Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Does Christendom have a problem?

All my social networks are abuzz right now because of Simcha Fisher's articles about Christendom's handling of several rape cases.  Many alumni are leaping in to defend the college; they feel Simcha's article was a hit piece which blames Christendom's strict rules for rape.  Others are coming forward to admit a lot more incidents happened than are described in the articles, and that the college has a lot of dysfunction when it comes to dealing with serious problems.

Personally, I loved Christendom.  I was very happy there.  I was only two years out of the Regnum Christi school, and those two years had been extremely isolated for me.  To arrive on this beautiful campus and be surrounded with friendly, serious Catholics was a dream come true.  I had real friendships, and at the same time I had a lot more freedom than I'd had in boarding school.  There were a zillion rules, from curfew to dress code, but they didn't bother me at all.  They were less strict than what I was used to.  When people complained, I thought they were lightweights and probably not very pious.

There were things that did bother me.  It upset me how impossible it was to have a normal relationship with a guy.  I had zero experience when I arrived at Christendom, but even I could tell that the ban on hand-holding and kissing just led to couples going off into the woods to make out.  And another bad result was that the rumor mill had so little grist to go on that it would just make stuff up.  Seen hanging out with one guy one week, and another guy another week?  You were kinda fast.  Even if you were only trying to get class notes.  One girl "dated" a guy for over a month, at least in the eyes of the rumor mill AND the guy, before she found out that's what their friendship was supposed to be.

During the time I was there, some friends of mine were going through really hard times.  That, I could tell.  What I did not know was that they had actually been assaulted by fellow students -- and not the rude, hard-drinking kind (of which we had a few) but guys I would have thought as respectable, as gentlemen.  Why did I not know that?  Well, it wasn't something that was talked about.  The same went for other friends struggling with mental illnesses.  I always assumed Student Life was looking out for people.  But it turns out, it wasn't.

Christendom, in my mind, has three big flaws.  It is unprofessional, it is overly concerned with appearances, and it is controlling to the point of infantilizing its students.

I'm used to small Catholic organizations being unprofessional.  They can't really help it.  They're new, they're tiny, and the kind of experts that would help them don't want to work for them for peanuts.  So very often the "professionals" they have to rely on are friends and family of the founders.  This was my experience teaching in Catholic schools, where we would have the daughter of the board chairman as an art teacher, though she knew little about art or teaching; or me, for that matter, stuck into a classroom after a one-semester teaching practicum course.  When a child had special needs, there would be nothing we could do -- a school of forty kids can't afford an occupational therapist -- but no one ever wanted to admit it and tell the student's parents to take him elsewhere.  So it was up to a couple of unlicensed teachers in their twenties to figure it out.

And it's the same at Christendom.  Very few of the staff have any experience in the work they're doing; they're expected to learn on the job.  The faculty are better, but sometimes they're stuck teaching something other than what their degree is in.  When anyone criticizes, we are reminded that they are "doing their best," which of course they are, given their experience, and that the critics are just too picky and want a ton of unnecessary paperwork.  They are, as far as I know, the only Catholic college in the country that doesn't take federal student aid, which they say is to avoid government bureaucracy.  There isn't any specific case of overreach they're worried about, they just think that theoretically, the government might oppress them someday.  And anyway it's just a lot of paperwork, which would take up their time and make things harder for them.  But really, what it seems to me is that they aren't really equipped to raise the college to the standard other colleges meet.  It's hard enough for them to renew their accreditation each year.

With all that, it's unsurprising to me what the article reveals -- that it took months for them to handle Adele's case, that they never made any proactive move to keep her attacker away from her, and that there doesn't seem to be anybody whose job it was to help Adele through the process.  All her support seems to have come from professors, whose job is certainly is not (though thank goodness they were there, and willing, when Student Life's main concern seems to have been liability).

Next, they're overly concerned with appearances.  I can think of no better example than the Commons: piazza with fountain at the front, stench of raw sewage in the back.  I don't know why the septic tank overflows back there, but it's been doing it since 2004 at least.  Currently the college is fundraising to build a giant new chapel with a steeple high enough to be seen from the freeway.  It's going to cost 13 million, which they don't have yet, but they're breaking ground on it already.  That's the priority - to be a city on a hill, to somehow be a beacon that will lead those poor benighted townies to become Catholic, or something.  Not to fix the septic tank or the mold in the dorms.

And that attitude is out in spades right now.  The alumni facebook group booted me out, and eventually purged all the threads that were critical of the college.  For awhile this was their group description:

Current students are flooding Simcha's comments section with supportive, if irrelevant, comments about how they've never been raped and feel very safe.  Others are screaming and yelling, on facebook and in person, about how saying bad things about the college will destroy it, and since it's doing good, everyone is morally obligated to be positive about it instead.  Nothing they've done has reminded me of Regnum Christi so much as this has.  It's a sort of reflexive defensiveness that circles the wagons and calls anyone who thinks things could change an enemy with an ax to grind -- someone who should be opposed at all costs.

When the Northern Virginia Daily picked up the story, the president of the college didn't call him back.  Another administrator gave a comment, but a misleading one, claiming Title IX prevented him from commenting on how many rape cases Christendom has dealt with.  In fact, Title IX would require the college to make that information publicly available -- if Christendom were subject to it, which it's not.  At every turn, the college has misled or obfuscated what's really going on.  Anything to protect Christendom's reputation.

Last of all, Christendom tries to control the students in the hopes of forcing them to be moral.  The PDA policy is an example of this.  They hope that if they keep students from holding hands, they'll never have sex.  But in reality, all it does is force couples off campus, where it's even harder for horny teenagers to avoid having sex.  And that has led to some unsafe circumstances, of course.  A girl is a lot safer kissing in the quad than she is kissing in a dark backseat in a national park.  But the response of many has been to blame the victims for breaking the rules in the first place.  If they hadn't kissed, if they hadn't gone off campus, this wouldn't have happened!  Well, sure.  But how would Christendom boast of its many Catholic weddings if students never kissed each other?

Actual marketing material

The college likes to say they are helping parents, or that they take the role of parents.  They make sure you don't kiss your boyfriend, they make you clean your room, they check that you're in by midnight.  This reassures parents and makes them feel they're doing what they can to make students moral.  But it gives the lie to any statements they later make that they're not responsible for what happens because the students are adults.  That's not what they were advertising.  They were advertising that Christendom would be safe like other places aren't safe.  And students believe they are safe.  The college is doing nothing to help students act like adults.  Female students believe that it's safe, and all their male classmates are trustworthy.  From the comments on Simcha's blog:

"As to the men on this campus, I found the best friends of my entire life and know that they would do everything to protect and guard me as a woman. I am preparing for my Rome semester now and I have talking to many of the guys I will be going with and I know that they will be escorting us home each and every night. I trust them completely that they would never hurt me in that way, no matter the circumstances or if drinking was involved."

"As many of the girls here have stated, we all feel safe walking around campus alone at night. I take walks alone fairly often in the middle of the night to think and be alone, and I have never once felt unsafe in any way."

"In the past, I lived across the street from campus, and many nights it would be dark when I returned to my dorm. But I never felt afraid walking back in the dark. Why? Because whether it was the girls or the guys, there was always someone who would walk back with me at night."

"I have experienced the frustration of not being allowed to have my boyfriend hang out in my dorm with my when he visits me, and instead we have had to be creative with where we go to spend one together, but for all the times we have taken walks in the woods or have gone to Skyline to sit and talk without being with others, I have never once been afraid of my boyfriend taking advantage of me."

These comments are sweet, but they're really naive.  They could get raped doing these things, and if they did, I know some of the staff and alumni would blame them for it because they "should have known."  But they don't know--they see Christendom men as their protectors, and not as threats.  The college doesn't do anything to change this view.

I didn't mention the sexism, because it runs deep and would take a whole other post to describe it.  And many Catholics wouldn't notice it anyway, because they're used to that kind of thing.  You know--90% male leadership and professors, women encouraged to see themselves mainly as future mothers, women expected to take responsibility for men's chastity.  I do think this mindset contributes to women blaming themselves for their rapes and telling no one lest they be seen as "ruined."  But I think I'll leave it alone for now.

Anyway, going over all this in my mind, and clearly seeing how Christendom is unprepared to deal with sexual violence, even though it's made an effort to change, makes me wonder where to go from here.  I don't want the college to shut down; it was a happy place for me and I know people who are there right now and love it.  I'm not opposed to the president stepping down, because he certainly had a role in this, but I don't think that would solve the problem, because these problems pervade the whole institution.  But I finally found out one thing that would help: Title IX.  I've been reading up on the things it requires, and all of these are changes Christendom should make.  Take a look at some of these, none of which the college follows:

"Under the Campus SaVE provisions of the Clery Act, all schools are legally required to provide prevention education to first-year students and include information on students’ reporting options and resources. But research shows that a single session during orientation isn’t good enough. Your school should require continuous, comprehensive, in-person prevention education for everyone on campus.
That includes first-year students, transfers, graduate students, professors, and staff. Effective consent education must be skills-based and interactive (rather than merely informational), inclusive, and community-based. "

"Your school should guarantee that survivors have access to counseling and medical attention in a timely manner and without having to file a formal complaint. Medical care, including mental healthcare, should be provided at no cost to the survivor—the high cost of counseling can preclude people from accessing it, with significant psychological and educational consequences. If a survivor requires a remedy in order to access an equitable education, their school should provide that remedy at no cost to the victim."

"All decision-makers, including (but not limited to) members of any adjudication panel (if your school has one), sanctioning officers, appeals officers, and case managers should be impartial individuals with training in sexual and domestic violence. University administrators such as deans of student life or academic advisors generally lack the knowledge necessary to effectively adjudicate these cases and their stake in protecting the school’s public image suggests a conflict of interest; we do not believe they are appropriate decision-makers in this context.
Both parties should have the opportunity to challenge investigators, case managers, and decision-makers involved in the hearings, sanctioning, or appeals process. If anyone in those positions has a relationship with the accused student or victim, they should be removed from roles in the disciplinary process."

All schools should use the preponderance of the evidence (otherwise known as “more likely than not”) standard for adjudicating complaints. The preponderance of the evidence is the standard used to adjudicate civil rights cases in court. Since Title IX is a civil rights law that exists to protect each student’s right to an education free from harassment and violence, the preponderance of the evidence standard is the most equitable and appropriate standard. Schools should not use a different standard, such as “clear and convincing” or “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
All policies should explicitly state that a survivor’s dress and past sexual history is irrelevant to the investigation and outcome, and will be excluded from evidence.
A respondent’s past findings of responsibility (whether in civil, criminal, or university disciplinary records) should be included as evidence at sanctioning.
Your school should guarantee that survivors have equal opportunity to present evidence and witnesses, should develop a clear procedure for both parties to present evidence and witnesses, and shouldn’t deviate from that established procedure without a compelling reason.
Your school should interview all available witnesses with relevant information. If your school declines or fails to interview a witness suggested by either party, they should provide an explanation to the party in writing.
Both parties should have equal access to available evidence in their case file and should have sufficient time for them and their attorneys to review it before a hearing."

"Qualified Investigators — It takes years of specialized training (not just a few hours) to fully understand the complicated dimensions of gender-based violence. Reports must be investigated by impartial individuals with extensive professional expertise in gender-based violence to ensure they are effective, professional, and trauma-informed.
Case Managers — Schools should provide survivors who report with a qualified case manager, someone they can contact whenever they have questions about the process and who is responsible for keeping them up-to-date about any developments, helping them secure accommodations and interim measures, and preventing retaliation. At many schools, survivors and accused students will be given the same case manager, which can make many survivors (and accused students) uncomfortable, deterring them from coming forward. Your school should guarantee that survivors and perpetrators will never have the same case managers.
Survivors’ Stories — Investigations (and hearings) should be designed to limit the number of times survivors must re-describe the incident to as few individuals as is practicable.
Timely Investigations — Schools must conduct the major stages of investigations and grievance procedures in a reasonably prompt timeframe. The ideal timeframe is about 60 days, depending on the complexity of the case."

"While colleges cannot publicly release the sanctions given to a specific, named individual [because sanctions are considered an “educational record” protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)], they can and should publish aggregate statistics so that students, parents, and alums can hold schools accountable for their responses.
Your school should publish aggregate statistics showing, at a minimum:
how many cases are reported;
how many survivors were denied accommodations that they requested;
how long, on average, cases remained open;
how many students were found responsible; and
how students found responsible were sanctioned.
Your school might claim that publishing this data is a violation of FERPA, but it’s not. In fact, the Department of Education under the Obama Administration has required many colleges found in violation of Title IX to publish this information."

Christendom is exempt from Title IX because it doesn't take federal money.  But in my opinion, it needs to become compliant anyway.  Best of all would be if it accepted federal money like other colleges do--that would lift the burden on alumni of having to pay Christendom's loans, which are at 10% and must be paid back within six years.  And this would finally give students a legal right to complain at the college's blundering response to sexual assault.  But if it doesn't do this, it should at least independently become compliant with these standards.

In my opinion, that's the college's only hope of surviving with its reputation as an excellent, safe Catholic option intact.  If they insist on staying as they are, they're likely to shrink down into a smaller and smaller student body as reasonable parents don't send their kids there.  We've seen other Catholic colleges, like Southern Catholic College, take this spiral before.

But if Christendom bites the dust, it won't be Adele's fault or Simcha's fault.  It will be the fault of an administration that refuses to be professional, transparent, and respectful of its adult students.


Anonymous said...

I've known many students, alumni and employees at Christendom. I came from "the outside world" and was shocked to see the naivety and hypocrisy in that community.

You have the perfect analogy: the public sees the (yet unbuilt) shiny new chapel and the insiders see (and ignore) the leaking septic tank.

It's a patriarchal, misogynist, 19th century culture - and they like it that way. NOTHING will ever change it. A male student could rape a female at gunpoint and the entire campus will still blame the woman for wearing a tight skirt.

Unfortunately, these problems happen at many religious conservative colleges across the country.

Sheila said...

I hope you're wrong that nothing will ever change. I admit I tend to lean toward your view, though. Current students, staff, most professors, the administration, and quite a few alumni seem to think that things are just fine and don't need to be changed.

It just bugs me that after the sex abuse scandal, and after Regnum Christi's downfall, people are still using the "but it's a good and holy organization so nothing bad should be spoken of it!" defense. That's a recipe for problems, and for never fixing them because you can't admit they're there.

Diwakar said...
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