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“Grave Indifference”


Rape culture at Swarthmore College:

Sendrow is a 23-year-old brunette from Princeton, New Jersey. Her mother is from Mexico; her dad is a Jewish guy from the Bronx. She graduated last spring and works in health care in Washington, D.C. If 3,000 smiling Facebook photos are a good barometer, her four years at Swarthmore seem to have passed by untroubled. But in the midwinter of 2013, Sendrow says, she was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months. They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. “I basically said, ‘No, I don’t want to have sex with you.’ And then he said, ‘Okay, that’s fine’ and stopped,” Sendrow told me. “And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.”

A month and a half went by before Sendrow paid a visit to Tom Elverson, a drug and alcohol counselor at the school who also served as a liaison to its fraternities. A former frat brother at Swarthmore, he was jolly and bushy-mustached, a human mascot hired a decade earlier to smooth over alumni displeasure at the elimination of the football team, which his father had coached when Elverson was a student. When Sendrow told him she had been raped, he was incredulous. He told her the student was “such a good guy,” she says, and that she must be mistaken. Sendrow left his office in tears. She was so discouraged about going back to the administration that it wasn’t until several months later that she told a dean about the incident. Shortly thereafter, both students graduated, and Sendrow says she was never told the outcome of any investigation. (Elverson, whose position was eliminated by the school last summer, emailed me that he would answer the “great questions” I raised, but never wrote back.)


“Sally,” a 2012 graduate, said she was at a party in the fall of her freshman year when a fellow student cornered her, pushed her against a wall, and began to kiss her, before being pulled off by a mutual friend. Later that night, Sally awoke to find the same student had entered her room and climbed on top of her. She managed to push him off. When she told associate dean Myrt Westphal she wanted to pursue charges through the College Judiciary Committee (CJC), she says, Westphal asked her to say “harassment” rather than “assault,” and questioned whether she really wanted to “pit her two friends against each other.” Discouraged, Sally declined to pursue judiciary action. (Westphal, who retired last spring, declined to comment.)

Similar stories are legion. Jean Strout, a 2010 graduate now studying at Harvard Law School, says that after she was pinned to the ground by a naked, drunk rugby player, she spoke to a male administrator by phone, who told her it sounded like a “misunderstanding” and that she should ask the offender for an apology.

A recent graduate who now practices law in New York City says that when she told an administrator she had been raped, the

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administrator said, “You don’t sound as if you were raped,” and, noticing the cross hanging around her neck, asked if she wanted to see a priest. She declined to pursue the case.

Another student, according to the Title IX complaint, was raped in her dorm room by a friend of a friend with alcohol on his breath. Before he left the room, he looked at her, smiled, and told her, “It’s your word against mine.” After she recounted the incident in a long email to a member of the administration, her complaint says, school officials never got in touch with her or did any investigation.

As spokeswomen for fellow victims, Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson often underemphasized their own stories, but they too joined the complaints. Ferguson says she was raped her freshman year in a dorm room by someone she considered a friend. After keeping it bottled up for a semester, she told two resident advisers who were required to report what she told them. They proceeded to tell no one. Hope Brinn says a male student burst into her room while she was naked and refused to leave, after having harassed her via text message. According to her Title IX complaint, when she reported the incident, an administrator laughed and told her she might consider having him write “knock” on his hand as a reminder before he goes out. (Brinn has also spoken about a separate incident of sexual assault.)

As Zuylen-Wood observes, The Obama administration has announced that it will seriously investigate all of the schools who are in violation of the Civil Rights Act if they fail to properly investigate sexual assault and harassment complaints. Hopefully it will follow through.

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