Players collide with one another. Elbows fly. Feet pound the ground. And Nakita VanBiene ’15 feels safe here on the rugby pitch, surrounded by her teammates. “The nature of the sport is that if you don’t work together as 15 people, you’re going to lose,” says VanBiene, women’s rugby co-captain.“In order for us to succeed, we need to be right there with each other. When you’re running down the field and you know people are behind you on either side, ready to tackle for you—that’s something really special.” It’s a fitting analogy for the community-driven approach Williams has been taking to end sexual violence on campus.
VanBiene, a member of the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN), is one of scores of students, staff, faculty and alumni working individually and in groups, formally and informally and—most importantly—together on prevention and survivor support. Whether it’s educating students about consent, piloting a smartphone app that rallies friends in an emergency, rethinking reporting and investigation protocols or training community members to offer one-on-one support for survivors and their loved ones, everyone has work to do.
The locus of the work rests in the office of the Dean of the College with Meg Bossong ’05, Williams’ first-ever director of sexual assault prevention and response. She says the collective ownership of the movement to end sexual violence speaks both to a shared sense of its importance and to the kind of community Williams endeavors to create.
“Williams encourages people to bring their whole selves to the community,” says Bossong, who spent several years managing community engagement for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a national leader in sexual assault work, before returning to Williams in April 2014. “People make a choice to come to a place so small, and you have a unique opportunity to work on these issues in an intensive way.”
The work itself isn’t new. As a student, Bossong was a junior advisor (JA) and member of RASAN, offering support for survivors and educating students about prevention. What is new is the intensity and urgency of conversations taking place all across campus and among alumni—and how widespread the work has become within the community, with students in partnership with the staff, faculty and administrators in a distinctly Williams way.
One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted during college, according to the National Justice Institute. And between 80 percent and 95 percent of these assaults are never reported to police or campus officials.
The statistics reflect a reality from which Williams is not immune. And they underlie the decision years ago by Williams President Adam Falk and Dean of the College Sarah Bolton to make addressing sexual assault a top priority.
“The fact that sexual assaults affect so many students at Williams—hundreds each year—is completely unacceptable,” Falk wrote in a February 2012 letter to the community outlining existing efforts, such as educational programming in entries (residential units for first-year students) and training for JAs (juniors who live with and support them).
In that same letter, Falk announced the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness group (SAPA) to examine and advance every aspect of the college’s work on this front. SAPA meets biweekly, bringing staff on the front lines of student support—campus safety and security, the dean’s office, health services, athletics and the Davis Center—together with a broad swath of students, including members of RASAN, College Council, Minority Coalition, varsity teams and the Queer Student Union.
Chandler Sherman ’11, a RASAN alumna, met one-on-one with Falk early in his presidency. “The fact that the administration even made sexual assault an issue—that they sought me out, that they wanted to make a difference—blew me away,” she says.
“Not only were they willing to see the shortcomings in policies,” Sherman adds, “but they wanted to figure out from survivors and people who work with them what had to come from students and what had to come from the administration. Where did policies need to change, and where did we need to work on changing student culture?”
Falk and Bolton speak frankly and frequently with students, alumni, parents and trustees about ending sexual assault at Williams. “If we talk openly about this institutionally, then everyone understands they have a role to play,” Falk says. “It’s up to everyone.”
“If we talk openly about this institutionally, then everyone understands they have a role to play. It’s up to everyone.” —President Adam Falk
An anonymous 2011 American College Health Association student survey found that 5 percent of female students reported having been raped at Williams in the previous year, and many more female and male students experienced some kind of nonconsensual sexual touching. Most cases aren’t reported. Seven incidents of sexual assault were reported in the 2010-11 school year, 13 during 2012-13 and six last year. About half of the reporting students pursued disciplinary or legal action, in most cases working with the dean’s office. In nearly all the cases adjudicated by the college, the perpetrator was found to have violated the college’s Code of Conduct and was removed from campus either permanently or for a period of at least two semesters.
The college also notifies the police of each report made of a sexual assault on campus, withholding, when asked to, the name of the survivor, and offers personal support to any survivor who chooses to work with police on a criminal investigation.
When Bolton, a physics professor, became dean of the college in 2010, she began to hear student reports of sexual assaults—often long after the incidents took place. A variety of factors discouraged survivors from reporting, she says, including ongoing relationships between survivors and perpetrators, the emotionally paralyzing nature of trauma itself, fear that disciplinary sanctions might result in retribution and even a friend’s reaction to hearing about an assault.
“The first person they told was a friend, who shut them down,” Bolton says she sometimes learned. “Three years later, they came to the dean, which gave me a sense of how hard it was to talk about on campus. If I’m the second-easiest person to talk to, there’s a big problem.”
What survivors found when they did talk to Bolton was someone who “managed to center the experiences of survivors,” says Em Nuckols ’16, who two years ago was the Queer Student Union’s representative on SAPA. Bolton, Nuckols says, “started SAPA. She went to all the meetings. She gave so much to this particular form of activism because she knew the Williams process wasn’t working.”
SAPA became an empathetic and active hub. Its work has included the creation of a website with comprehensive information about sexual assault policies, protocols and support systems; a clear definition of consent; professional training for all student affairs staff, JAs and other student leaders; and improved orientation programming for first-year students. The college updated its system for distributing data on sexual assault so as not to trigger survivors, and it changed policy language to be more inclusive with regard to gender and sexuality.
Major policy changes emerged from SAPA’s work. It used to be that cases handled by the college were investigated by the dean’s office and campus safety and then adjudicated by the dean. Since the fall of 2013, a third-party professional conducts investigations in cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking. A small panel of staff—experts on the college’s consent policy—then determines whether the college’s Code of Conduct has been violated and, if so, what sanctions to impose. The new procedures are intended to improve the effectiveness and fairness for both survivors and alleged perpetrators.
As a result of SAPA’s efforts, the college realized a crucial piece of infrastructure was missing—a full-time, permanent staff member to oversee the growing work to address sexual assault. The college conducted a national search for the position in fall 2013; Bossong, who had been a consultant to SAPA and the college, was uniquely qualified.
In January, SAPA distributed Williams’ first-ever campus climate survey to better understand patterns of sexual assault and intimate partner violence as well as to gain insight on how prevention and response can be further improved. By mid-February, nearly two-thirds of students had responded to the survey, the results of which will be made public this spring.
Falk and Bolton continue to share updates on the college’s work around sexual assault in regular communications with the Williams community. In Falk’s most recent campus-wide letter, at the start of the spring semester, he wrote, “Our thanks go to the students, staff and faculty who are leading these efforts, which require the involvement of all of us to bring the incidence of assault on our campus to the only tolerable number—zero.”
Meg Bossong remembers vividly the first time she heard someone speak openly about sexual assault. It was in the fall of 2001, during her First Days orientation. A survivor of rape addressed the freshman class as part of first-year educational programming. Bossong was so moved by the talk, she joined RASAN that winter.
Now she’s the point person for myriad people and initiatives, leading both SAPA and Sexual Assault Survivor Services (SASS)—specially trained staff from the dean’s office, health services, the Davis Center and the chaplain’s office who provide confidential, 24/7 counseling and support by phone and in person to survivors of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. In addition to working with survivors in the immediate aftermath to ascertain medical needs and discuss reporting options, SASS advocates can provide support at any time, accompanying survivors to medical and legal appointments, connecting them with counseling and other services—or just listening.
“I can put my work life and my home life on hold for the amount of time needed to help a survivor,” says health educator and SASS advocate Donna Denelli-Hess. “I tell students, ‘You don’t have to walk this alone. To the extent that you let me, I will be right by your side.’”
She and Ruth Harrison, retired director of health services, were at the heart of Williams’ work for 20 years, before Bolton became dean and Bossong joined the staff. Bossong worked closely with Denelli-Hess and Harrison when she was a JA and RASAN member. Says Bossong: “One of the critical tasks many schools are trying to undertake is to figure out how to build supportive relationships among key confidential staff and students. Donna and Ruth were doing that two decades ago.”
Denelli-Hess says Bossong’s return has been integral to recent progress in addressing sexual assault: “Having one person primarily responsible for keeping us all on track is so important.”
The first response a survivor receives is critical. While there are important timelines for things like forensic exams, which must be conducted within 120 hours of an assault, it’s also crucial for survivors to know they’re heard and supported. “It’s not my place to even name what happened as sexual assault,” says Denelli-Hess. “You tell me what’s happened. What is this thing for you?”
“I tell students, ‘You don’t have to walk this alone. To the extent that you let me, I will be right by your side.’” —Donna Denelli-Hess, health educator
She and others also help students understand the difference between a campus disciplinary process and a criminal proceeding—between a college no-contact order, say, and a court-issued restraining order.
Under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in higher education, colleges and universities must have systems in place for investigating and adjudicating sexual assault cases. Campus safety and security director David Boyer says that, in his 25 years with the college, only three or four sexual assaults have been reported directly to his office immediately after they occurred. Most often, campus safety works with the dean’s office to prepare no-contact orders, which protect survivors from seeing their perpetrators on campus.
While campus safety’s role in the aftermath of assault is critical, Boyer has long been committed to prevention education. “We’d much rather spend hours, days and weeks preventing something that could possibly cause a lifetime of distress,” he says.
Bossong, meanwhile, builds relationships with individuals and groups across campus, leads workshops and trainings on consent and bystander intervention with JAs and other groups, and provides material for students who want to lead their own trainings. Last fall, when the Feminist Collective organized a Carry That Weight day of action inspired by the activism and art of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, Bossong helped students carry a mattress across campus in the rain.
“She’s rejuvenated a lot of people,” says Black Student Union member Sevonna Brown ’15. “She’s created a more open, inclusive and intersectional space. She’s brought domestic violence forward in the conversations and illuminated the range of intimate partner violence that can occur here in ways students hadn’t been able to conceptualize before.”
Prevention education begins with First Days, when freshmen see a performance about sexual assault and rape culture by the outside group Speak About It. Afterward, RASAN members facilitate conversations with each entry, teaching students what consent means and how to be an active bystander (intervening in situations before they escalate into assaults) and providing information on how to seek survivor support.
This year, JAs encouraged their entries to download the Circle of 6 app, which Williams began piloting in the fall. The app creates a circle of friends who can be texted or called for help easily. There are also quick links to reach RASAN, SASS, Campus Safety and 911. RASAN co-chair Emily Roach ’16 says that by encouraging bystander intervention, the app can play a role in prevention and shifting campus culture.
RASAN offers one-on-one counseling and support for survivors, friends and their loved ones through a 24/7 hotline and in person. They also organize Williams’ Take Back the Night, an evening each April in which survivors speak out about their experiences.
JAs, too, play an important role in continuing the conversations begun during First Days and offering immediate and ongoing help for students in need. “Support doesn’t end after psych services or a report,” says JA board president Jackie Lane ’16. “You’re helping that person through the whole process of recovery and regaining self-confidence in this setting.”
The work can be grueling, says RASAN alumna Chandler Sherman. While she was a JA, some 45 students, mostly first-years, came to her for advice and support regarding non-consensual sexual experiences.
It was also rewarding work, Sherman says. One night she returned to her entry and found one of her freshmen—a popular, straight male athlete—on the couch in the common room. When she asked why he wasn’t in his bed, he told her he’d brought a girl home and realized she was too drunk to give consent, so he made the decision to leave.
“Support doesn’t end after psych services or a report. You’re helping that person through the whole process of recovery and regaining self-confidence in this setting.” —JA Board President Jackie Lane ’16
A freshman-year experience propelled Henry Bergman ’15 to get involved in ending sexual assault. He made an offhand comment using the word rape—often used to describe a difficult situation or being taken advantage of. The comment deeply upset a female friend, who explained she’d been sexually assaulted at Williams. “It ended up being one of the most important conversations of my life,” Bergman says.
He noticed posters around campus of male varsity athletes and JAs promoting consent, sponsored by the newly formed group Men for Consent (MFC). He started attending meetings and was named co-president later that year. He’s led the group ever since.
MFC meets in Jenness House to talk about ways to dismantle rape culture and to consider men’s roles in ending sexual assault. As with RASAN, a big focus is on peer-to-peer conversations.
“We do a lot on how to talk to friends without being confrontational, because the stereotype is that when sexual violence comes up, guys shut down and get defensive,” Bergman says.
Bergman has seen a shift in campus culture, especially as other student groups have taken on the issue of sexual assault. Last year, men’s lacrosse captain David Lee ’14 began what’s now called the Athlete-Driven Initiative Against Sexual Assault to help teams facilitate discussions and reconsider athletes’ roles in helping to prevent assault.
This year, at the end of Winter Study in January, the current co-presidents of the initiative, lacrosse captain Dan Whittam ’15 and track captain and RASAN member Dianna Mejia ’15, held a workshop for varsity and club sport athletes. Sixty attended, with most teams represented; participants then went back and shared the training and information with their teams.
President Falk says activists are essential to ending sexual assault at Williams. “Just as there is no substitute for institutional commitment to investigation, adjudication, holding people accountable and support for survivors,” he says, “there’s no substitute for student agency.”
And while it’s the core mission of groups like RASAN, MFC and the athlete initiative to end assault, other student organizations—the Black Student Union (BSU) and Queer Student Union (QSU), for instance—have taken up the cause as well. In December, students organized Black Healing Week, which included a session focused on trauma recovery, particularly sexual trauma. Bossong and Beverly Williams, director of multicultural outreach for the health center, facilitated the session, in which students discussed personal experiences with trauma and worked on healing through guided meditation.
What stands out to Bossong, 10 years after her own graduation, is how broad and inclusive student activism on the issue has become—and how much trust underlies the collaboration between students and the administration. justin adkins, assistant director of gender, sexuality and activism at the Davis Center and a member of SAPA and SASS, agrees. “I don’t think students have to continuously push us to do work around sexual assault, because we’re actually at a place where, at all levels of this institution, it’s something at the forefront of everybody’s mind and work,” he says.
English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Kathryn R. Kent ’88 says that, in comparison to the 1980s, when she was a student, Williams today “is so much more aware of and proactive about doing all it possibly can … to deal with sexual assault and violence, to support survivors and to create a culture where people are looking out for one another and thinking about what it means to be an ally.”
She and other faculty engage with sexual violence in their scholarship, but they’re also active listeners and supporters. Margaux Cowden, visiting assistant professor of English and of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, served as an adviser for a Winter Study project by RASAN training co-coordinator Nakita VanBiene, who wanted to make the group’s training curriculum more inclusive. Cowden, whose scholarship involves the construction of sexuality in early 20th-century literature, says she and VanBiene explored “how campus prevention and support models overlap with feminist interpretations of sexual violence.”They also asked questions such as: “How do we best address some students’ fears that an explicitly feminist paradigm could alienate survivors and thus make RASAN less effective?”
“Anything can be triggering—the clink of a glass, the smell of wet dog.” —Greg Mitchell, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies
Says Greg Mitchell, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, the days of a “monolithic, white feminism” are over. “Race, ethnicity, disability, immigrant status, class” all need to be accounted for in the work to end sexual violence, he says.
The courses Mitchell teaches and his research, which includes the marginalization of sex workers during global sporting events such as the World Cup, regularly contend with sexual violence.
“I want students to consider the political economy of sexual assault,” he says. “How does this play out? How is this influenced in terms of how rape culture is perpetuated and how it becomes invisible?”
Because of the nature of the material they’re covering, Mitchell tells students to let him know if particular content might upset them. “Anything can be triggering—the clink of a glass, the smell of wet dog,” he says. “Students need to understand what to do if they find themselves experiencing an undue amount of stress. It’s always OK to get up and leave, use the bathroom and splash water on their face, or just to leave and not come back. Whatever sort of self-care they need to practice, it’s fine, and nobody needs to know why.”
Paula Mejia ’17 came to Williams a survivor, having been raped her sophomore year of high school. One night during her entry’s weekly gathering for Sunday-night snacks, someone made a joke about rape. Everyone laughed, she says, including her JA. “I felt like there was no space for me in the community,” Mejia says. “I couldn’t imagine being at Williams for four years the way it was my fall semester.”
After winter break, she met with Mitchell, with whom she’d taken two classes, to talk about transferring. He suggested that instead she join women’s rugby, which he knew to be a supportive space.
Mejia says being part of the team has allowed her to “claim space” at Williams where she feels supported and understood. “I like my classes,” she says. “I love my professors. I love the women’s rugby team. But you don’t want to insulate yourself to the extent that you’re preaching to the choir when you talk about these issues.”
For many survivors of sexual assault, reclaiming space in such a small community can be difficult and traumatic. “That feeling of losing your place in the institution is very powerful,” President Falk says.
It may take years before the trauma overtly affects someone’s life. “That’s one of the challenges students reflect to us,” says Dean Bolton. “Often, they initially don’t report or connect to resources because their hope is that it will fade and each day will be easier than the last, but things come back around.”
“I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reporting, because I am happy to reclaim my space at Williams,” she says. “If I hadn’t reported, I wouldn’t feel safe on campus. I feel so much safer now.” —Student Survivor
The first student to pursue a case through Williams’ newly updated disciplinary process shared her story but asked not to be named. She says she was assaulted in September 2013 but was afraid to come forward because many of her close friends were also friends of the attacker. By spring, she says she began experiencing post-traumatic stress and other psychological effects of the assault. Her attacker was off-campus that semester for an unrelated reason, and a friend suggested that if she didn’t want him to return in the fall, she could report the assault to the dean’s office. The next day, she met with Bolton. The perpetrator was ultimately found to have violated the Code of Conduct and was removed from campus for a period of time with which the survivor was comfortable.
While parts of her reporting experience re-traumatized her, she says she appreciates the support she received. She credits, in addition to administrators, her SASS advocate and several professors for helping her through such a difficult time.
“I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reporting, because I am happy to reclaim my space at Williams,” she says. “If I hadn’t reported, I wouldn’t feel safe on campus. I feel so much safer now.”
Creating emotional safety is important, says Bossong. “Trauma disconnects people from their own bodies, networks and life in the community. Reconnection is delicate and takes time. It has clinical value in terms of the physiological impact of trauma on the body,” she says. “And it has value in terms of making sure people are feeling they can bring their full selves to the community, acknowledged for the parts of themselves that have been harmed.”
Last spring, a former Williams student—the daughter of two alumni who graduated in the 1980s—went public with her experience of sexual assault on campus and her account of the college’s handling of her report of the assault. The story made national news and provoked many alumni to ask questions about Williams’ policies, its handling of that case and how sexual assault could happen here at all.
On campus, the collaborative, long-standing work of students, faculty and staff was well known, but most alumni weren’t aware of it. Many were frustrated by the college’s inability to respond to questions about the specific case—both because the college makes a commitment to students to maintain their privacy and because federal law requires confidentiality. Alumni wanted to know that Williams was doing all it could to rid the campus of sexual violence, and many of them wanted to help.
In the wake of that spring, in an effort to connect alumni support to the campus work, the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni formed the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Liaison Committee, led by Leila Jere ’91.
“We as alumni all have different experiences and views of Williams, based partly on when we graduated,” says Jere, president of the Society of Alumni. “But what we should really be focused on is Williams today.”
The liaison group includes a dozen alumni who convene regularly by phone and bring relevant expertise from counseling, activism and the legal field. Their goal, Jere says, is to support the college in its work while keeping alumni informed. To that end, the liaison group launched a website (http://bit.ly/Liaisoncommittee) for alumni in December.
Among the committee members are activist Tracey Vitchers ’10, director of development and operations at Sexual Health Innovations, which recently developed a third-party sexual assault recording and reporting system for college campuses; Betsy Paine ’85, a staff attorney for a New Hampshire child advocate program who has spent her career prosecuting cases, working on policies and training court staff on issues related to sexual violence; and Peter Ruggiero ’88, a college writing instructor who volunteers for the nonprofit Male Survivor.
Ruggiero, himself a survivor, says, “Sexual violence is about power, the notion that one can have what one wants at any time, including the right to other people’s bodies, without considering the consequences to others. I want to help other people heal—all victims, but also adding the voice of male survivors so that men who’ve been abused, sexually assaulted or raped can come forward in the healing process. We want Williams to be a safe environment for everybody.”
Everyone agrees there’s much more work to be done. Sexual assault is devastating to individuals and to the community—at Williams and everywhere.
“College is a time, developmentally, when people are learning how to have ownership over their own individual lives and how to be part of larger groups,” Bossong says. “It would be really easy to grab onto campus sexual violence as an issue. … But I don’t want to focus so intensively on what’s happening here at Williams that we lose sight of the fact that it’s actually part of a larger conversation.”
Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based writer, performer, advocate and educator. She’s been touring the U.S. performing spoken-word poetry and facilitating workshops at colleges, schools and performance venues for more than a decade, and her writing has appeared in Narratively, The Jewish Daily Forward, BuzzFeed and elsewhere. She is a survivor of sexual assault and an activist for ending sexual violence worldwide.