A special report to North of the Fence
“No student should be afraid to get an education because of a campus that turns away indifferently from their request to stop sexual assaulters.”
(Quoted from the student list of demands protesting normalization of sexual assault on SWC campus.)
By Barbara Zaragoza
Students held a protest against sexual assault at Southwestern Community College on Thursday, May 18th. The group gathered in front of Mayan Hall and several speakers made demands to the administration, after which they marched to the Student Center.
The protest was ignited by a special April edition of the college newspaper The Sun, which devoted itself entirely to sexual assault.
On the front page, The Sun editorial board reported, “A stunning lawsuit by a former student worker in the SWC Campus Police Department accuses three male employees of systemic sexual harassment over a two-year period, culminating in an attempted gang rape of the woman by police employees inside SWCPD headquarters. Even more stunning is her description of how the situation was mishandled by campus police chief Michael Cash. According to the lawsuit brief, she reported the harassment and misogynistic behavior to Cash, who then violated her confidence and told the defendants. They were not investigated or punished.”
The anonymous victim, Jane Doe, alleges she was lured into a storage room, shut in and forcefully raped. Due to the trauma, humiliation and fear of reprisal, she initially did not report the incident and thereafter, the sexual harassment by three officers escalated, including one officer telling Doe “to grow her hair longer because he likes to pull on long hair during sex, according to documents.”
Another article described the experiences of four female Southwestern students who experienced assaults on campus. The article stated that Southwestern College is “not keeping their promise to provide campus police escorts to students who request them and do little to punish students who verbally, physically or sexually harass female students.”
Meanwhile, in a “Letter to the Editor” the Acting Police Chief Dave Nighswonger wrote, “I encourage all of you to talk to our department members. Say hello or ask a question of the officers. Get to know them. You will find they are good men and women who have a high degree of dedication for their work and a commitment to the college. They are presented with difficult situations at times. However, they are people just like you, and I am confident once you get to know them better, you will find they perform their duties with compassion, consideration, and discretion.”
In response, the San Diego based WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend) launched the protest, creating a facebook page and issuing a statement that included the following demands:
1. Students should be held accountable to the code of conduct, while victims should know they will not be blamed for reporting assault.
2. The Acting Chief Dave Nighswonger should aggressively investigate sexual assault and harassment claims against the police. The Acting Chief should re-do his letter to the editor published in the recent special edition of The Sun that patronizes those affected by sexual assault from the police by saying that one must simply meet the police and be nice to them.
3. The Administration should be proactive about hiring a Title XI coordinator.
4. The School Board should publish a statement affirming sexual assault prevention as a top priority of the college and should make hiring decisions based on preventing sexual assault.
Although colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required to employ a Title IX officer to uphold and investigate acts of gender biases or sexual misconduct, Southwestern College currently has no Title IX officer due to the resignation of Traci Beccera. A federal civil rights law written by former Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink, Title IX protects against gender discrimination in educational activities, but also sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Nada Dibas, the Vice President of Public Relations for the SWC Associated Student Organization (ASO), spoke at the protest, explaining that due to the many assaults on campus, she initially started a Title IX Awareness Campaign. However, she soon realized that “The Title IX factsheet directs you to a Title IX investigator, but we don’t have one.”
If victims of sexual assault can’t access help Dibas said, “There’s really no awareness campaign that I can do that will help because the institution has failed us. The system is not working for us… I’ve been trying to work through the system and it does not work. I’ve been trying and that’s why I’m here.”
In an interview, Dibas explained, “The actions that have been taken to prevent sexual assault have not been pro-active ones. They have been general ones in which we need to spread awareness. We need to talk to people about it. But there hasn’t actually been active action against assaulters to prevent this from happening.”
Erikka Thorpe, a San Diego State University student, spoke to the protestors explaining that SDSU does indeed have a Title IX representative on campus. They have programs, for example, that offer training to sorority groups and fraternity groups to talk about sexual assault and how Title IX gets involved. However, Title IX officers need to be culturally competent. The Title IX officers can’t perpetuate rape myths by taking statements from victims that ask questions about what they do in their personal life or how they might have brought these incidents on themselves.
Thorpe said, “That is unacceptable. To be on campus. To have a badge that puts you in a position of power where you’re dealing with survivors… Here they don’t have a Title IX representative, but if they get one we can’t just get a broken system of Title IX officers who come in and continue to perpetuate these same rape myths on our survivors. How are we suppose to come in and 1) feel confident that we can tell our story, but 2) that justice will be sought out if we are being re-victimized by those who are supposed to be standing for us?”
Dibas explained that she will continue to press the administration until their demands are met.