Setting the Record Straight
By Abby Tassel, Guest Columnist and coordinator of the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program and the Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors.
Published on Friday, April 15, 2005
Last week, The Dartmouth published an article about my resignation but I declined to comment ("Tassel resigns, students cite frustration," April 6). It now seems important to clarify the conditions of my leaving Dartmouth in light of the various articles and many people who have expressed their dismay at my decision. Victims of sexual violence are regularly silenced in our world, but I have had the honor to hear some of those voices in our community. Inspired by their strength, I want to speak honestly about what I have experienced during my time as the coordinator of the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program.
I love my job. The students I work with in all aspects of the position never disappoint in their fierce strength, desire for justice, unbelievable courage and deep humanity. I would never leave if I felt as though I had a choice. I am leaving because my supervisors did not support the work I was doing with students. I clearly outlined this in my letter of resignation.
For well over a year now, my weekly supervision meetings have been heavily weighted on coaching me in my work with colleagues. Apparently, a few other administrators have complained vociferously about my work, saying that I am too student-focused. My suspicion was that these were the people who students often complain to me about and I mentioned this to my supervisors. But instead of investigating this, I was instructed to make colleagues look good when they are insensitive with a student victim in order to improve relationships. Finding this confusing, I suggested someone in upper administration might give those professionals who are less effective at working with victims a message that they are expected to become more proficient in this arena or, at least, to refer a student out as soon as possible when receiving a report. Instead, I was told that if colleagues saw me as a team-player, they would be more apt to accept my recommendations for doing this work. I was disappointed that the Institution was unwilling to require administrators to, at a minimum, interact with student victims of sexual assault in a manner that would not generate blame or increase silencing. Despite this, I did make a conscious attempt to be more amicable with colleagues in the interest of improving effectiveness. I saw no such effort on the other side.
This was all happening against a backdrop of me working 70-hour weeks. Students at Dartmouth have been coming forward in record numbers to courageously discuss their victimization. When I asked for help with clients, telling my bosses that I have way too much work, I was told I need to get better at referring and that "I spend too much time with students." The referral part would be reasonable if people I could refer to were competent sources of support. But between victim-blaming, unwillingness to challenge other members of the administration while advocating for a student, a lack of understanding of the importance of transparency in process, and disinterest in becoming more fluent in the work, this has not been a viable alternative. In terms of spending too much time, I accompany students to police, court, advise them through the Committee on Standards, and meet with friends and family among many other things. It is not possible to do this during half- or one-hour appointments. I would have loved to be able to have lunch with colleagues but I was struggling to support survivors, do some programming and get home to sleep.
For around a year and a half, there have been meetings within the Dean of the College area to address issues of sexual assault on campus. I, of course, eagerly anticipated working on policy and protocol with my colleagues, hoping it would foster increased professionalism in the area. But it was not long into the first of these meetings that I realized this was not the direction we were heading. My opinions on the issues were not weighted more than any one else's -- including those people who students regularly complain bitterly about. Expertise, research and experience were ignored while those of higher rank were treated as experts. Under some circumstances, this could almost be considered comical, but under my circumstances -- sitting every day with Dartmouth women who have had felonies committed against them, usually by other Dartmouth students -- I could only be outraged and insulted.
When I told one of my supervisors about my impending resignation he replied "Yes, it is not a good fit." If a "fit" means not supporting students to the best of my ability, then I suppose he is right. But in the process of telling people of my resignation, I have become aware of the reality that I fit quite well with the huge majority of professionals on campus. The Women's Health Department, Primary Care, the Inpatient Nurses, Safety & Security, the International Office, faculty, and so many others have always been supportive, readily available and empathetic. It has thus become clear that the problem of "fit" applies to only a few individuals who have been very persuasive with my supervisors.
During my time at Dartmouth, I have heard hundreds of terrifying stories, so I'm sure I see sexual violence in ways that most on campus do not. It is difficult to believe what is happening in our Community if you are not listening to victims, if you base your evaluations on stereotypes, TV or maybe a workshop you went to at a conference. It is happening here, but victims are not going to talk about it unless they are given the signals that they are entirely safe doing so. For those not offering the right signals, there are no disclosures, so no sense that it is a pressing issue. Without a strong message from above that everyone must try to hear victims and understand what is really happening, this cycle will never end.
I understand thoughtful handling of sensitive issues is important, and I am the first to want to have great relationships with coworkers. In my mind, however, the people needing assistance in the Institution must take priority over politics. I can not spend my time developing relationships when there are women who have been assaulted waiting to talk to me. I hope and believe Dartmouth can step up to the challenge of fully supporting its victims and supporting those doing this work here in the future.
I am so, so sad to be leaving. I will miss the work with all my heart.