A UNH student leader and administrators reflect on calls to fight sexual violence and how to move forward
The University of New Hampshire has been in the spotlight in recent months after a sexual assault was reported on campus, spurring protests and calls for institutional change.
NHPR talked to Kai Parlett, a student co-founder and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire and in another conversation, Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Nadine Petty and UNH President James Dean about the latest events on campus, and what they all hope to see for the campus in the future.
Previously, channels of communication between student activists and UNH administrators broke down. Dean said he wouldn’t meet with student leaders until they apologized for protesting outside his on-campus home. But in an interview with NHPR, he said he’s changed his mind.
“I don't really want that to be our focus at this point… I think the students and the university leaders really want the same thing,” Dean says. “We want there to be a safe campus. We want people who are victims to feel supported… Somehow, we got off to a bad start with this in terms of the way that maybe we spoke to each other and we're trying to do better and we're hoping we can meet soon.”
Among those student leaders Dean may soon be meeting with is Kai Parlett, a co-founder and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire, a group that formed in the wake of the Oct. 25 protest. Despite the divide between students and the university’s president, she says the committee wants to work in partnership with administrators.
“I hope that [Dean] is sort of coming to an understanding of what we're really trying to get at, which is not students versus President Dean. It's not students versus administration. We're trying to collaborate and really work together to push forward a mission of making UNH a safer campus,” Parlett says.
The report of a sexual assault was made in mid-October by a student who says she was assaulted in Stoke Hall, the university’s largest dormitory. Protests arose days after as students voiced their concerns about UNH’s handling of sexual assaults on campus.
A protest on Oct. 25 saw students gather outside of Dean’s home on campus, after which he said he was met with what he called “disrespectful behavior.”
UNH already has safeguards in place, including a Title IX office and SHARPP, the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program. Dean cited studies that have ranked UNH among the safest schools in the country. But Parlett says it’s not about statistics that deem a campus safe or not, but rather it’s about how students feel.
“I think we should stop comparing ourselves to other colleges and universities and start really looking at what we can do better because there's always something that we can be doing better,” she says. “As long as there is sexual assault at UNH there's something that we can be doing better.”
Dean and Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Nadine Petty say they’ve been making a concerted effort to make UNH as safe as possible, improving preventative measures and making it easier for students to report instances of sexual assault. Petty says the Title IX Advisory Council has established a subgroup to work on revising the school’s sexual violence prevention plan with the most current best practices.
Parlett and her co-organizers have met with administrators twice, and presented them with a list of action items: concrete changes they’d like to see at UNH to combat sexual assault. One of the changes Parlett is hoping for would be more student involvement on the Title IX Council and the committees regarding student safety. That includes members of the Sexual Violence Action Committee and survivors of sexual assault who want to participate.
“Student representation is not the same thing as survivor representation,” Parlett says. “When we're talking about assault, if they want to and if it is something that they're comfortable doing, survivors of sexual assault are really the ones who can speak to it.”
Some of the action items, Parlett says, will have to be revised. They didn’t comply with Title IX. UNH is bound by the regulations of Title IX, so administrators aren’t allowed to release any information about ongoing investigations. Dean says those restrictions can make students feel like they’re being left in the dark, but the university has to adhere to them.
“I think students sometimes feel as if we're being evasive or not being fully transparent with them, when unfortunately, our reality is that we simply can't say anything about ongoing investigations and that are actually our severe penalties for us doing so,” Dean says.
Parlett says she hopes members of the Sexual Violence Action Committee and administration will be able to work together on the revised action items when they meet in the near future and implement a version of each of them. Petty says the UNH administration is currently working, in conjunction with other offices on campus, on a list of recommendations based on the action items that will represent a “holistic clearinghouse of what the institution is working towards.”
“I believe that they're going to be happy to see where we are, where we are headed and what we are going to accomplish moving forward,” Petty says.
Transcript of NHPR's interview with UNH President James Dean and Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Dr. Nadine Petty:
Peter Biello: UNH President James Dean and Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Dr. Nadine Petty are here to speak with me about this. President Dean, Dr. Petty, thank you both very much for speaking with me.
President James Dean: Great. We're happy to be here. Thanks, Peter.
Dr. Nadine Petty: Absolutely. Thank you, Peter.
Peter Biello: President Dean, you have condemned any kind of sexual violence at UNH and UNH Police are currently investigating the report of an assault in mid-October, but students are still upset. So, why do you think students have reacted in the way that they have?
President James Dean: Well, one of the challenges that we have in any university is that we're governed by a set of laws under Title IX. And what I think is very frustrating for a lot of people is that one of the laws associated with that says we simply can't share any details of investigations. So, I think students sometimes feel as if we're being evasive or not being fully transparent with them, when unfortunately, our reality is that we simply can't say anything about ongoing investigations and that there actually are severe penalties for us doing so. And I can completely appreciate why students are frustrated with that. But we don't really have much choice in the matter.
Peter Biello: And you mentioned Title IX, so Dr. Petty, UNH has a Title IX office and SHARPP, the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program. I want to ask you, because you've been working on some other measures to address sexual assault and rape on campus, briefly, can you tell us what some of those are?
Dr. Nadine Petty: Sure, Peter. There are a lot of measures happening through the Title IX Advisory Council. There are subgroups and task forces. And so one example is we had a subgroup to work on a sexual violence prevention plan, and that subgroup was made up of SHARPP members, in addition to members from Health and Wellness. And they took a look at a prevention plan that was drafted in 2016 and updated it with research, best practices, and that plan currently is being presented to various campus constituents for vetting purposes, and I anticipate that they'll be ready for full execution very soon.
Peter Biello: Are there any elements of the policy on campus that might be pleasing to the students who are upset about the conditions there right now?
Dr. Nadine Petty: Yes, absolutely. Not just the prevention plan, but in general. So, I'll give an example: There are a list of recommendations that have been put together. The recommendations are part of what the Sexual Violence Action Committee, the student group, brought forward, in addition to recommendations from our Affirmative Action Office and other areas of campus that touched Title IX, including Student Life, and the recommendations are sort of a holistic clearinghouse of what the institution is working towards. Those recommendations are going to be shared with the students soon, next week in our next meeting. And I believe that they're going to be happy to see where we are, where we’re headed and what we are going to accomplish moving forward.
Peter Biello: As far as I understand it, UNH has changed campus rules to allow students to carry pepper spray now. That was previously not allowed. Is that correct?
Dr. Nadine Petty: That's correct.
Peter Biello: So, that is one concrete change that students can now avail themselves of to defend themselves in the event that they feel threatened. But I wanted to ask you if there are any policies in place or any policies you are considering that put the onus not on students to defend themselves, but perhaps involves deterrence or some other way puts the burden of preventing sexual assault on would-be assailants.
Dr. Nadine Petty: Part of that is the prevention plan. So the prevention plan specifically speaks to preventative measures. And so it's education. So it's not just preventative measures for anyone who could potentially be impacted by sexual violence or interpersonal violence. It also speaks to the responsibility of individuals not engaging in those acts. For example, it talks about education and deals with alcohol and weaponizing alcohol. Because we know that in, I would say, 75% of cases where sexual violence or sexual harassment occurs, alcohol plays a part, right? And so you have individuals that use alcohol as an opportunity to engage in these types of behaviors. And so the prevention plan does address the prevention, but also curtailing the behavior.
Peter Biello: President Dean, students gathered outside your on-campus house in October in protest, and a statement from a UNH representative says that you were met with "disrespectful behavior" on the part of some students and you've now said you won't meet with the Sexual Violence Action Committee until they apologize. Why have you taken that approach?
President James Dean: Well, the first thing I want to say is that I've actually changed that approach. Yes, I had asked the students to apologize for the behavior that night. They've said that they won't, and I don't really want that to be our focus at this point, about apologies. So, I've reached out through Dr. Petty to the leader of the student group and asked if she'd be willing to meet with me and talk about how we could have a productive meeting going forward. I mean, one of the things that's important to understand about this is, I think the students and the university leaders really want the same thing. We want there to be a safe campus. We want people who are victims to feel supported. There's really no distance between what we want. Somehow, we got off to a bad start with this in terms of the way that maybe we spoke to each other and we're trying to do better and we're hoping we can meet soon.
Peter Biello: So, you said you're interested in now meeting with someone from the Sexual Violence Action Committee. Do you have a day scheduled for that conversation or is that still in the works?
President James Dean: It's still in the works. Dr. Petty has reached out on my behalf, and the students are deciding whether and how that meeting will occur.
Peter Biello: And from there, will you be working collaboratively with that group to implement whatever recommendations you both agree are worthwhile?
President James Dean: Yes, but I do want to point out, and somehow this has been lost in some of the conversation that several senior university leaders have already been working with this group, so it's not as if they've been ignored. Dr. Petty and several of her colleagues have had several meetings with the student group. There's been action items that have been suggested. We've responded to them, so we're actually fairly far down the road of understanding what the concerns of the students are and what we can do to try and address them.
Peter Biello: So, what would you say to students who say they don't feel safe on campus?
President James Dean: Well, I mean, if people don't feel safe, you really don't want to question their feelings. I will say that recently, Durham was named as the second safest college community in the United States, so there is some affirmation that it's a relatively safe community. But we would want to engage with the students to better understand why they feel the way that they do and what we can do to be helpful with that.
Peter Biello: Well, UNH President James Dean, thank you very much for speaking with me.
President James Dean: Thank you, Peter, I appreciate the opportunity.
Peter Biello: And UNH Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Dr. Nadine Petty, thank you very much for speaking with me.
Dr. Nadine Petty: Thank you, Peter.
Transcript of NHPR's interview with UNH student Kai Parlett, a cofounder and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire:
Peter Biello: Kai Parlett is joining us. She's a freshman at the University of New Hampshire and a co-founder and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire, a group that formed in the wake of a protest in October. Kai, thank you very much for speaking with me.
Kai Parlett: You're welcome.
Peter Biello: Kai, since it was formed, your group, the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire, has met with administrators twice and presented them with a list of action items that students would like to see happen at UNH. Tell me about those action items. What are your top priorities?
Kai Parlett: Yeah. So, you know, the goals and mission statement of our organization really include a lot of things like ending sexual violence culture and sexual violence at UNH and building a community of students and faculty who are dedicated to supporting survivors and removing assaulters and assault culture from UNH. We also want to demonstrate what's possible to ourselves, other UNH students, faculty administration and the public. Our action items included some things like having changes to the Title IX policy and removing anyone found to have committed any level of sexual offense under Title IX from the UNH community, working with the Sexual Harassment, Assault and Rape Prevention Program, or SHARPP, on UNH's campus to just really overall create a safer, more habitable environment for UNH students.
Peter Biello: Is there any particular policy to that last point that you think would really be helpful?
Kai Parlett: You know, it's really, really nuanced because there's a lot of things that can't be changed legally. But really, we're pushing for a lot of student representation within groups that are responsible for student safety. So, within the Title IX Council and within, I don't remember what it's called, but there's a couple other committees that are responsible for student safety on campus and really pushing to have more student representation in those.
Peter Biello: The University of New Hampshire has some safeguards in place, a Title IX office and SHARPP as we've been discussing. President James Dean himself has pointed to data that indicates the campus is relatively safe compared to other U.S. colleges. What is your assessment of that and what more do you think school leadership should be doing?
Kai Parlett: I think we need to stop comparing UNH to other colleges because, you know, in my opinion, so what if we're the safest if the students don't feel safe? Like, we could be the safest and still have a lot of work to do. We can be the safest and still have students on campus who don't feel safe. So, I think we should stop comparing ourselves to other colleges and universities and start really looking at what we can do better because there's always something that we can be doing better. As long as there is sexual assault at UNH there's something that we can be doing better.
Peter Biello: UNH President James Dean initially refused to meet with students from the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire following a protest outside his house, where he says students conducted themselves in a way that merited an apology. He's told us that he's now willing to meet without that condition. Kai, what is your take on his leadership when it comes to these issues on campus?
Kai Parlett: I think that he doesn't come at this with malintent. I think he comes at it with a deep-rooted lack of understanding, and I don't think he fully realizes his lack of understanding. You know, at the protest outside his house, saying things like, "I'm not gaslighting, you don't know what gaslighting is." "I don't see what I need to apologize for." Things like that. And like coming across with this air of not comprehending and deeply not understanding what we as students and what we are survivors are saying. I think his request for an apology was coming from a place of generational divide and not understanding that what he sees as disrespect and what he sees as jeering and taunting is our, as students, form of communication.
Students turned their backs on him when he was talking because he wasn't answering their questions, because he wasn't responding to what we were saying. That's something that the Sexual Violence Action Committee has sort of expressed to a couple of different administrators. So I hope that that message has been passed along to President Dean, and I hope that he is sort of coming to an understanding of what we're really trying to get at, which is not students versus President Dean. It's not students versus administration. We're trying to collaborate and really work together to push forward a mission of making UNH a safer campus and really reducing the rates and, if possible, completely eliminating sexual violence at UNH.
Peter Biello: How are these issues and discussions affecting life on campus from your perspective?
Kai Parlett: I think that it's having some really positive impacts and it's having some really negative impacts. I think that having sexual assault be such a prevalent topic at UNH right now has the potential to be really triggering to some people who have experienced sexual assault.
At the same time, I think that it's really important to talk about it because if we just keep pretending it doesn't exist, then we're not going to get anywhere. And I think like in the formation of the Sexual Violence Action Committee and in the community that we've built, a lot of people, a lot of survivors feel really held and supported and validated. But of course, there are the ones who are just like, "I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to think about it." And that's also really valid. And there's no way to balance both of those, which is really unfortunate.
Peter Biello: My understanding is that the school is going to be presenting to the students a list of possible changes to make with respect to how sexual assault is handled on campus. Do you have any particular hopes for what you'll see on that list?
Kai Parlett: I mean, our list of action items is really comprehensive, like the list that we presented them with. So my hope would be that some variation of each of those action items would be able to be implemented. There are a couple of things that we have to reword, we have to rework, because the way it's written now, it can't be implemented because there are legal statutes within Title IX that make it impossible to do some of the things we requested. So, my hope would be that some variation of each of the action items is implemented, some variation of each of those.
Peter Biello: Kai Parlett is a student at the University of New Hampshire and a co-founder and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire. Thank you very much for speaking with me.