Lehigh students have become more open around the discussion of sexual assault on campus after the recent lawsuits. The University aims to provide more resources to students such as the 24-hour support line at the Gender Violence Office. (Letong Zhang/B&W Staff)

Recent sexual harassment lawsuits spark student discussion on campus safety

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Two Lehigh administration-centered sexual harassment lawsuits in 2019—sexual misconduct allegations against Dr. Thomas Novak and former professor James Peterson—fueled campus discussion about student safety. 

Lehigh updated its Title IX guidelines and definitions for harassment earlier this year and openly discussed its dedication to student safety. However, recent events have led some students to question the validity of the university’s claims.

“A lot of the accusations are pretty damning both to the accused and to Lehigh in general,” said Brandon Judge, ‘21, the vice president of the Student Political Action Coalition. “We fall into the realm of Lehigh knowing about it for years and not doing anything about it, so Lehigh loses a lot of its legitimacy in talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment when they are struggling with it, too.”

Dr. Thomas Novak, who is facing various allegations surrounding sexual misconduct toward both students and staff, was suspended late May 2019 immediately following publication of the lawsuit, which includes allegations originating in 2012.

The university claims to specifically pay attention to complaints of harassment, but Judge said he wouldn’t blame students who don’t feel safe, given all that is happening within the administration. 

“It is not just that one person (Dr. Novak), but the entire establishment that people feel uncomfortable with,” said Malini Ray, ‘20, a member of Break The Silence, a student-run organization that works to raise awareness about gender violence, harassment and more. “That kind of trust and respect needs to all be earned back from us because it was such a shocking incident that no one really knew about.”

Despite these lawsuits, students acknowledge the positive steps that have been taken toward a more open discussion surrounding the topic of assault, both on campus and in society. 

Ray said it’s a good thing that sexual assault is a lot more comfortable of a topic for people to talk about.

“I remember talking about assault in high school and having it be a much more taboo topic,” she said. “But once I got to Lehigh, I noticed that a lot of people are more comfortable.”

Krista Wollerman, ‘20, a member of Break The Silence, said compared to other similar universities, Lehigh has relatively progressive definitions on the meanings of harassment, assault and consent.

“BTS is a fairly progressive club, and it’s both funded and supported by the university, so Lehigh does do its part in at least displaying an image of doing things to try to benefit the students,” Wollerman said. 

Regardless of any response by the administration, many student’s safety concerns fall outside of the university’s immediate control. 

Conversations surrounding the topic of assault acknowledge Lehigh’s abundant drinking culture, as well as the prominence of Greek life, both on- and off-campus. 

“It’s all on us,” said Judge, the vice president of his fraternity. “The school does nothing to prevent anything that goes on off-campus. It really does fall on us basically. It comes down to whether or not the fraternities choose to take active preventative measures against sexual assault or not.” 

Wollerman said she attributes a significant amount of student safety concerns to situations at parties that come into play when substance consumption is involved and verbal communication is limited. 

While these incidents do not fall directly under Lehigh’s immediate jurisdiction, all student conflicts can be reported to the Title IX office.

Ray said feeling safe on campus can be drastically improved by being aware of the available resources that exist.

“They make a huge difference,” she said. “Lehigh offers a number of resources to ensure campus safety, such as advocates on a 24-hour support line, the Gender Violence Office and BTS, but students need to be reminded of those resources a little bit more, especially now.”

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