On Oct. 8, Talia Light Rake ’20 sent a statement through student email titled “An Open Letter from the Former SMAs.” The letter, which also appeared on The Kenyon Thrill the same day, detailed “the loss of two core tenets” of the Sexual Misconduct Advisor (SMA) program and announced the conception of a new group: the Sexual Respect Peer Alliance (SRPA).
“We do not want survivors to be scared into silence due to new policies regarding confidentiality,” the letter said. “Therefore many SMAs have disassociated from The Cox Health and Counseling Center’s SMA Program. In response, some former SMAs have created a new support organization: Sexual Respect Peer Alliance.”
Just a day before the letter was released to the public, 16 of the 17 SMAs informed Director of the Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith that they would be quitting the program in response to the new confidentiality practices implemented in the SMA program. The other SMA resigned as well, according to Smith, but not because they agreed with the formation of the SRPA.
“I’m sad,” Smith said. “But I respect their individual rights and autonomy.”
The departure comes in the wake of changes to the SMA program that included the discontinuation of the 24-hour hotline and the termination of their ability to act as a confidential resource for students. Beginning this year, SMAs were required to file reports to the Title IX office that would include the names of the students they spoke to. Before this change, they reported their statistics while maintaining the student’s anonymity.
The change came as a result of the Department of Education’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security reporting which defines “members of a sexual assault response team (SART) or other sexual assault advocates” as meeting the criteria of “campus safety authorities” or CSAs. According to the handbook, “under the Clery Act, a crime is ‘reported’ when it is brought to the attention of a campus security authority, the institution’s police department or campus safety office […] If a campus security authority receives a report, he or she must include it as a crime report.”
Based on this wording as stated in Section 4-3 of the handbook, SMAs would fall into the category of mandated reporter, which means that the group could no longer have legal confidentiality and that the school could be held liable for information relayed to the SMAs.
“We felt these changes fundamentally altered the mission from peer support to peer education,” SPRA wrote in an email to the Collegian. “While peer education is important, we recognize that there is a great need for peer support on this campus. We felt that the SMA title which was once used to empower students began to encumber us.”
Though, according to the members of SRPA, the group began deliberating their departure in the spring of 2018, Smith says the dissociation came as a surprise to him. Before the open letter was published, the SMAs had been in the process of creating two new programs for the school and working with New Directions, a local domestic abuse and rape crisis center that runs a 24-hour hotline, according to Smith.
“[New Directions has] a very broad and deep knowledge base and experience working with people have experienced sexual misconduct, intimate partner violence, etc.,” Civil Rights/Title IX Coordinator Samantha Hughes said.
Hughes met with New Directions last week to go over Kenyon-specific guidelines in managing a hotline that is open to Kenyon Students. Since the crisis center is not officially affiliated with the school, they are not mandated reporters.
As of now, the future of the SMAs remains uncertain.
“We’re going to have to kind of hit the drawing board again and see what happens as far as moving forward,” Smith said. “[The Health and Counseling Center] is committed to working with students to make Kenyon healthier, but it’s too soon to speculate on plans for a SMA reboot or SMA-proxy program.”
The members of SRPA, on the other hand, have achieved their goal of regaining a sense of privacy between their group and the peers with whom they speak. Because they are no longer affiliated with the school in any way, SRPA members are not mandated reporters and therefore do not have to disclose any of their findings to Campus Safety, the Health and Counseling Center or the Title IX Office, according to Hughes.
Despite this, Smith expressed concern over the newly founded group.
“Without proper training, without proper support — which now they lose because they aren’t connected to our Title IX office or to our counselors — if they receive some information that is extremely heavy or intense, they’ve got no support system either,” Smith said. “And that’s a concern for me, reaching out for all students. I get concerned for students trying to take on some things that they’re not equipped to handle.”
The members of SRPA hope to eventually work tangentially with the College while still maintaining their independence. “The Sexual Respect Peer Alliance’s goal is to move forward with the support of the College in order to cohesively provide the best support to students,” they wrote.
Students seeking confidential counseling can also reach out to the Health and Counseling Center’s clinicians and counseling staff, who have medical licenses and therefore doctor-patient confidentiality; the New Directions Hotline (740-427-4357); or the community chaplains.
Evey Weisblat contributed reporting.