School Refines Its Sexual Misconduct Policy

For many members of the Choate community, the start of the 2017-2018 school year entailed many new changes, with one of the most important being the new sexual misconduct policy. The policy encompasses a 26-page  document outlining the school’s definition of sexual assault, the various resources available for victims, and prevention efforts being taken against the issue. Over the course of the past few weeks, the School’s efforts in educating the community on the policy has been apparent, and the Administration has taken serious measures in addressing this crucial topic and implementing the new policy.

According to Dean of Students Mr. James Stanley, who played a critical role in writing the new standards, “Creating the policy makes clear the School’s commitment to having a safe environment for students. It lays out exactly what we will do if we receive a report. It makes clear that this is important and serious, and we are going to address a difficult and messy situation appropriately.” The policy parallels the core virtues of the School and is intended to assert the fact that “the School does not tolerate sexual misconduct, including sex discrimination, by students, faculty, or staff, regardless of gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.”

A significant step in the School’s approach to implement the policy was contracting with  RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), the nation’s largest organization in preventing sexual misconduct, to assist with the enactment of the policy. The partnership, which officially began in October 2016, entailed an observation of the School’s procedures regarding sexual misconduct in any circumstance. The School had been commended for its apparent efforts towards addressing the issue, but it lacked written guidelines for those procedures. Not only did RAINN advise the Administration to put the policy in writing, but it encouraged that the policy be a separate document outside the handbook. RAINN also provided the school with the essential structure of the policy.

In the past year, the School devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort into producing an effective and relevant policy. The Administration received the input of faculty members who dealt with sexual misbehavior in the past and also collaborated with lawyers. In addition, the School altered procedures used in the past for sexual misconduct reports. Notably, the School no longer categorizes sexual misconduct as an honor code violation, where in the past it arranged a committee of adult members to assess each situation. Rather, it now uses a permanent group of adult faculty members, which closely resembles the Judicial Committee.

Inevitably, many challenges were encountered during the formation of the policy. Mr. Stanley noted, “Discussions about sexual intimacy are complicated for all ages. For teenagers, figuring out what does and does not work is complicated. We are addressing a very difficult topic: how we balance supporting the individual while also providing appropriate communication for the student who has been reported as committing the sexual misconduct. We need to be fair and appropriate to everybody involved.” In addition, while current events call for a national discussion on the issue of sexual misconduct, Choate aimed to model federal standards, created by the Obama Administration, which are set on the basis of preponderance of evidence. However, determining if utilizing that standard was the best option was not easy. A final challenging aspect was defining sexual misconduct. For obvious reasons, the School could not confront the issue of sexual misconduct if it was not clear what sexual misconduct was. Mr. Stanley said, “Figuring out what sexual misconduct includes, how it fits for Choate, and what is appropriate took a lot of time and thought.”

With the new standards on sexual misconduct, the School took many initiatives to help the community embrace the policy. Dr. Holly Hinderlie, Choate’s Wellness Coordinator, led a large portion of the coordination efforts for the training, which included a session for faculty and staff, and two separate student sessions, one for fifth and sixth formers, and another for third and fourth formers. Prefects led the student sessions. Overall, the conversations had similar purposes, but there were some distinct variations. Faculty and staff received education on the neurobiology of trauma and the law governing sexual misconduct. More importantly, the topic of how to keep interactions with students comfortable and what responsibilities adults have in keeping clear boundaries was discussed.

In response to the training received by the community, Mr. Stanley said, “Something that I think that was very important this fall was the discussion of healthy boundaries in relationships. I think that those are the conversations we can have well before the issue of sexual misconduct so that people know their limits.”

For future conversations around the issue, Dr. Hinderlie explained, “My first goal is to keep the conversation going, but to keep it fresh and inclusive.” She stressed the importance of avoiding discussing the issue excessively: “I want to keep my finger on the pulse for when it’s the tipping point — when the conversations become repetitive.”

Josephine Mah ’18, a current prefect, expressed her opinion on both the training session she led and the one that she experienced: “I learned some useful procedures for dealing with reports of sexual conduct. Through running the talks, I also learned what kind of topics younger kids are more willing to talk about when it comes to the topic of sexual misconduct. I do feel better equipped to be a better prefect and resource, but I don’t think the RAINN training and consent talks were exceptional in any way.”

Nonetheless, the School has been prudent and attentive to responding to the issue of sexual misconduct. The Administration worked tirelessly to implement the new policy, while others put in a tremendous amount of effort in managing training sessions around campus. Faculty members will work to ensure that the School is aware of Choate’s definition of sexual misconduct, how to avoid it, and what resources are available for those who have been affected. Mr. Stanley concluded, “I want everybody to be healthy and safe, make good decisions, and respect one another.”

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