The XX Factor

Pomona College Does Damage Control After Sexual Assault Protest at Graduation

Sexual assault protests, such as this one in 2011 in New York City, are resulting in better policies.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Despite some setbacks and an aggressive derailment campaign conducted by anti-feminists, efforts to improve campus response to sexual assault are continuing to pay off. Wednesday, the president of Pomona College, which is part of the Claremont College system in Claremont, California, sent out a letter to students and staff explaining an extensive reworking of the school’s policy for responding to sexual assault and harassment claims on campus. In the letter, the president outlined the extensive changes the school has made to help prevent sexual assault: instituting a bystander intervention training program, hiring a full-time sexual assault responder, working with other Claremont schools to create a sexual violence prevention and resource center that opens in the fall, and even creating a phone app that is meant to help keep students safer. 

Pomona’s decision here doesn’t come out of the blue. The school just underwent a massive audit of its sexual assault response that helped form these new policies. But it couldn’t have hurt that one student, Yenli Wong, has been publicly criticizing the school, both in a letter in the school newspaper and at the Huffington Post, for what she says was a massive mishandling of her own sexual assault case. Wong describes being sexually assaulted twice by the same student, once on her first day of college. The school found her assailant responsible for his actions but, according to Wong, “the sanctions imposed were extremely light.” The details are vague because, disturbingly, the school has told Wong she cannot share any of the details, a restriction that does quite a bit to shield her assailant from larger consequences for his behavior. 

In response to Wong’s allegations, students reportedly protested at Pomona’s graduation this year, turning their back on the college president and covering their mouths with their hands to represent the silencing of victims. 

Given these circumstances, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the president is engaging in damage control by sending this letter. Unfortunately, most of the steps the school has taken don’t address the primary concern brought forth by Wong and her supporters, which is that victims are being silenced. It’s hard to determine if the penalties meted out are fair, after all, if we’re not even allowed to know what the penalties are. 

That said, one step that the school is taking does hold some promise. Pomona is instituting an online service called Callisto, one which happened to be created by Pomona College alum Jessica Ladd. Callisto is a brand-new system that has only been adopted by one other school so far, the University of San Francisco. The program was developed by sexual assault survivors to accommodate the fact that a lot of victims are unsure about reporting and may need time or more information before committing to an official accusation. Victims go online and, through the service, write an account of what happened, with as much detail as they feel like sharing. Kate Wheeling at Pacific Standard describes what comes next:

Once survivors start a time-stamped incident report online, they can choose to store their information in one of three states: they can anonymously and indefinitely store their information; they can record their experience and report automatically if another user within the system identifies the same perpetrator, or they can use the system to immediately file an official report. Until the incident is officially reported, users can transfer their report between the first two states as many times as they want, and they can even completely delete their file from the system.

What makes the system ingenious is that it allows the victim to get the details down while the memory is still fresh, but allows her to gather more information and think about her options before she chooses to report. A lot of rapists, for understandable reasons, prefer to rape in situations that they can spin as murky or ambiguous, trying to get the victim to second-guess herself or, if that’s not possible (say, in situations where he uses violence to subdue her), at least get the victim into a place where she worries no one would believe her anyway. In some cases, victims might feel it’s not worth it to report, but would change their mind if they found out that their assailant is a serial rapist. By being able to detect if there’s multiple reports about the same man, the system can help resolve this concern for victims. 

Callisto also has safeguards against false accusations, allowing only authorities, the accused, and the victim to see reports that the victim chooses to share. This isn’t people writing names on a bathroom wall, but a rigorous evidence-collecting service that alleviates victim concerns about reporting. 

As a colleague of mine noted when I told him I was writing this story, Callisto is an elegant workaround for one of the biggest problems when it comes to campus rape, which is the lack of institutional memory. Schools have high turnover by nature, with a new group of students coming in and others leaving every year. Any individual victim or assailant will likely be gone before too long, incentivizing heel-dragging and secrecy for schools to keep anyone from detecting a pattern. Callisto could help fix that problem. If multiple women report being assaulted by a single rapist, then there’s a record of what happened that isn’t hidden by the churn of campus life.