Op-Ed: A Letter from SMART and Student Health Director Beth Kotarski

Dear Campus Community,

*This letter is in response to the discussions regarding rape and sexual assault, so please know reading on might be triggering.* 

Many students have approached me in the past week, sharing their stories and wanting to continue the discussion that began on Wednesday night in Eldridge Commons.  They were sad and pained and yes, let’s say it—ANGRY.  When I was younger, ANGER was something I learned good girls shouldn’t show.  Too messy.  But as I got older, I learned that messy had its place.  And though anger for anger’s sake is okay by me, anger for action’s sake, is, in my opinion, even better.

So first, I’d like to thank and acknowledge the many brave students who have told their deeply private and painful stories.  I say Swarthmore owes you its gratitude, and more importantly, its support.  I also want to personally apologize.  When President Chopp and Dean Braun entrusted me with advising SMART in fall 2011, I thought I knew (arrogantly) what was best.  I developed our resource “wheel” and thought, okay, now all the systems of support are in place, so now it’s perfect.  Wrong.  Resources on a page mean nothing if they don’t offer the real support that students need and deserve.

What I can promise after listening to you the other night is that I will work tirelessly with President Chopp, Dean Braun and many others to scrutinize every aspect of the resources we provide to you. We very much want to create, along with SMART, a lasting, fluid support system around students who are raped and sexually assaulted on campus.  I believe the independent external review, coupled with the internal Task Force on Sexual Misconduct, will also help us assess what is working well, and what is not.  Every community member has a role to play here, and I will redouble my own efforts in support of those who are suffering and to improve our preventative measures, as well.

To that end, I will work with others at the college to make certain that no first year athlete has to choose between a truncated or different version of ASAP because they have a schedule conflict.  If the first discussions of sexual assault happen during this important time for students, our community must, from the very start, show all students how important this issue is to us.

I join President Chopp and Dean Braun in desperately wanting survivors (alumni and current students) to feel they have voice without having the burden of explaining how being victimized feels.  I hope you’ll trust me when I say I know how exhausting that can be.  How can we ask students to trust us if we do not do a better job of providing unquestioning and unflinching support?  Now is the moment to crush the barriers to a safer campus in general, and to victim support specifically.  I am hoping students will feel more comfortable about generating ideas without worrying about the undue burden of explaining why these ideas are so important.

Finally, I want to offer this.  Hope.  If that comes across as naïve or glib, I do not mean it like that.  Above all else—above the pain and the anger the other night, I felt hope.  Looking at you, listening to each and every argument, there was an energy—a messy energy—that felt both hopeful and like progress to me.  This is our community. The word implies union that we might not always feel. But I honestly don’t think this discussion could have happened a few years ago, so yes, I am more hopeful now than when I came to Swarthmore that our community is still very much a community.

Some of you know how much my dad informed the way I think about justice.  He thought about attending Swarthmore in 1945, but ended up at Penn instead. Don’t hold that against him.  He was a great guy.  He was also a fierce protector of all those who had no voice.  He passed away in October, and I find myself wishing I could tell him what is happening here.  One of his favorite quotes was, “Those who ask faint-heartedly teach how to refuse.” –Seneca.  In a way, this quote speaks to getting messy.

I think my dad would have been so impressed by all of you for not letting those of us who are tasked with caring for you forget what that means.  You decided asking faint-heartedly wasn’t getting the job done!  I hope that those of us who care so deeply—and there are so many staff, faculty, and students that do–can prove that we are listening, and that we will continue to advocate on your behalf and also create a smarter, more supportive, and more responsive culture in which all Swarthmore students feel safe.

Sincerely,

Beth Kotarski

Director, Student Health Service and SMARTeam advisor


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10 comments

  1. 0
    Swat Survivor says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful letter. I remember talking to you at the Health Center in the week or so after my assault, when I was having unexplained health concerns. I was so ashamed and uncomfortable, but you did everything to put me at ease. You were nothing but sensitive and professional, and I felt so incredibly validated. Thank you.

    As for Dean Henry, some of us are still waiting, but I have strong doubts that day will come. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on trying to be able to say my story out loud two years later, even in therapy, knowing that one of the only people to whom i told it (not out of choice, mind you) questioned my discernment at every step.

    1. 0
      ---- says:

      Really.

      I’m thrilled with this article and love that there’s at least one administrator willing to publicly address the failures of our current system. Beth is a treasure. But I don’t think anyone in these past weeks has ever blamed her or the SMART Team for anything–– there seems to be a consensus that they’re all invaluable, sensitive, caring members of the community.

      What I really want to see is accountability from someone who has hurt survivors or dismissed their concerns. Karen Henry is far from being the only such person, but she seems to be the most prominent one. An apology from her, or Myrt Westphal, or Tom Elverson, or even Rebecca Chopp or Liz Braun would mean even more than this, because unlike Beth, who has been working for survivors all along, they actually have a lot to answer for.

  2. 0
    Emma '13 says:

    THANK YOU for all of this, Beth — for your incredible commitment to this place, for apologizing, for speaking truth, for lifting up anger, for recognizing that there’s a difference between having voice and being forced to speak out, and for knowing that we are coming from a place of love and commitment to this school and the people who are a part of it. For so many people who are disillusioned with the administration and feel silenced, your support and solidarity means so much.

  3. 0
    Hannah G says:

    You are, to my knowledge, the first individual associated with the administration to apologize/admit that mistakes have been made and important things have been overlooked–I want to personally thank you– there is so much more power in being honest and straightforward than in simply making broad statements about the character of Swarthmore

  4. 0
    Yin says:

    Dear Beth,

    Wow. You are an inspiration. Thank you SO MUCH for saying these important things, for caring deeply, and for sharing hope.

    Love,
    Yin

  5. 0
    Sam Zhang says:

    That’s a really great quote, and well-spoken as always. Another quote about getting messy was when Freud first presented his papers on psychoanalysis, it was received surprisingly WELL, and he said he doubted that people really understood what he was saying because psychoanalysis would only be coming into being at sites of great conflict.

    So I view this year’s “messiness” as a hearty step toward honest conversation, and I hope we all learn a thing or two from Beth about how to listen and be a strong leader in times of crisis.

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