Speaking out on sexual assault: Administration strikes clause responsible for inhibiting open discussion

By Page Forrest

Managing Editor

“It was never a gag order,” Dean Spurlock insisted. The “it” she spoke of was a clause found in the No Contact Agreement signed by Sewanee students who underwent sexual assault hearings up until the middle of the Advent 2014 semester. The clause read as follows: “I will also refrain from speaking or communicating to other students about any specific details about the location or names of individuals or parties involved or potentially involved in the incidents in question except as reasonably necessary. The exception to this arrangement would be specifically in an individual counseling or other confidential relationship.” (Text taken from a No Contact Agreement issued in August of 2014)

However, the few students aware of the existence of the clause still felt as though it was meant to silence them and keep them from talking about their experiences. “I could get in trouble for telling you about this,” one student said, describing her rape and the hearings that ensued. When asked for details about what she meant, the student went on to explain the clause in the agreement she was asked to sign post-hearings. The existence of the clause was completely unknown to most of her audience. Further investigation revealed that the clause was removed from the standard No Contact Agreement in October of 2014, in a decision led by Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness and Risk Management Eric Hartman. Students who had previously signed the older version of the agreement were not informed of the decision. Rather, Hartman and the administration decided to address retroactive situations on a case by case basis. Hartman was adamant about the fact that the clause was never intended to silence victims – or prevent those accused from defending themselves from potential defamation. Rather, the clause was put in place over ten years ago with the intention of protecting those involved in hearings from gossip-mongering and retaliation. “We really started at a point where the greatest concern about people reporting these cases was confidentiality,” he explained. “People didn’t want to come forward if they were going to be ‘that person.’ We had so few cases going forward that we didn’t really get to see the negative effects of it. The accused were more likely to complain about it then the accuser. It really only started to happen as we got more and more cases that we started to see problems in our policies.”

With a shifting culture and a substantial rise in the discussion of sexual assault, it is imperative that those involved have the means necessary to feel comfortable and safe discussing their situation. The removal of the clause is an important step in creating an open forum. However, its elimination does not mean slander will have free reign at Sewanee. Dean Spurlock explained that a version of the clause is still discussed with students verbally when they receive the No Contact Agreement. “We try to discourage either party from spreading rumors or making accusations outside of the hearing.” But to what extent does a right to privacy conflict with safety of students? A suggestion posed anonymously through Sewanee Monologues earlier this semester proposed posting the names of those accused of sexual assault still on campus throughout the grounds in order to protect those unaware of the accusations from potentially becoming a victim themselves. Such a proposal would be a violation of the outdated No Contact Agreement, if anyone involved in hearings contributed names. Under the new agreement, such an act would be legal, provided every name on the list had actually been found guilty of sexual assault, keeping such a list from falling into the territory of libel. However, this raises the question of how much privacy is owed to these students – regardless of acts committed, are they deserving of public defamation?

“I would suggest that the necessity of such postings would only exist in proportion to the failure of the administration to protect students and remove perpetrators of sexual assault from campus,” says Fleming Beaver (C’15). “If the administration has failed to protect students on this campus, students should have the right to protect their peers.” Andrew Zellner (C’15) disagrees. “I think it’s a violation of privacy just because the students aren’t the ones who need to know this information – just the authorities. If we’re following that logic, why shouldn’t we post lists of everyone at this school diagnosed with venereal diseases so we can protect ourselves from contracting them?” While debate has arisen over privacy issues, students and members of the administration agree that the removal of the clause is a step forward. Hartman acknowledged “We may not be getting everything right yet, but we’re always trying to make and working on improvements. We’re much better at it than we used to be. But we still have a longways to go.”