Ending Assault: MC Pushes New Policies, Programming to Stop Sexual Assault in its Tracks



Contributor: John Abbatangelo

As sexual assault, harassment and dating violence become the topics of a national conversation, Manhattan College is finding ways to tackle the issue and end assault on its own campus.

In fact, colleges are epicenters for this type of gender-based misconduct because of situations they inherently facilitate.

“Women in college are especially at risk because of the environment. They are in more situations and places that make assault possible, especially date rape,” Kimberly Fairchild, Ph.D. and associate professor of psychology at the college, wrote in an email. “Drinking and drug use muddle the situation and can leave women in a vulnerable position. These are more frequent features of the college environment that put college girls at higher risk than women in other groups.”

Fairchild’s areas of research are sexual harassment, street harassment and sexual assault and said that this national discussion may help the cause of ending gender-based misconduct, but that there are many issues left to resolve.

“I think [the national discussion] should keep going and not fade away as something else takes it place. It helpfully exposes a lot of the hateful and negative views out there,” she wrote. “But I think we need to be very careful that we don’t jump to implementing solutions just to say we’ve done something. These are very complex issues that may not have a single solution. And what works for one college may not work at others. We need to keep in mind sexual assault affects women, men, straights, gays, transgender.”

As the college searches for this solution, teams of administrators have assembled a college policy on gender-based misconduct centered on what the law requires and what the college felt its policy should be.

They acknowledged that sexual assault and other types of misconduct happen at the college.

“It’s prevalent. It’s happening,” Director of Residence Life Andrew Weingarten said.

“Every week there is a new article or story about sexual assault or a related topic. I think the response we are getting is people making sure they are doing the right thing and receiving the right training. Our job is to make sure that everyone does understand the proper responses and resources available, and we are trying to continue to make it better,” Director of Human Resources Vicki Cowan said.

What the Law Says

The sexual assault and harassment policies on campus are mandated and guided by various federal laws on how colleges manage issues related to sexual assault, harassment and gender equity. The first and most prominent law is Title IX, which was passed in 1972. It “requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding,” according to Title IX’s official website. This directly includes universities and colleges such as Manhattan College. Numerous amendments have been since passed that expand the scope of the law to sexual harassment, employment, athletics, education for pregnant students and access to higher education for women.

This year Manhattan College has hired a new Title IX coordinator Vicky Cowan.

“Title XV has been around for a long time, but in April 2011, a letter came out of the office of civil rights, really explaining that the act goes so beyond gender equity issues in sports, but also about sexual assault, misconduct, stalking, domestic violence and campuses need to remember that in order to have the right infrastructure in place,” Cowan said.

Looking at the diverse areas that are covered under Title IX it is clear that this isn’t a one woman effort, especially in determining on how programming and practices needed to be implemented.

“So they came up with a list of how to do it, and a lot of schools are scrambling because the job as coordinator is such a large responsibility,” Cowan said.

MC also appointed deputy coordinators in order to give heads of major offices on campus a background on these issues, in order to handle them properly if they were to arise. “We all went through training, basically on the “how to’s” of the job. We all had a background in investigation, which is helpful because most of the work is concerned around safety in student life. Although offices such as Public Safety, Residence Life and the Dean of Students know the protocols if an issue were to occur, we monitor it all because it is our area of specialization,” Cowan said.

In 1990, the Jeanine Cleary Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act was signed into law and required that colleges and universities accepting federal financial aid report crime statistics for crimes that occur on or in the vicinity of their campuses. It also mandates that schools establish procedures for handling sexual assault, violence and stalking cases. These regulations have been clarified numerous times to reinforce the responsibilities of the institution and the victim in these proceedings with different amendments.

One of these amendments came in the form of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, also known as the SaVE Act. Its provisions include increased transparency on the part of colleges and universities, clearer information on the rights of victims and resources schools can access to implement sexual assault and harassment programming on their campuses. Schools must now report stalking, domestic violence and dating violence incidents in their annual crime statistics.

“We made a good faith effort” to provide that information, Cerezo said.

They also must publish information for victims such as to how they can access orders of protection, their confidentiality rights, how they can access mental health or legal resources and what options are available to the victim during and after the proceedings of the case. Educational programs are also required by SaVE and are to emphasize bystander intervention and informing the campus on how to recognize and report sexual violence.

What Manhattan College Policy Says

In an effort to comply with these federal mandates, Manhattan College published a Title IX and Non-Discrimination Notice listing its policy on gender-based misconduct, harassment, sexual assault, domestic and dating violence and stalking. The document also defines the college’s position on alcohol and drug use, safe bystander intervention and retaliation.

The policy also outlines the procedure for reporting gender-based misconduct or violence, although the specifics of the procedures are vary mostly on a case-by-case basis.

“The college will promptly and equitably respond to all issues involving gender-based misconduct. It may be necessary to adjust on a case-by-case basis, the procedures and timeframes,” reads the policy.

It states first that alleged misconduct should be reported to a point of contact as soon as possible and that this complaint will be transferred to a Vicki Cowan, the Title IX coordinator, as well the Office of Public Safety and the Dean of Students Michael Carey.

However, in most cases, the victim will reach out to friends who will then involve residence life and resident assistants.

“The truth is that it’s often a friend or a roommate,” Weingarten said.

This will kick off an official investigation by the school if “the college determines that a violation of college policy may have occurred” according to the initial facts of the case. Evidence and information will be gathered and depending on how the investigation goes, the proceedings may involve interim measures like changing the victim’s class schedule, mediation, contacting the NYPD or moving to a formal hearing.

It “starts out as a preliminary investigation,” Cerezo said, which “has to be followed up by the dean’s office, residence life and public safety.” He recommended that the first step is getting medical attention for the student and in some cases, to gather evidence at a hospital.

“The sooner the better,” he said. “At least here’s evidence that’s been collected.”

“Appropriate disciplinary penalties will be determined according to the parties involved and the severity and/or duration of the conduct; an individual’s prior record can be taken into consideration in determining a penalty,” the policy reads, which can include expulsion.

During the entire process, administrators said that they work together to handle the case.

“It’s a team approach,” Associate Director of Public Safety Rob Derosa. Public Safety gathers the facts, which are forward to Carey who handles the rest of the case alongside Weingarten and Cowan.

In the meantime, the school offers counseling and other support services for the victim.

“They’re often traumatized,” Carey said. He said the school offers same-sex support staff to assist the victim in the investigation.

This policy and the school’s investigation extend to all students, even if they are attending an off-campus function or are studying abroad. When the perpetrator is not a student, however, the school’s reach and influence is limited, Carey said.

“We still provide the same support,” for the victim, DeRosa said.

Both the victim and the alleged abuser “have the right to appeal a hearing officer’s decision or penalty in certain limited circumstances” and these appeals will be processed through an appellate officer assigned to the specific case “based on the circumstances and the parties involved,” the policy reads.

Educating the Campus

Students may have noticed an increased push on campus regarding sexual assault and harassment and title IX. Administrators say that’s no accident.

“We have been working on this all along to implement training programs in place and for them to be campus wide,” Cowan said.

Faculty are just as affected by this issue as students, seeing that sexual misconduct is a threat to a healthy work environment and also that students may come to professors or other faculty members with concerns or questions.

”A lot of the programming we are involved with and we have an active plan. While student life has to think about the student aspect of this, my office and I have to think about the faculty aspect and how to address this issue with them,” Cowan said

This programming includes online Workplace Answers training, mandatory incoming freshman class training conducted by Carey and a lecture on sexual assault by Katie Koestner, came to campus to talk to students about her own experience of date rape in college. The mandatory training was attended by approximately 700 students in the student commons.

Koestner is the leader of the Take Back the Night foundation dedicated to ending sexual assault and dating violence. She appeared on the cover of Time Magazine when she took her story of her own date rape story public, which eventually became the subject of a feature film.

Her lecture focused on her own experiences and of dating violence in general, which many students found to be powerful.

“Not only is Katie brave for sharing her story, but her insight on the matter was incredibly beneficial to our student body,” John Tudisco, senior student body president, said.

“[Koestner] knew what she was talking about and was very informative,” junior Anthony Liccese said.

Other showed support for the awareness her lecture brought, but expressed concerns with how her message dealt with gender.

“I felt like she [Koestner] could’ve not victimized women at all. Portraying women as weak is not the right way to have gone about the talk,” junior Dennis Murcia said.

“It was directed more towards the women but not the men. In a way, it made it seem like [Koestner] was saying women had to be protected and that men had to be the protectors,” said student Jeremy Cervantes.

Some students did not feel like the mandatory training was necessary.

“[The workshop] was unexpectedly touching,” junior Kevin Byrne said. “I feel that [sexual assault awareness, however] is incredibly excessive on campus…If people go [attend] out of their own free will, the impact would be stronger.”

Vicki Cowan said that students can expect more of this mandatory training.

“It is ongoing, and yes we are trying to follow the laws, but most importantly we are trying to do the right thing. We are mission based on Lasallian Principles, so even if the law didn’t say that this is a requirement, we would want to make sure that people feel like this is a safe place to be and live,” Cowan said.

“We have a moral imperative to take care of each other,” Carey said.