Demystifying SAPA, COS & Reform

Sexual assault assuredly occurs at Dartmouth, a disturbing and frightening fact for all students, female and male alike.  More students than ever are demanding the administration to “take action” against sexual assault. But what exactly is being done now to stop sexual assault from occurring and to hold individuals found guilty of sexual misconduct responsible for their behavior?   

SAPAs – sexual abuse peer advisors – are students who are dedicated to supporting their peers who have had experiences with sexual assault. During the winter and spring terms each  year, new SAPAs undergo a 32-hour training course, learning the fundamentals of supporting the survivors of sexual  assault. After completing this course, SAPAs are certified to work with survivors by providing medical and emotional advice and referring victims to other resources if necessary.  

In addition to working with individuals, SAPA seeks to educate the entire Dartmouth community about sexual assault and violence. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), so SAPAs have been particularly visible lately with campus-wide events and programs. On Thursday, April 25, for example, SAPAs held their annual “Take Back the Night” (TBTN) event. About 50 students, faculty, and staff gathered in this march around campus, which concluded with a gathering in the middle of the Green. TBTN events are held at college campuses around the world, aiming to raise awareness about sexual assault and establish nonviolent and supportive communities. The Student Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault (SPCSA), Mentors Against Violence (MAV), Sexperts, and V-Day Dartmouth are other student groups, in addition to SAPAs, that work tirelessly to support the survivors of sexual assault and educate all community members in order to prevent future incidents.   

During the Dimensions show, the protestors chanted about specific incidents of rape on campus, often repeating, like a chorus, “95% of rapes are unreported!” The protestors did not cite the source of this statistic during their demonstration. Many studies conclude that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 women are raped while they are college students. However, figures approximating the incidence of unreported rape on college campuses vary widely. Some studies do suggest rates of 95 percent while others report lower figures – around 75 or 80 percent. None of those are specific to Dartmouth’s campus.  Nonetheless, many victims of sexual assault do not report their incidents, usually because of the traumatic nature of sexual assault or fear of retaliation.   

Sexual misconduct, which is defined as any nonconsensual, threatening, or intimidating sexual behavior, violates Section III of Dartmouth’s Standards of Conduct. Those found responsible for violating Section III will, according to the Student Handbook, “incur the most serious sanctions the College can impose, up to and including separation.”  But how exactly is that enforced? How does the College attempt to make certain that sexual misconduct is punished and survivors of sexual assault are protected?  Once a sexual assault has occurred, victims have various  routes through which to press charges, in addition to numerous sources of support – such SAPAs, SAAP (Sexual Abuse  Awareness Program) Coordinators, and of course the Deans.  If the victim chooses not to move his or her incident through the college disciplinary process initially, he or she may still anonymously file a complaint through the SAAP Program,  Undergraduate Judicial Affairs, or an Undergraduate Dean.   

SAAP professionals can provide counseling and resources to the victim while Judicial Affairs and the Deans can inform the victim about the process of filing a formal charge with the College. The College cannot take disciplinary action against any individuals accused of sexual assault based on these reports or conversations with SAAP, Judicial Affairs, or the Deans. However, after receiving counseling and advice from  these professionals, a victim can move forward and file an  official report with the College through Safety and Security  or Judicial Affairs, if he or she so chooses.  

Students who do choose to file a formal complaint must provide a written statement to Judicial Affairs or a verbal account to a Safety and Security investigator. Once these reports are filed, the Director of Undergraduate Judicial Affairs determines whether there is “sufficient evidence to warrant a disciplinary allegation.” If there is such evidence, the accused student will receive an “allegation packet.” This includes a letter from the Undergraduate Judicial Affairs Office that describes the allegation, information gathered during the investigation, and potential outcomes of the case.  The packet also includes a form through which the accused individual officially admits or denies these charges.  If a student who is accused of a serious violation, such as sexual assault, admits responsibility for the incident in question, he or she can have a hearing before the Committee on Standards (COS) or request a one-on-one hearing with a dean. One-on-one dean’s hearings are very rare in assault cases, but require accused students to admit responsibility before the meeting and provide a statement detailing his or her actions. The meetings are held without advisors or witnesses and, usually, without attorneys. They may not end in a finding of “not responsible.”  

If an accused individual does not admit responsibility,  then he or she will have a COS hearing. A panel of five members of the Dartmouth community, consisting of two faculty  members, two students, and one administrator, will hear the  case. In order to find responsibility, for which a preponderance  of evidence is necessary, a COS hearing requires a majority  vote. The victims of an alleged assault, advisors, and witnesses  may be present, and a finding of “not responsible” may be  issued.   Accused students must also choose whether to have an  open or closed hearing. Any student, faculty, or staff member can attend an open hearing, as can reporters. In a closed  hearing, only the Committee, witnesses, accused students,  advisors, and the victim may attend. Again, attorneys are left  outside the door in a process similar to that described in the  editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal by Judith Grossman. Before the hearing, the COS holds a closed meeting to  discuss “administrative details” and questions they plan to  ask during the hearing. COS hearings are based on the assumption of innocence. Hearings typically consist of opening  statements, questions, and closing statements.   After closing statements, the COS deliberates, first questioning the accused individual’s responsibility and then, if he  or she is found responsible, the appropriate judicial action.  

Possible sanctions include a warning, reprimand, college  probation, suspension, and permanent separation from the  College. The accused individual is informed of the outcome  of his or her hearing and possible sanctions the next day. Sanctions usually begin immediately. Students can request a review  or the hearing if he or she believes there was a significant  procedural error during the hearing or if new information that  could possibly exonerate him or her has been discovered.   

Sexual assault violates not only campus policy but also New Hampshire state law. When allegations of sexual assault are brought before the College, they are not forwarded to the Hanover Police unless the victim is under age eighteen or requests for the College to do so. However, a victim of sexual assault can always requ
est a criminal trial or bring civil charges against his or her assailant through the Hanover Police Department.  

This past February, the presidents of 27 of Dartmouth’s Greek organizations voted unanimously to update the College’s sexual assault policy to include automatic sanctions on affiliated individuals who have been found responsible of sexual misconduct by the COS. Previously, an affiliated student found responsible for sexual assault could be reprimanded by his or her Greek organization (in addition to the COS sanctioning). However, some felt that this policy allowed Greek houses to turn a blind eye to assaults in order to avoid adjudicating their own brothers or sisters. This would have been a result of having two separate judicial processes.   

Now, after an affiliated individual is sanctioned by the COS for sexual misconduct, he or she will automatically receive additional Greek sanctions. If the individual has  received a sentence of probation or one-term suspension, he  or she will also be put on social probation, be barred from  holding a leadership position in the organization, and may not  live in the house. In addition, the individual must participate in an education program, which is individually constructed by representatives from GLOS (Greek Letter Organizations and Society), SAAP, Judicial Affairs, and the student’s Greek  house. There is also a second category for more serious violations. In this second category, Greek houses essentially signed over their ability to protect their brothers and sisters  in order to help end sexual assault. If an affiliated individual  is suspended for two or more terms or permanently separated  from the College, he or she will immediately and permanently  be separated from the Greek organization. It is interesting  that this particular reform hasn’t been discussed in much of  the current dialogue on campus.  

Even with education and slowly modified policy,  sexual assault will probably never be truly eradicated from  Dartmouth’s campus or from the  world in general. That is the sad  truth. However, SAPAs and all  individuals at Dartmouth who  work to combat sexual assault  have venerable goals. While we  may sometimes question their  specific actions, they do, nonetheless, serve an extremely important  purpose at Dartmouth. While the  SAPAs support survivors and the  COS and GLC policies reprimand  aggressors, we as students have  the lion’s share of the power to  stop these incidents before they occur through bystander  intervention and enforcing cultural mores against questionable situations or possible sexual assault.

There are no simple answers to ending sexual violence.  No one policy will eradicate all dark deeds from campus. And  banning the Greek system will hardly reduce sexual assault  if it forces drinking and social scenes out of relatively public  and open basements into locations hidden even deeper underground. At least Safety & Security currently knows where most  of the drinking takes place on campus. It’s time for everyone  on campus to grow up and accept a few harsh realities. The  first is that sexual assualt occurs at Dartmouth just as it does  at most other places in this country and the world. The second  is that only through concerted and prolonged effort coupled  with campus-specific and scientific policy changes can we  truly impact sexual assault at Dartmouth. This may be a five  or ten year project with several different policy tweaks every  year, but with a subject so serious, we can’t rush to judgment.  As tempting as that route is, it leads towards an abyss full of  unintended consequences.

Instead, we need to all sit down at the bargaining table  and slowly create beneficial policies that unite our campus  in a campaign against sexual assault. Culture wars are not  won overnight by a few radical activists. We can unite everyone on campus together under a banner of serious and  thoughtful reform. Students and alumni all want to be a part  of that process to improve Dartmouth, let’s make sure the  administration proceeds in that fashion rather than a careening course calculated to respond to each and every gust of  public opinion.

While we do not agree with the protesters’ methods or  their seemingly one-minded crusade against the Greek system,  we do agree on a few basic tenets. We agree that sexual assault is wrong. The protest is a sign: that the campus climate  is ready for a discussion of sexual assault at Dartmouth. The  alumni are ready as can be seen in our interview with Susan Struble ‘93. She recently founded DartmouthChange along  with other alumni in order to pressure the administration  towards making sensible reforms. The faculty seem to be  interested given the fact that they participated in the teach-ins  and the community exercises when classes were cancelled.  The students appear to be ready. At least, we know we here  at The Dartmouth Review are ready for that discussion.

Note that we said discussion, not dictatorship. Every member of our community has a voice and should be allowed to use  that voice. There are long discussions ahead for Dartmouth,  but that’s good. Let us just hope that everyone both on and  off-campus is willing to participate in that discussion respectfully, thoughtfully and carefully. After all, we’re meant to be make the world’s problems ours and then to attempt to solve  them. Can we honestly shrink from solving the problems at  our doorstep simply because they are complicated? Simply because sexual assault is a difficult topic and will require us  to continue discussing and changing policy for years? Those are all paltry reasons compared to the moral obligation we  have to reduce the violence occurring in our own backyards.  First, we must fix our own problems. Then the world’s.  

— Caroline Sohr