Warning: This article contains sensitive material. [sexual assault, dating violence, misconduct investigations, etc.]
Charley and Alessandra Roggero
COPY EDITOR & CAMPUS LIFE EDITOR
Students can rest assured knowing that the new Lead Title IX Investigator, Siobhan Skerritt, is more than capable of creating her own legacy on campus. Over Spring break, Campus Life had the opportunity of sitting down with Skerrit to talk about sexual violence on our campus, how to report an assault, the trends Skerritt has seen in reported assaults since the start of her position here at Whittier, and more.
In the last year alone, specifically since Skerritt began working at Whittier in July 2017, 13 students have come forward with reports of sexual assault and dating violence. As the reports continue to come in — seven so far this year — Skerritt is reminded of the fact that civil rights and the law have not always been on the side of the victim. “We have realized that, in the past, we have had some disproportionate sanctioning. A lot of the things that Joel [Perez] and I do is a lot of the juggling; making sure that we’re following the policies as best as possible. Since we’re technically dealing with three different processes — student, staff, and faculty — we have to make sure that there’s no cross-contamination. Everything has to be checked,” she said.
In the instance where it is suspected that someone might be misreporting someone of sexual assault, it can get pretty dicey. “As an Afro-Latina,” Skerritt explains, “I understand that most people who look like me do not report because of dynamics in their own community. The ones that are typically falsely accused and abused through the system — and this is because of how our justice system works — are brown and black men, and the LGBTQIA+ community. Someone needs to pay attention to how our policies are culturally and emotionally competent. Are we just looking to get cases and get our numbers and report through the Clery Act, [also known as the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act] or are we really trying to build a campus of trust, and educating and understand the populations that we are working with?”
Skerritt poses an important question for the Campus here, understanding too how much responsibility Whittier has taken in the Title IX policy and its process, and how it has chosen to abide by more regulations than even the federal government. As students may know, the Title IX sexual misconduct policy as well as details of our student rights in the case of sexual misconduct can be found on the mywhittier.com website. There are multiple ways one can go about reporting, anonymously or not.
Students can report through LEAP on their Moodle page, and they can also reach out to a Mandated Reporter such as Director of the Writing Program Charles Eastman, or Skerritt herself. They can also report on an incident that they have information on, even if it didn’t happen to that student. Reports do not always lead to sanctions against the accused, but every report does help keep the student body safe from potential harm, particularly if a certain person has multiple allegations against them. Parties can choose not to work with the College, but in some cases, the investigation will go on without them.
Whittier College’s reporting process is lengthy and detailed, which can take an emotional toll on a student, but for anyone who has been thinking about filing a report, know that you are not alone. Whittier has multiple resources meant to keep students physically safe and mentally healthy. Counseling services are available to all students through the Counseling Center and can be a great help for anyone involved in an investigation. Outside resources, such as aid and counseling through Project Sister Family Services, are also available.
It’s important to note that formal sexual misconduct reports between students begin and end with Skerritt. According to Skerritt, there isn’t a board that reviews all cases, so students don’t have to worry about someone whom they do not trust seeing their confidential information. “We don’t try to get too many people involved,” Skerritt said. “We want to keep the privacy of what’s going on at its best. So, the investigators investigate, then give a recommendation of where to go next with the case, and then I would adjudicate and find the person responsible or not responsible, and then find sanctioning.”
Another way Skerritt has tried to make sure all students feel included and comfortable in her office is by making Whittier Title IX language gender-neutral and considerate of minorities on campus, including LGBTQIA+ folks, people of color, and others. In addition, every investigator is put through a comprehensive Civil Rights Investigator training through ATIXA (the Association of Title IX Administrators) to ensure they are not only educated in the investigation process, but are also unbiased and sensitive towards those they are investigating.
Skerritt understands that “the justice system, when it involves sexual assault, is based on the innocence and virginity of a white woman ... a white, straight, cisgender woman.” Though that may be the origin of federal law, Whittier College’s Title IX aims to ensure that their process is fair and equal and based in the understanding that assault and abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of their personal identities, beliefs, or choices.
Skerritt said that there have not been any trends in the people who have reported during her time at Whittier. The most common theme in the reports themselves involves cases of violence, sexual assault, and abuse in unhealthy relationships. Some students who report through Whittier College decide to seek legal action elsewhere, which Skerritt and support people can assist with, as well. Skerritt shared that she has helped two students successfully get restraining orders in the past month alone. “I have my own views of law enforcement, being a black woman, but the Whittier Police Department has been not only helpful but kind and understanding, and, I would say, emotionally competent when working with the students. They even brought me into the conversation, [asking], ‘where do you want this to go?’ They have explained everything to us so that when we get ready to go to court, the student feels educated and I feel educated,” said Skerritt. Whittier College and our Title IX Office will do as much as they can, thanks to Skerritt’s help, but it does have limitations. Where the College can’t help, though, perhaps the law can and Skerrit encourages taking other routes if needed.
Unfortunately, there are times when neither route — Title IX at Whittier or the Whittier Police Department — can give survivors the justice they seek. Skerritt suggests that there might be a lack of substantial evidence needed to make a formal decision, or that the situation is too nuanced to make the kind of claim the survivor wants. These instances can be invalidating and disempowering, but it is not the intention of Whittier College to say that any reporting parties are not being truthful. Often, there is simply not enough evidence for a case, the evidence is too dicey to use, or some information is found to be false or misrepresented.
“If I find that [a misconduct report] is false, which I have yet to hear,” said Skerritt, “I think it’s a matter of [being] false maybe according to our policy, but that does not mean that the victim’s perception of what happened didn’t happen and is wrong. It just means that, according to our policy, things might not have happened that way,” Skerritt claimed.
In a perfect world, every report filed under Title IX would result in fair repercussions for all parties involved. Understanding, though, that this does not always happen, there are ways in which survivors can find closure and help.
Title IX support is around to help those individuals determine what that means for them. The goal of Title IX at Whittier College is to ensure that our student body is not only carefully listened to and taken care of, but is also safe, healthy (mentally and physically), and educated on what consent is and how it manifests itself in both healthy and unhealthy relationships. Reporting incidents which violate proper conduct is a significant way to do so, but it is not the only way. Attending educational events on this subject around campus and starting conversations about sexual awareness are important ways to aid in the prevention of the situations that are often reported through Title IX.
“I think the more we educate as to what we consider sexual assault, the more people will think about reporting, and the more that people will recognize negative behavior,” said Skerritt. “I just want them to trust the process. I don’t know if it’s going to change the amount of how many students report, but what I think it will do is have people think about their actions more about how they affect other people. That’s my goal.”
If you are a victim of sexual assault or violence and would like to make a report or get in contact with Siobhan Skerritt, you can find her in the Dean of Students Office or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other links that might be helpful are also listed below.
Project Sister Rape Crisis Hotline: (909) 626-HELP(4357).
Joel Pérez (Vice President and Dean of Students/ Title IX Coordinator for Students): (562)907-4233; email@example.com.
Cynthia Joseph (Director of Human Resources): (562) 907-4830; firstname.lastname@example.org
Counseling Center: (562) 907-4239.
Counseling Center After Hours Advice: (562) 464-4548. **This service is NOT for life-threatening emergencies.
For emergencies call Campus Safety at 562.907.4211 or 911.