This summer, Ramapo College announced its “Advance” plan, a document outlining new and revised safety measures and regulations intended to prevent sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse on campus.
The document is intended for the entire campus community and its recommendations are expected to be put in place in the coming months and years.
“It’s not something you can just parcel out to just one individual,” President Peter Mercer said, referring to the task of addressing sexual assault and harassment.
Colleges and universities across the country have been revising their policies regarding sexual assault and harassment. Harvard University revisited their policy last summer; Columbia University and Northwestern University’s students protested against policies last year and the University of Virginia also responded to a high profile incident written about in “Rolling Stone” magazine. Although that article was disproven, UVA took an aggressive stance on sexual assault following its publication.
Ramapo’s plan was constructed after recommendations from two independent sources. The first was a report by former New Jersey State Attorney General Anne Milgram, in the wake of an alleged sexual assault earlier this year. The second was by D. Stafford & Associates, “a professional consulting firm specializing in campus safety, security and law enforcement issues on college campuses,” according to a Ramapo press release.
“It also incorporates recommendations contributed by third-party public safety experts, administrators and law enforcement officials, including Mahwah Chief of Police James N. Batelli,” the release stated.
The 21-page document begins with an introduction defining it as “a commitment to our students, their parents, our stakeholders and to the entire community.” It continues by explaining the document’s two-fold purpose: “It’s a promise to take immediate, substantive action to improve how we work to educate our students and prevent sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse within our community, as well as to ensure cases are swiftly and fairly adjudicated.”
Containing 15 initiatives the College is set to undertake, the document covers a wide range of perspectives from additional staff training to reviewing the Incident Assessment Process. The initiatives all come with a time frame of when they will go into action, with some points already underway.
“What it does is catalogue the steps that we intend to take,” Mercer said. “These involve considerably increased training, a wide distribution of responsibility to people on campus, the enlistment, participation and support of faculty, staff and students, as well as administration.”
Ramapo has also dedicated a section of its website to the new plan. The Advance section of the College’s website includes multiple links, including how to report a sexual assault on campus to either the department of Public Safety, the Mahwah Police Department or the Title IX coordinator. Students can even report anonymously, however, only to the Public Safety Department. The website also includes links offering support to victims, with subsections on facts about sexual assault and what to do if a friend has been sexually assaulted. The full Ramapo Advance document and the Code of Conduct from the student handbook are also available online.
Since its release, the “Advance” plan has encountered some criticism from students.
Junior Mindy Gorin has voiced her concerns regarding the plan’s cost as well as the plan’s tendency to connect alcohol with sexual abuse.
“I don’t think it’s right to spend so much of the school’s money, much of which comes from students’ tuitions, for us to be told … that we’re either helpless victims or uncontrollable animals who need to be chaperoned,” Gorin said in an email.
Mercer said the plan cost about $60,000. Although he acknowledged that this is a large sum of money, Mercer suggested looking at the cost in comparison to the College’s total budget.
“There are two things I want to remember — the first is that $60,000 is a lot of money. I agree with that, but if it prevents even one sexual assault as a result, I think the money’s worth it,” Mercer said. “We have to remember that we’re a big organization, you know; we have 6,000 students, hundreds of employees, staff and faculty. We have a $160 million annual budget. So, you have to look at it in those terms as well. When you look at the size of the operation — the number of people involved and the complexity of it — it’s not surprising that you have to spend some money to get the type of reasoned response we got from our consultants.”
While criticizing the plan, Gorin also noted her discontent with connecting sexual assault with alcohol.
“What I don’t appreciate is the tight connection the administration seems to be making between sexual assault and underage drinking. While you can’t deny that drunken incidents do occur, the bottom line is if someone thinks it’s okay to do that, he’s going to do it with or without the help of alcohol. I’ve also heard a lot of students’ criticism about victim blaming and what happens after you turn 21 — are you suddenly immune to sexual assault just because you can drink legally? I think there are a lot of issues with linking sexual assault so firmly to alcohol, which is what Ramapo needs to move away from,” Gorin said.
Mercer, well aware of this issue, said that the connection could not be ignored.
“It’s a complex issue because, as I said at the State of the College address, there’s no causative relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, of course. It’s not a matter of causation but there’s a strong correlation and there are some who would say that you shouldn’t talk about the two in the same breath because to do so runs the risk of appearing to blame the victim, and I certainly don’t want to do that. I’ve made it quite clear that the victim is never responsible for the sexual assault … alcohol is used in a predatory way by people who commit sexual assaults and my job is, fundamentally, to uphold and maintain the safety and health of the students on campus. I’m not going to separate those two if experience indicates to me that they tend to go hand-in-hand, but I don’t take the position that there’s a causation relationship — there isn’t,” Mercer said.
Having researched this issue, Mercer offered the words of Stanford law professor Deborah Rhone as quoted in a New York Times Magazine article on campus sexual assault by Emily Bazelon.
“Schools have been reluctant to incorporate issues of alcohol abuse in rape-prevention programs out of concern that victims will be blamed, and blame themselves, for assault. That needs to change. Warning women that intoxication increases their risk of sexual assault does not imply that they are responsible for it,” Rhone says in the article.
Although Mercer noted that it was too soon to judge the plan’s success, the campus community is certainly undergoing change: Public Safety officers can be found patrolling the campus on foot and IDs are being checked at the Village’s main entrance.
“I go around at night talking with [students] … and 95 percent of it is good feedback,” Public Safety officer and Campus Outreach officer Will Holmes said when asked about change on campus. “They’re like, we understand what you guys are doing out in the Village, especially those who live out in the Village. We appreciate it.”
Opinions regarding the success of the Ramapo: Advance plan vary, but as Mercer noted during an interview, the real proof of this plan will be in its results.
“It was an investment — I think and I hope it was worth it,” Mercer said.