Officials at Reed College say the institution is likely to loosen confidentiality rules surrounding sexual assault cases on campus, an idea that’s won favor with faculty, staff and students.
The topic came under discussion Monday at a campus forum centered on Reed’s Honor Principle, the century old doctrine by which students conduct themselves. Though it’s separate from policies that govern the university, the Honor Principle is at the heart of Reed’s esoteric culture, which promotes free thought and experimentation, and allows students unique latitude to meter out justice through a Judicial Board.
About 400 students turned out to Monday’s forum, where conversation with a slate of student, faculty, staff and alumnus panelists ranged from philosophical discussion to more practical matters.
In the crowded Kaul Auditorium, personal expression ranged from purple leggings to dreadlocks, leather jackets to “Junior Statesman of America” t-shirts.
Students bristled at the sight of a reporter, however, and pointedly noted the meeting was “private.” They refer to this community as “The Reed Bubble,” and allow few outsiders in. In a tight-knit group of 1,400, students show their school spirit with pride. But they feel besieged by recent media reports about the college.
Since Reed College saw the first of two overdose deaths since 2008, its administration has faced pressure to tamp down on drugs, most notably from law enforcement.
Reed has also been the subject of articles about the handling of sexual assault on campus by its Judicial Board, a student committee tasked with resolving conduct cases. The reporting was done in collaboration a national investigation into campus assault by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., which found that students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assault on campuses across the nation often faced little or no consequence for their acts, while their victimsʼ lives were frequently left in turmoil. Often, victims left school while the alleged attackers graduated, the Center’s and InvestigateWest’s investigation found.
While the reporting prompted the introduction of the Campus SaVE Act into Congress in December, intended to help campuses respond to sexual assault, and has pressured colleges and universities to meet federal laws that guarantee women access to education, change has been slow to arrive at Reed, frustrating some.
College spokesman Kevin Myers said a first look at guidelines introduced by Vice President Joe Biden Monday to help schools respond to sexual assault in ways that comply with federal law indicates Reed’s policies meet those goals. Myers also noted college officials have compared Reed’s policies with those of Oregon State University, which is lauded as a model for sexual assault as public universities in Oregon seek to make changes, and found them similar.
Reed administrators, however, reacting to student assault victims’ criticisms that they have been re-directed to the Judicial Board and cut off from support because of the college’s secretive process, have said they are taking steps to improve the procedure.
The public resignation of a Judicial Board member last month, in part to protest the pace of those efforts and the school’s handling of sexual assault, has been central to inspiring the kind of debate about sexual assault for which the Reed campus is famous. It’s spurred ongoing letters to the school newspaper, including a nine-point manifesto on how Reed could better its response to sexual assault, crafted by more than 20 students identifying as survivors. A majority of respondents to a recent campus survey rated sexual assault as the top student issue at Reed.
“It’s an issue as it is on any campus,” Will Gester, vice president of Reed’s Student Senate, said after the forum. He and fellow student Robert Kahn noted that discussion around sexual assault is more involved at Reed than on other campuses because the student body is taking it seriously.
“There is consensus about at least changing the confidentiality requirements,” Myers said after the forum. He said two briefings with the president’s committee that showed both Reed students and faculty supported broadening the rights of students to talk openly about being sexually assaulted at the school.
College President Colin Diver, warmly referred to on campus as simply Colin, told the forum audience that the difficulty in expanding speech for victims of assault will be in balancing it against the rights of the accused and a need to make the campus process safe enough to encourage cases to come forward.
Noting, however, that cases can’t be effective as lessons for the community without some level of discussion, he said, “I think it’s time for the community to seriously consider tilting the arrow more seriously toward disclosure.”
Putting a new policy in place is predicted to take time. The committee is not expected to produce its report until the end of the semester. And implementing policies from there will require more discussion.
“I hope the conversation tonight exemplifies that it’s not about just setting a standard. It really is about doing the best we can to support survivors,” said Myers.
Evident in the room and in conversations following the forum, was the challenge Reed faces with in reconciling the Honor Principle, which puts the burden of judging behavior on the individual, with a modern world that increasingly relies on law.
Administrators on the panel repeatedly stressed students must also abide laws and be proactive in their communities, not just the Reed community, but the notion fell flat with some students, who said they were drawn to Reed so they could think out of the box and try new things and like the culture that’s made Reed a test-tube for experimentation. In a modern era, such an approach to campus life is made tougher by policy shifts outside the university. And by a world that’s increasingly interested in looking in.
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