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Be Careful What You Sign For - December 2018

posted Dec 17, 2018, 1:21 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review

by Michael Raheb ‘20

On November 16th, 2018, the College of the Holy Cross held a rather spontaneous discussion called the “ENGAGE Summit.” The Summit was, essentially, a horribly unfocused amalgam of “talks” and various other events – some extremely well-attended, some not – which circled campus issues like sexual assault, racism, the experiences of foreign exchange students, and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community on this campus. While the 40-or-so events were, for the most part, facilitated by well-intentioned faculty members and students, none of the student body here at the College has been completely satisfied. The Summit’s preparation, content, and follow-up have been lackluster or incomplete.

Many expect that the Summit was a quickly-contrived coverup to preserve the College’s reputation after the explosion of followers on the “Sexual Assault On The Hill” Instagram account. The account, which first posted on November 5th, cites its purpose in a brief biography: “*TRIGGER WARNING* Our community doesn’t think sexual assault is real. Make your voice and/or story heard ANONYMOUSLY below. This is your platform.” Beneath the biography is a clickable link to a Google Form, on which survivors of sexual assault can voice their experiences or ideas about Holy Cross’ treatment of assault. The moderators of the Instagram, at their discretion, post these stories on the profile. As is mentioned in the account’s biography, the stories are anonymous; no names or emails of submitters are recorded, and the account cannot respond to any submitted requests without contact information also being provided. At the current moment (November 28th) “Sexual Assault On The Hill” has over 3,600 followers and 97 posts. Yet despite its popularity, “Sexual Assault On The Hill” has made questionable decisions with its recent petition.

Here I must digress. To whomever has just read my thesis: if you are a student (and, therefore, likely to support the Instagram account), please refrain from thinking that I intend to use this piece to denigrate the intentions of “Sexual Assault On The Hill.” I agree that sexual assault is reprehensible, violates a person’s dignity and rights, and should be entirely purged from this campus. For that reason, I appreciate the Instagram’s endeavor. It has been markedly successful in promoting discussion. I am also inclined to believe the stories of assault, which are typically posted in vivid detail. However, due to the account’s lack of transparency in its recent list of demands, I hesitate to provide my full support.

For the most part, the account’s decisions, even in the face of administrative action, have been prudent. On November 9th, “Sexual Assault On The Hill” published a letter which began with: “After receiving a cease and desist letter from a college-affiliated sports team and obtaining our own legal advice, we have come to the conclusion that, to maintain the integrity of this space, we will no longer name specific teams on this account.” A rash of frustrated students blistered the surface of the ENGAGE Summit a week later. Many complained that the men’s athletic teams promote rape culture, so they should have come to the Summit on mandated attendance. (Whether these teams, or members thereof, were or were not present at the Summit’s sessions is unknown. The football team, however, was at a game at Georgetown.)

The cease-and-desist sent down from College higherups, at first glance, seems like a classic case of student censorship. Young women and men, who could finally muster up the courage to give testimony to their assault, even be it anonymously, would be silenced. The end of “Sexual Assault On The Hill” would mean the end of a greater community discussion about sexual assault – that is, unless the letter’s content were made public, in which case the student body’s dissent against the administrator who sent it might be even greater. Since the content of the cease-and-desist has not been released, however, a judgement as to its justifiability or lack thereof cannot be made. (The Review contacted the Instagram to request information about the cease-and-desist letter over a week prior to the date of this article, but received no response). The letter could feasibly have been a polite request to protect individual student reputations. If a student with a vendetta against an athlete on the football team, for example, decided to post a false assault story to the account, the football team’s members could be viewed with unfair scrutiny. The Instagram’s decision to “maintain the integrity of this space” and (later in their statement about the cease-and-desist) “note again that we are not anti-athletes; not every member on teams or other student oriented organizations mentioned is an assaulter” was thus an apt decision. In regard to the cease-and-desist, “Sexual Assault On The Hill” did nothing wrong. The argument from various students for mandatory athlete attendance to the Summit, however – when most students were unrequired to attend – seems not to acknowledge that “not every member on teams... is an assaulter”.

On to the present, then. On November 26th, 2018, the Instagram published a compiled “list of demands for the administration based on your (the anonymous community’s) suggestions.” As of the date of this article, upwards of 470 signatures have been added to the end of the list. The demands include such efforts as providing a comprehensive report of all sexual assault incidents since December 2015, independent parties for investigating sexual assault, information about dismissing students and faculty on accusations of assault, and several other changes to administration. To view the demands, the list is accessible via the account’s Instagram biography.

Whether or not the demands are viable and should be put into effect (some may take issue with number 5, which demands a stance staunchly against Betsy DeVos’ proposed Title IX amendment that the accused be able to cross-examine the accuser) is a matter of opinion. One issue is more pressing: the moderators of the “Sexual Assault On The Hill” page have made changes to their petition of demands, without documented public notification, after students and faculty have already signed their names.

On the morning of November 27th, the first entry on the list demanded a comprehensive report (including results of cases) of all reported sexual assaults since December 2015. The final part of said entry requested that “this report conveys how many cases the Title IX office is currently judicating. We (presumably the petitioning members) expect this report by the end of the fall 2018 semester.” On the morning of November 28th, the entry had been amended to request also that the “report include the Title IX office’s budget and what its funding allocation is.” The date of expectation was also changed to January 20th, 2019. The seventh entry, which ended with “We demand transparency on these (Title IX) management plans, including the funding aspect” was also significantly emended. The November 28th edition extended that concluding line to a seven-line statement about how the Instagram’s popularity indicates that Title IX might be overstretched and under-resourced; thereby, it might require an additional staff member or office.

The content of the demands, frankly, is not much different than before. Most, if not all, petitioners would likely keep their names on the document in light of the changes. The lack of transparency, however – despite posting stories and updates, “Sexual Assault On The Hill” has still not made a public announcement of the changes to the demands – is troubling. When students and faculty add their names to a petition, they sign their assent to all the document’s demands, questions, and ideals. If the petition is edited after their signage, is their assent still valid? What of those who would wish to pull their names from the signature list if the content is changed? Without information, how can they make an informed decision? Most glaring is that nothing prevents the account’s anonymous moderators, under such circumstances, from making more drastic changes without informing their signers.

Only a few hours prior to this article, the Instagram posted another update asking to “spread the word” and that the “demands will be submitted 12/3 at 6PM.” I hope that the signers don’t mind the changes.