As a senior girl at Concord Academy, I have heard numerous friends’ stories of sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted physical contact, by peers both on and off of CA campus. At least every couple weeks, I hear different stories about someone, generally girls, being harassed. Sometimes that takes form in students, generally male, incessantly asking a girl out or to “hook up.” On other occasions, it takes form in unsolicited, explicit photographs.
For reference, CA explains the school’s definition of sexual harassment in the student handbook: “Sexual harassment can take various forms, many of which violate the law. Not all forms of sexual harassment may be readily apparent to every member of the community. It may be direct and overt, or it may be subtle and ambiguous. It may be behavior that is repeated, or it may be behavior that occurs only once. It is not social or courting behavior between equals, but rather the assertion of power over another individual that puts that individual at a disadvantage.” This “umbrella” of sexual harassment includes assault, and a full, official list of what CA considers harassment may be found on pages 60-61 of the handbook.
Over my time at CA, three different friends have told me they have reported cases of assault to the CA administration, but continued to feel unsafe and unheard on campus even after the disciplinary process. In several chapels this year, students have called out CA on their mishandling of certain situations regarding harassment and assault.
One student shared with me that CA’s response made her feel small as a person and unvalued as a community member, like the school cared more about her male assaulter than her despite her doing everything in her power [in her words] to vocalize how she was targeted and hurt. Another girl, whose assaulter also remains enrolled at CA, shared that returning to campus after her assault, she no longer felt safe. She noted that she would hold her breath around every corner, and it became an issue big enough for her to address it a second time. At the end of the interview, the student noted that she felt unheard and completely alone in her recovery, despite having reported her harasser and assaulter.
These experiences resonated with me, as I can think of at least ten friends who have told me they chose not to report issues to the administration for a variety of reasons- some personal, and some because they fear social repercussions with no actual results.
To understand the school’s process, I spoke with Dean of Students, Sally Zimmerli. When students report sexual harassment and assault, CA speaks with the student(s) involved and gathers information from them. The school also contacts the School Liaison Officer with the Concord Police department and follows their guidance. In cases of Sexual Assault, Harassment, or Sexual Intimacy Violations, CA follows the guidelines to hold an Administrative Disciplinary Hearing. These do not include students or faculty on the committee to protect the victim. In an Administrative Disciplinary Committee, two deans convene the meeting with the student facing the committee. The student is allowed to bring a faculty advocate to the meeting who is with the student for the hearing and keeps them company when the committee is deliberating their decision. The Head of School hears the recommendation of the Deans for a final decision by the school.
Although Zimmerli said that the administration cannot comment on individual cases, she said that in some instances, the school has opted to seek other disciplinary action before suspending the assaulter from school for any period of time. “Often part of required discipline responses, if it is deemed that the student may stay at the school, requires addressing the behaviors (ie. therapy, etc.) and very clear expectations of how they must remain in compliance with the requirements to stay at CA,” Zimmerli elaborated.
Although reforming this disciplinary system is not an easy task, I believe serious reforms must be made to the system so students, particularly female students, can feel completely safe on campus. These changes must be on the disciplinary side, the school’s outreach to student survivors, and education for students on what behavior is and is not acceptable.
First, CA should host a yearly assembly, detailing what behavior is reportable (which should include everything from harassment to groping and more) and how to report it. While some of these topics are covered in freshman seminar, this conversation needs to be annual if it is to be taken seriously at all.
Second, there must be a better system put in place for victims to report their stories in order to facilitate the disciplinary process, because it is so incredibly difficult for anyone to come forward about their own story- nevermind when the system feels like it is set up against you. Appointing a specific person and creating an online space to report these issues may also be helpful to encourage more students to come forward with their stories. The administration also must continue to reach out to victims repeatedly, and even if the students do not wish to share anything at one moment, that should not stop adults from reaching out down the line to make certain that nothing has changed. One of the biggest issues currently is that all of the responsibility for communication is put on the victim, when CA should be doing that work considering everything with which those students are already dealing.
Third, when it comes to discipline, I would also argue to more carefully detail the DC guidelines for types of assault, as the minimum and maximum punishment is currently the same as consensual sexual intimacy. Zimmerli along with other members of the administration are currently assembling a task force to better support student victims and improve the disciplinary process surrounding assaults. If you have ideas on how to reform the system so no other student has to feel alone or helpless in the future, please reach out to Zimmerli (email@example.com) or myself (firstname.lastname@example.org). Although I am graduating very soon, I would really love to see CA become a place where students feel much safer.