Dickinson College to change sexual assault policy after sit-in

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Students occupied a Dickinson College campus building for 3 and a half days and emerged Saturday morning after negotiating changes to the school's policy on sexual assault.

Administrators at Dickinson College in the Central Pennsylvania town of Carlisle agreed to notify students about reported sexual assaults through the campus "Red Alert" system and televisions in the student union. In addition, students expelled for the offense of rape will no longer be able to appeal that sanction on grounds of "excessive harshness."

Christine Dugan, a spokeswoman for Dickinson College, said the school's faculty had been looking at the sexual misconduct policy for the past 18 months and had hired a consultant to review it.

"Students were really frustrated by the slow pace of change," she said.

By protesting, the students "have indelibly left their mark on the college. We're all very proud of them," Ms. Dugan said.

"This was a broken system and something had to be done," said Tiffany Hwang, a 22-year-old senior and a Pittsburgh native who grew up in Oakland and Squirrel Hill.

The process for lodging a sexual assault complaint takes too long, she said, and the current policy is too fragmented.

"We don't have a consolidated document that runs you through what you should do and also allows you to understand that there are federal laws that protect you," said Ms. Hwang, who designed her own major in global feminisms.

The sit-in began Wednesday morning after 270 students marched to the Old West Administration Building and handed literature outlining their demands to administrators standing at the entrance. Between 120 and 150 students stayed overnight in the four-story building. The university said that administrative staff to moved to other locations on campus because students were blocking the Old West halls.

During the sit-in, administrators issued a statement saying police would not be called in as long as the students remained non-violent, Ms. Hwang said.

The students negotiated with Dickinson College President William Durden, Provost Neil Weissman and other administrators during meetings on Wednesday night as well as Thursday and Friday mornings.

Seeds of the sit-in were sown last month when a group of students drafted a letter asking administrators to intervene in a sexual assault case and expel a male student. The letter was never sent, but administration officials learned of it and expressed concerns about using the male student's name in a meeting with the letter's authors.

"There was palpable fear in that room," Ms. Hwang said. "Women who were directly involved in this specific case were crying. We perceived that the college was not, at that moment, adequately addressing our fear. So, we decided to let our voices be heard."

A smaller protest about the sexual assault policy was held in the spring of 2009, Ms. Hwang said.

"We have tried for years to have our voices heard by them," Ms. Hwang said.

"We pay $50,000 to attend this amazing institution. We will not accept anything less than a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy," she said.

Dickinson College, which has 2,500 students, offers a women's center, a shuttle service that operates from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and a weeklong orientation for freshmen that covers topics including sexual misconduct and alcohol. There's also a student-organized program made up of volunteers who educate students about sexual violence.

In the past, the campus red alert system was "used to report physical assaults that occur between the local Carlisle community and our student population," Ms. Hwang said.

Nine students will be involved in creating the school's new policy on sexual misconduct.

"We got things we have been fighting for the last two years," said Elizabeth Stuhr, a 20-year-old junior from Des Moines, Iowa, who participated in the intense negotiations.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published March 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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