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Swarthmore makes wide-ranging changes in response to sexual assault complaints

Swarthmore College adopts wide-ranging changes in its handling of sexual assaults and misconduct in response to a report from an outside consultant

Swarthmore College will hire an advocate for victims of sexual violence on its campus as part of a wide-ranging response to a report from an outside consultant evaluating its handling of assaults.

The 1,545-student Delaware County campus also will hire a full-time employee to oversee its compliance with federal regulations prohibiting sexual discrimination on campus with that person reporting directly to the president and supported by a team of deputies.

Swarthmore on Thursday released an interim report from its consultant, Margolis Healy & Associates, and a letter from President Rebecca Chopp outlining those changes and others, including plans to overhaul policies and add training.

More changes likely will come later this year as Margolis Healy & Associates continue their work on campus, college officials said.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights last week said it would investigate a complaint by students Mia Ferguson, Hope Brinn and others that the college had created a sexually hostile environment by failing to properly handle cases of sexual harassment and violence.

"We are taking these actions regardless of the investigation," Chopp said in an interview Thursday morning.

Swarthmore has been under scrutiny since Ferguson, Brinn and others began complaining last spring about the college's lack of response to sexual assaults. They filed two complaints alleging the college violated the Clery Act which requires colleges to report crime on campus and another federal regulation, known as Title IX, that prohibits sexual discrimination. The civil rights office is investigating the Title IX complaint.

The case at Swarthmore is part of a national movement in which women are speaking out about their colleges' handling of sexual assaults. The Education Department also in the last year has opened investigations at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Among the changes, Swarthmore will conduct a national search for a full-time coordinator to monitor its compliance with Title IX. In the past, it had a part-time coordinator, Sharmaine Bradham LaMar, who also served in other roles. While the search is conducted, Patricia Flaherty Fischette, who has worked in counseling and psychological services, will take on the role, Chopp said.

"We've decided to go full out," Chopp said, "and make this extremely comprehensive."

Chopp said one of the biggest complaints by students has been the lack of someone to help victims navigate the complaint and grievance procedures.

"We will hire an advocate to provide guidance through our systems for survivors of sexual assault and other forms of sexual harassment and misconduct," she said.

Swarthmore also will hire a "hearing advisor" to help students who are accused of assault or harassment through the grievance process.

The college is reviewing and planning to upgrade its policies around sexual misconduct, beef up prevention and train all personnel on campus who are responsible for reporting crimes. In addition, it will add an investigator to public safety and look more deeply at the role of alcohol and drugs in sexual assaults.

It will separate the roles of drug and alcohol counseling and fraternity advising as well, Chopp said.

"We will hire a new position to develop and present educational alcohol and drug prevention programming and provide individual and group counseling to students," Chopp said. "This position will work within the health center to integrate our prevention and treatment programs more fully into the college's health and wellness resources."

Chopp noted that alcohol plays a role in a high percentage of sexual assault cases nationally.

"Alcohol impairs the ability to make choices and treat each other respectfully," Chopp said. "That's the conversation we want to have and we want to have it with our students."

Ferguson, an engineering major from Cambridge, Mass., learned of the college's plans Thursday morning.

"I'm really glad that they have some concrete policy going up. The most important thing to realize is that compliance doesn't just mean having a policy. It means implementing it well. We'll really know how effective Swarthmore is as a leader once we see it in action for an extended period of time."

Ferguson, who reported she was raped her freshman year, said she and other students will continue with their complaint against the college.

Earlier this week, Ferguson and Brinn, an educational studies and sociology/anthropology major from Wilmington, received a letter signed by 20 faculty members offering their support. The letter was forwarded to the women, both rising juniors, by faculty member Lynne A. Molter, professor and chair of the Department of Engineering.

"We are compelled to offer our voices in support of the young women who have courageously stepped forward to tell their stories of abuse and assault and to respectfully encourage the institution to act," the letter said in part.

While recommending changes, the college's consultant was complimentary about Swarthmore's efforts since the federal education department in 2011 issued a warning to colleges nationally to improve policies.

"In spite of these actions, there is much work needed...," the consultant said in its report.

"We are convinced, based on our interactions to date, that the Swarthmore College community is committed to creating a campus environment and climate devoid of sexual misconduct in all its ugly forms, including sexual discrimination, harassment and sexual violence."