(UPDATE 12:30 p.m. Wednesday: A breakout was added to this story April 13 with an email from a retired St. Olaf professor.)
When Adrian Benjamin took his sexual assault case to St. Olaf College administration in early 2014, he had high hopes for a strong response from the institution, for a fair and supportive process, for some resolution to a traumatic experience. If you’re asking him, none of that came.
“I didn’t receive any correspondence whatsoever [during the school’s investigation],” he said. “The only letter I received was on the decision itself, and it was [copied] to me, because it was for my assailant.”
Benjamin is part of an 11-student protest led by fellow senior student Madeline Wilson on the school’s sexual misconduct policy and its handling of individual cases. In recent weeks, the group has caused a stir on campus, or perhaps, a dialogue, by wearing shirts donning the phrase “ask me how my college is protecting rapists.”
In response to the protest, St. Olaf College administration has mostly defended its current policy, though it did announce it will be setting up a working group with St. Olaf faculty, students and administrators, as well as “external experts.” This group will not consist of any of the 11 senior protesters, the group said, and it will make its first recommendations this summer, after the protesters have already graduated.
On their website, the protesters claim they were told by administration they’re “too biased” to engage in the working group. The protesters said they’re confused how individuals, who have come to learn the school’s misconduct policy as well, or better than anyone on campus, would not be seen as ideal candidates for helping to reform said policy. Benjamin said in an interview that one protester was told the group is “too far on one side of the coin.”
“They’re saying we represent the victims and survivors, so what’s the other side of the coin? Rapists? Assailants?,” he questioned. “We’re supposed to listen to them? That was extremely disheartening to hear.”
On April 1, St. Olaf President David Anderson and Title IX Administrator Jo Beld provided the college’s first response to the protest by Wilson and her peers, which started two days prior. The email said the college is “aware that concerns have been raised,” but went on to say “St. Olaf’s policies for preventing and addressing sexual assault are open, transparent, and forward-looking.”
“I would characterize [the college’s] initial response as dismissive,” said 2014 St. Olaf graduate Lindsey Andres-Beck, who is leading a group of hundreds of St. Olaf alumni supporting the protesters through Facebook groups, fundraisers, petitions and withholding of donations.
The second email from President Anderson, on April 2, noted the criticisms were of “serious concern to all of us at St. Olaf,” and the administration was agreeing to hold a meeting with the protesters, in addition to filing a request for independent review of the sexual assault policy by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The email noted an already-scheduled event for students on campus to discuss Title IX policies.
The protesters commended the president for his “appropriate and professional response.” They were feeling good about the college’s response until, they said, some of those actions in the email actually started to transpire.
“They set up the meeting, so that it was them sitting in silence and us talking,” Benjamin said. “We had to make the conversation.”
The event held for students on Title IX policy, meanwhile, was well attended, but according to Wilson, hardly worthwhile. She said student questions were avoided if too difficult and it was cut off with many hands still in the air. Northfield News is unable to confirm Wilson’s description of the event, as St. Olaf asked the news organization’s reporter to leave.
Six days after the April 2 email, the college announced its request to the OCR for an independent review was dismissed. Wilson said that makes sense, since she was already in the process of filing a complaint to the office, making the college’s request “redundant.”
“It seemed to be a public relations stunt,” said Benjamin, of the college’s request.
The most recent email from the college came April 8. While it noted “St. Olaf College does not tolerate sexual misconduct,” it continued to defend the current “comprehensive Title IX policies.” The email noted the denied request from the OCR, and said the college plans to establish the working group instead.
The group members should be announced in the coming weeks, though the college declined to elaborate on what kind of “external experts” it’s looking for and on why the protesters are disallowed from the group.
Requests from the Northfield News to conduct an interview with a St. Olaf administrator were followed up with a statement. A separate request to sit down with President David Anderson any time in the near future was also denied.
At Carleton College, when its own policy was questioned by students in 2009, current Title IX Coordinator Julie Thornton, a 1992 St. Olaf graduate, was tasked with working on a review and reform of Carleton’s policy months after she started in January 2009.
“Students talked about how painful it was to go through the process, so we didn’t want them to feel that anymore,” she said. “It changed because there wasn’t good support.”
Now, instead of Carleton students reporting their cases to anyone in administration, and often seeing it “fall on deaf ears,” there is a singular point of access on the school’s sexual misconduct website. There, students have access to a community concern form, how to file a misconduct complaint with the school, how to file with Northfield Police, etc.
The campus policy for sexual misconduct is laid out. The process for investigating a misconduct complaint is also available. The latter includes the possibility for a hearing from a panel comprised of a student, faculty and staff.
Those panels of three are selected for each individual case from the 13 members of the Community Board on Sexual Misconduct (CBSM), which contains four staff members, four faculty and five students. The board and on-campus sexual misconduct advisers meet 15 times over the course of a school year for training sessions on Title IX policies and support.
That idea of having a trained inter-community panel making adjudications, as well as having multiple sexual misconduct advisers on hand for alleged victims and assailants, is one of the most vocal demands of the St. Olaf protesters. Years ago, Carleton students were making the same demand.
“Our students didn’t like that it came down to one adjudicator,” Thornton said. “That’s not how decisions are made. They’re made where students, faculty and staff are treated equal. They really asked to have this panel.”
Carleton isn’t simply strolling into the sunset with its reformed policy from years ago. The college is still learning, like any other, but it continues to make changes when called for. It edited some policy definitions last May to coincide with the federal Violence Against Women Act.
This January, the Title IX team realized it was neglecting to include the option all students have to reach a resolution for a sexual misconduct complaint without a hearing or punitive decision, such as no-contact agreements or an apology. Last year, a student voiced her own complaints with Carleton’s investigative process. The Title IX team took it as a call for more potential change.
“I say fortunately it did come in,” Thornton said. “It came at a great time. What a great opportunity. We hear from dissatisfied students, and it turns out the Civil Rights Office is actually strongly recommending those changes.”
The protesters at St. Olaf feel that kind of response is everything they’re not getting from their own college. It’s early, and the institution will understandably need some time to make some decisions, but the protesters aren’t buying that more couldn’t already be done.
“Strangely enough, with the hazing policy, all it took was it to be in the news, and change happened in a blink of an eye,” Benjamin said. “This issue, it’s been weeks, it’s been more. Why hasn’t change happened?”