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Living Feminist Theory at Grinnell: The go-to team for colleges looking to avoid the courtroom

In April 2011, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a guidance document, known as the “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL), that reminded institutions receiving federal funding of their responsibility to respond promptly and effectively to sexual harassment and sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX. Although the document did not add any requirements to the already existing law, it indicated that the OCR would increase its efforts at enforcing compliance with Title IX. Over the past few years, these increased enforcement efforts—combined with student activism and negative coverage in the media—have prompted institutions to reassess their policies regarding sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The growing awareness of institutional mishandlings of sexual assault has given rise to an industry comprised of consultants offering legal advice to colleges about their “institutional response to sexual misconduct.” At the vanguard of this industry are former sex crimes prosecutors Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez. Although both spent nearly 20 years working for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Smith and Gomez are now partners at Pepper Hamilton, a Center City law firm that specializes in white-collar litigation. At Pepper, the duo has represented a number of colleges that have been accused of mishandling sexual assault, including Amherst, Occidental, and most recently, the University of Virginia.

While Smith and Gomez claim that their commitment to “compassionate practices” reflects their “personal sense of justice,” the team of attorneys has come under fire recently, particularly among activists and advocates for survivors of sexual assault (1). Complainants and activists are concerned that schools have been hiring “Smith and Gomez to clean up messes by paying lip service to federal compliance” (2). According to these critics, the “compassionate” and “integrated” practices championed by Smith and Gomez are a mask for further institutional mishandlings. That Smith and Gomez show a greater concern for rescuing a school’s “institutional identity” than they do for survivors is no conspiracy theory. Indeed, Smith and Gomez were hailed by The American Attorney as the go-to team for institutions looking to “avoid the courtroom.”

After a group of students raised concerns about the handling of sexual misconduct cases at Grinnell in May 2012, the College hired Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez to conduct an external review of its Title IX policies. These lawyers met with a number of students, staff members and administrators and produced a report shortly afterwards. In an email summarizing the results of this report, Smith wrote, “Our review of the policies and procedures in place show us that there is work to be done, but our interactions with Grinnellians have given us every confidence that the work is well within Grinnell’s reach” (3).

Though this step may seem positive, we urge members of the campus community to remain suspicious of any external review that has been solicited and paid for by the College. Smith and Gomez have also been criticized for advising colleges to use tactics that target Title IX activists. This criticism seems particularly relevant for the Grinnell context in light of a recent campus memo that was sent out before spring break. This memo condemned racist and anti-survivor harassment on social media in response to the Huffington Post, and covertly suggested that Title IX activists may have been responsible for posting racist hate speech on Yik Yak. Far from creating a safer campus climate for all students, this memo had the immediate effect of escalating harassment against survivors and allies on campus. Though we cannot say with certainty that Leslie Gomez and Gina Smith were involved in this memo, it seems clear that it relied on similar strategies that the pair have used at colleges such as Occidental.

Recently, the College hired two other external reviewers, John Brittain and Jane Lopez, to investigate the social media harassment that surfaced before spring break. This week, the Title IX office extended personal invitations to a small group of students to meet with the reviewers. Given the growing business of quick Title IX “fixes” on college campuses, and Grinnell’s recent history with external reviewers, we are hesitant about this investigation. Why has the College not publicly announced to students, alumni, parents, and faculty that this investigation is taking place? After all, the College has a history of publicizing—to the point of aggrandizing—its (often lackluster) attempts to improve Title IX enforcement. Though we are encouraged that the College seems to take instances of harassment seriously, we will remain skeptical of this and other Grinnell-funded “investigations” until they result in immediate, tangible outcomes that improve the safety of current students on campus.




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  • R

    Ralph CraftApr 14, 2015 at 7:48 am

    A recent article in the Huffington Post focused on three cases of alleged rape on the Grinnell College campus. All three cases reviewed the college’s actions to attempt to follow procedures for handling civil rights violations in sexual abuse cases mandated by the US Department of Education. In all three cases the women who reported the incidents did not think the process produced a fair outcome.

    The Grinnell College administration should receive credit for sending this negative article to alumni and others in the college community, and asking the US Department of Education to review college procedures in sexual abuse cases.

    Nowhere in the article, however, was there mention that rape is a serious felony punishable by a prison sentence of up to 20 years under the laws of Iowa. I would hope that the “confidential advocates” to whom the alleged assaults were reported first and foremost told the students to make criminal complaints to the Grinnell City Police. Grinnell College has no power to prosecute criminal cases.

    Furthermore, I would recommend to that the Grinnell Chief of Police be invited to any campus meeting on sexual abuse to emphasize that all felony crimes committed on the campus should be reported to the department, that his (or her) officers will investigate all criminal complaints, and that all evidence will be turned over to the city or county prosecutor for possible action in the court system of the State of Iowa. The Chief of Police also should be invited to address incoming first year students every September.

    I am aware of the very personal problems with sexual abuse incidents, some involving the law enforcement community. Women (and men) are often reluctant to report incidents to law enforcement agencies for many reasons. One is that students are often reluctant to make negative reports on other students. Another is that small city police departments are often not equipped to handle sexual abuse complaints with sensitivity and compassion that is sometimes required.

    I would urge the Grinnell College administration consider reaching out to the Grinnell Police Department and city officials to help them deal with sexual abuse cases, if the city needs the help. Grinnell is nice little semi-isolated island in the middle of the city, but State laws do apply to the college. Better communication and outreach to local law enforcement officials may be needed.

    Let’s not leave sexual abuse cases solely in the hands of the Grinnell College student advocates, mediation meetings, and formal hearings cited in the article. It’s obviously more serious than that.

    Ralph Craft
    Class of 1964

  • S

    StudentApr 13, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    To clarify: one of the students who wrote the article actually spent hours meeting with Smith and Gomez individually, attended their campus-wide presentation, and went to their training session with other campus leaders. The authors of this column have spent hours researching suggested policies, aims and goals for the College’s Title IX policy, and have spent a large part of this year sharing this research with the campus community and the administration. If you’re interested in seeing this extensively researched document, please visit:!aboutus/cqn6 or contact for a PDF version.

    This column isn’t suggesting that the administration is evil or Macchiavellian, the authors are only providing the student body with more context and information about the external reviewers. They are free to decide for themselves what to do with that information. However, it does seem wise to be at least wary of these reviewers, given the hostile environment they helped create for Title IX activists at other colleges such as Occidental. If Smith and Gomez were presumably hired to improve Title IX policies for students, then reports that they have a history of targeting student activists should certainly raise some red flags. Students and faculty at Grinnell requested a federal investigation of Title IX policies several months ago to ensure that it was conducted by as “neutral” a body as possible– i.e. a team of lawyers not contracted by, or indebted to, the institution under investigation.

  • A

    Alum '13Apr 11, 2015 at 2:10 am

    “Though this step may seem positive, we urge members of the campus community to remain suspicious of any external review that has been solicited and paid for by the College.” So… you think the college should… do what? …based on whose advice?

    You attack Smith and Gomez, who came to Grinnell, as being part of some conspiracy to avoid genuine institutional reform. Then you use this allegation as the basis to further question an additional external review of a later incident.

    It is easy to buttress an ad hominem on a BuzzFeed article filled with vague complaints about consultants who, by the nature of their job, will not satisfy everyone completely. Clearly, this is easier than than actually showing up for those very consultants when they actually come to Grinnell: “However, turnout for the Town Hall was meager; six students were in attendance, but three were SGA cabinet and two were representing the S&B.”

    There are problems. However, the outright demonization of the administration – depicting them as some scheming Machiavellian caricature – is not going to help fix the problems.