In a recent email to the student body, Barbara McCall, Director of Health and Wellness Education, introduced April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). The email included a link (go/saam15) to various upcoming events surrounding sexual assault awareness. Be sure to give it a look and watch out for future events. Aside from these initiatives, a small group of student activists recently worked together to create Middlebury Unmasked, a documentary project about judicial processes and sexual assault at Middlebury. Their work has been featured on VPR (Vermont Public Radio) as well as in various local news sources. To encourage dialogue surrounding this topic, middbeat sat down with two student activists, Maddie Orcutt ’16 and Michelle Peng ’15 involved in the production of the video. We definitely recommend taking the time to watch Middlebury Unmasked and read the activists’ thoughts below. As is the wish of those involved in the making of this video, we encourage healthy and respectful dialogue surrounding this topic during and beyond the month of April.
Middbeat: Tell me about the genesis of this project? Is it affiliated with It Happens Here?
Maddie Orcutt: Middlebury Unmasked started out of a dialogue between a few people who wanted to place Middlebury within this broader national dialogue about sexual assault and the Title IX claims going on at other colleges. What does all of this new legislation mean? Specifically, what does it mean for our backyard? This project started out as a storytelling endeavor. It was nothing more than six individuals getting together, talking together, and realizing that they had commonalities in their stories. So in the beginning, there really wasn’t a big political agenda behind this project. When we edited the video together it became rapidly apparent that there were some similarities across survivors’ experiences, and we were fortunate that the video edited together in a really organic way.
Michelle Peng: Middlebury Unmasked is not officially affiliated with It Happens Here, but there’s obviously a lot of overlap between the two projects, just considering that both aim to raise awareness for sexual assault but in different ways. I think Middlebury Unmasked does a really good job of looking at what happens after the assault: What can you do, what kind of judicial processes can you go through, and what have people’s experiences been?
MB: What would you like to see as a response from the administration and community as a whole?
MO: This video has been watched a number of times. It’s been profiled by VPR (Vermont Public Radio) and it’s been profiled on local new sources. I think the survivors involved with the video project deserve a conversation with the administration. I think that the administration should respond to this video in the form of a community-wide conversation. There aren’t that many people in a given year that go through a sexual misconduct process. We have six voices that have toyed with that very decision, and so I think that to not acknowledge that this video exists in an open forum is nothing short of disrespectful.
MP: I also think it’s about just having that feedback loop. Few go through these judicial processes, so you really want to make sure that every time you’re doing it you’re improving, you’re figuring out quality assurance. The project is also about more than just Middlebury. It’s a critique of Title IX and how colleges in general are asked to handle these sexual misconduct policies. Middlebury, like most institutions nowadays, is very concerned with compliance. But even at a college like Middlebury there are still so many things that can be improved upon. And who better to identify those needs than those who have actually been through the processes? I think there’s darkness and mystery with these things. You can say “this is what it’s going to look like on paper” but the point is on paper it’s way different than the lived experience and it’s important to just have that perspective out there.
MO: I totally agree. That’s why I’ve been really perplexed by the college’s lack of response because it’s not saying Middlebury College does a horrible job and we hate you and are angry at you. There certainly are some voices that are angry and I think they have the absolute right to be. But I think that this activism is more largely just trying to place Middlebury in this national dialogue. It’s very confusing to me why the school hasn’t acknowledged that this video exists, and why the administration is so resistant to having an open conversation about this project.
MB: How do we as students respect the initiatives the administration is taking regarding sexual assault while demanding more transparency?
MO: I think that transparency is a huge part of it. I don’t think the average Middlebury student knows what these processes look like, and it’s not really something that’s on our consciousness all of the time. But I think that for the Middlebury case, it’s not so much about compliance because they’re definitely concerned about compliance and checking those boxes. It’s more about a compassionate response from administrators and leaving people feeling emotionally supported. I think that’s one of the biggest leaps that needs to be made, and the video project highlights that.
MP: It’s also about being very critical and very honest about these processes. The point is, there is a time X amount of years ago when they thought that having the survivor and perpetrator sitting in the same room in front of a jury of students was a good idea. And that seemed cutting edge and like we were doing something right. My purpose is not to claim that Middlebury is doing a bad job, just that there are clear areas of improvement. Anyone saying that we’re doing a great job is problematic in my eyes because we are fifty years from somewhere. I don’t want to look back at this time and say “what were we thinking.” I think one of the biggest issues is that there is one person deciding the ultimate verdict for these cases. You have thesis boards that have eight professors on it. That doesn’t really make sense to me.
MO: The video acknowledges that all of these best practices conversations are happening at the national level and at the Middlebury level. But the survivors are saying “my voice isn’t heard in that and I could greatly inform your policy-making and your decision-making.” I think this project is very much an attempt by survivors to raise their hands and say I want a voice in this too because I have a stake in this.
MP: Look at the statistics. There were 17 reports of sexual misconduct last year. Out of those 17, 5 started to go through judicial processes. Out of those 5, only 3 people went to a verdict. Only one person was found guilty. They were not expelled. When you look down at the details, you can say have we done everything right. But when you look at the bigger picture, the statistic is that one in five women will be raped by the time they graduate college. That is a staggering statistic. Who are the perpetrators? Middlebury students. It’s an opportunity to hold people accountable. And so far only one person has been held accountable and they weren’t even expelled. We need to be critical about that.
MB: What do you most want people to take away from the video?
MO: I think one of the coolest parts about this video narrative project is that we use the masks of other Middlebury students to hide the identities of the survivors. I think the symbolism of that is that our community and peers can stand as witnesses to this violence and stand as allies in this fight. I think hopefully people will feel similarly engaged in these issues and discuss them. For me, I’d personally like to see a dialogue come out of this with administrators. I think that we need to sit down and have this conversation about how we adjudicate these processes. We need to talk about how it can possibly be 2015 and it still takes this institution 145 days to adjudicate a rape that was videotaped. To me, that story is nothing short of enraging and absurd.
MP: I agree with that. When it comes down from it I hope it comes down to greater awareness of what the process is like. One in five. That is a huge number. We need to talk about being able to support friends. We need to talk about what a healthy sexual environment is like. What does consent mean? I would like to see more guys in on this conversation, too. Sexual violence affects everyone, the whole community. So let’s force administrators to have this conversation.
MO: The irony of the College’s response to this project is that it took voices which said “you aren’t hearing me” and once more refuses to listen to their claims. Let’s demand a higher standard for this community and make sexual respect a priority- in our bedrooms, in our conversations, and in our judiciary processes.