohol, social media … What are our policies and how do we want to treat one another?”

They stressed the importance of reaching different students in different ways, and from different campus organizations, suggesting that various groups on campus take the lead in sexual assault education throughout the year.

“The conversation needs to be reinforced by the whole community so that it changes collectively,” Smith said.

Smith and Gomez will officially make their recommendations on May 1, and these findings will be shared with the Occidental community.

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