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November 16th Town Hall on Sexual Assault at Bennington College

TW: SEXUAL ASSAULT, RAPE

In recent weeks at Bennington, sexual assault has been the leading topic campuswide due to the outing of several alleged abusers. A poster was created and put in front of commons, naming one of these accused assaulters. For weeks Bennington had been silent about the growing concerns and talk of sexual assault on campus. Within days of the poster being up, the administration sent out an email condemning the “bullying” and “defaming” language in the poster based on “misinformation” and “anonymous allegations.” To students, this email felt like a declaration of the college’s position, siding with the accused and minimizing the allegations. In addition, the email stated that an investigation would begin “immediately” and the administration asked students to send information about the origins of the poster to Chip Colette, Interim Director of Campus Security. Students were quick to express their anger about this seemingly thoughtless email and point out the irony in the urgency of starting this investigation about a poster while being so slow to handle the Title IX cases. A town hall that was previously scheduled to be about mental health for the coming Tuesday became the place for students to express their massive concerns about the college’s stance on sexual assault. 

The town hall took place on Tuesday, November 16th at noon in Tishman auditorium, with a panel of administration and a room filled shoulder-to-shoulder with students. The talk began with the brand new Dean of Student Life, Li-Chen Chin, stating guidelines for the discussion. Both Chin and the new provost Maurice Hall are in their first weeks at Bennington and Chin opened stating, “this is really an opportunity for me to learn.” 

One of the first points brought up was that there would not be “time for dialogue” during this town hall which immediately received backlash from the crowd and students demanded that their questions be answered for the next 90 minutes. Students were told to ask questions using an online platform called sli.do and rapidly questions came flooding in virtually. By the end of the hall there were over 200 questions and comments on the site from students who were desperately trying to get answers from a panel that acted more like politicians in a debate than a college administration. 

College President Laura Walker’s opening remarks, off the bat, set off gasps in the crowd when Walker shockingly proclaimed, “calling someone a rapist is not in line with our values.” She went on to say that there is a history of people of color being falsely accused of being rapists and insinuated that the recent allegations of sexual assault that led to the “poster-incident” could be false because the student was BIPOC. When a student later brought this up and asked what the relevance of race was here, Walker claimed she had never made those statements. An echo of “yes you did” in the room led to Walker responding, “Well I did, but that’s not what I meant.” This remark went unclarified and became one of the most controversial moments of the town hall. Walker introduced another administration member, the new provost Maurice Hall. He asked the audience not to “immediately think the worst of us… that we don’t have the best intentions.” A hefty ask, which later in the town hall a student circled back to. “You guys are telling us not to think the worst of you but you haven’t gained our trust.” An applause ensued.

Strikingly, continuously throughout the town hall different members of administration reiterated that they are “a new administration” and were not as educated as they could be on this subject. The most glaring example was when the Interim Title IX Coordinator Alfredo Medina, whose official position at the college is “Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and College Diversity Officer,” and when asked questions about the future of improving Title IX at Bennington stated “I’m very new to this area,” and “we’re not experts.” The lack of information and knowledge coming from the administration panel was a clear reflection on the low priority of the Title IX process and they admitted they need to “be better.” This may be the only statement there was an agreed consensus between the panel and the audience on. 

When Marta Esquilin, town hall facilitator (who– spoiler– did not get to do much facilitating) remotely attempted to read out the online questions, she paraphrased, summarized, and mistranslated questions which resulted in students submitting more questions asking her to “read the questions directly.” After demanding the student body be heard unfiltered, a microphone was passed through the room for in-person students to ask their questions to the panel aloud. A student raised their hand to ask Laura Walker about her flawed past at NPR and history of sweeping sexual assault allegations under the rug, saying, “How can we trust that you will take these seriously here?” Students snapped in agreement with the question and Walker nodded her head. “It was a painful experience for all… There was an investigation done and it did show that I followed up properly on everything I knew about,” Walker claimed. She stated the college is undergoing a process now to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator and someone asked, “Will a woman be hired?” Another question shouted into a void of many that went unanswered. 

In the town hall, it became clear that House chairs at Bennington have experienced a tumultuous few weeks. In addition to the many tasks they are already consumed with, many house chairs are now dealing with what to do about accused abusers in their houses making students feel unsafe. Allegedly, Assistant Director of Residential Life, Sarah Blizzard sent an email requiring all house chairs to stay “neutral” regarding Title IX cases involving members of their houses. A student and current house chair raised their hand and asked Laura Walker, “As a house chair, being an emotional personal being, how are we supposed to remain neutral? There needs to be support for the people who are providing support.” Walker acknowledged that “house chairs are traditionally a tough job in so many ways” but for the most part the answer to the question remained unclear. A lot of the most important questions asked were bigger as statements once left unanswered. 

One audience member asked about the administration claiming they want student involvement in reforming Title IX and hiring the coordinator but offering no compensation or credit for this student work that is taxing both emotionally and with time. Another student had a concrete ask for the administration; the student brought up Title IX cases during their first year at Bennington in 2017 that remain inconclusive and asked for a “list from Title IX on what specifically can be transparent throughout the process.” The student iterated that they want this completed by their graduation this upcoming December. Laura’s response was, “Yes, we will do that,” and hopefully will be held accountable for that promise. 

Repeatedly during the town hall, Walker brought up psych services as a “free” and “confidential” solution for people searching for resources other than filing Title IX. A student called her out, asking, “If you’re someone on campus who’s a victim of sex assault and you don’t wish to file a Title IX or that’s not an option for you, what happens when you go to those confidential sources?” Laura responded, “One of those things is to determine if you want to go through the processes [of Title IX].” The student replied, “So there’s not anything else?” to which Laura said, “No.” Another student pointed out the unaffordability of psych services and that they are not free for the vast majority of students. Not to mention the lack of BIPOC presence in the health services department. There was a clear conclusion among the students that these services simply don’t work and are not effective alternatives.

A big buzzword throughout the talk was “restorative justice.” It was brought up over and over again by students and administrators with the big question being, “What will restorative justice look like here?” While Walker used the term over and over again during her opening speech at the town hall, her ultimate response was, “I don’t know the answer yet.” The consensus from students? That’s just not good enough. Marta Esquilin jumped back in to say, “Transformative justice looks beyond Title IX which doesn’t address the harm to community and harm to people. Transformative  justice looks at systems and what accountability means.” This is a good definition but doesn’t address the actual question– what will it look like here

The town hall was difficult to watch, it was difficult to hear, and it was difficult to be a part of. A disheartening takeaway was the fear coming from students– students who don’t feel safe on campus, in their dorms, in their classrooms, and definitely don’t feel heard. The biggest accomplishment of the 90 minutes was the united front the student body had and presented against the administration’s handling (or lack thereof) of sexual assault at Bennington College. Pressure is high right now for the administration to act and reform and students are clear that we will be holding this administration 100% accountable. Hopefully, this will be the first step in creating many necessary changes to Bennington’s sexual assault policies, because if not students seem ready to protest the college admin at all costs. 

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