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Burk-Bergman Boathouse on Apr. 23.

Credit: Weining Ding

A Penn women's rower is alleging misuse of Penn Athletics' Restorative Practices as the University faces increasing scrutiny for how it addressed accusations of racism within Penn lightweight rowing.

Since The Daily Pennsylvanian first reported on the allegations against the lightweight team, Penn rowing has reportedly taken action to address athletes’ concerns. According to a women’s rowing captain, the program held a meeting on Tuesday with coaches and select players from the heavyweight, lightweight, and women’s rowing to discuss culture within the boathouse in the aftermath of the accusations.

The University's procedures in handling these allegations, however, continue to face criticism. In a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, women’s rowing senior captain Simone Vorperian discussed her perspective on Penn Athletics’s response to the alleged verbal abuse and criticized the University’s existing frameworks to punish discrimination.

“My responsibility as a captain on this team is to create a space where everyone can feel like they can bring their whole selves to practice,” Volperian wrote. “When [the alleged abuse occurred], I trusted that our coaches and administration would create a supportive environment for my teammates and prioritize making the boathouse a safer space. Diversity is not a part of the history of rowing, and USRowing has made it pretty clear that that needs to change."

In addition, Vorperian cited Penn Athletics' collaboration with "A Long Talk," an educational organization that strives to "put an anti-racist at every dinner table in America." Vorperian wrote that she takes this mission seriously, adding that it has allowed her to shift her focus from punishing the alleged perpetrator to improving the environment in the boathouse for herself and her teammates.

Vorperian also praised the level of "care" she has observed in Penn Athletics's administrators while noting the flaws in the Penn Student Code of Conduct and its limited applicability.

"How did our higher-ups sit down during these meetings and not question the system they are working within? Penn’s Student Code of Conduct is a two page bullet pointed list,” Volperian wrote.

She also questioned the athletics program’s policies against discrimination and the application of its code of conduct.

“I know a lot of the administrators. I know their names and they know mine. I know that they care a lot,” Volperian wrote. “How is Penn Athletics upholding their values in robust anti-discriminatory policies if the tools for a response are a two page Code of Conduct? Who else has been let down? Is it within Penn Athletics’s power to hold student athletes to a higher standard?”

The reported use of Restorative Practices as a means of response to the alleged verbal abuse was a decision heavily scrutinized by multiple sources close to the women's team. However, since sources allege that administrators determined the lightweight rower’s actions not to be in violation of Penn’s Code of Student Conduct, Restorative Practices was offered as an alternative to address the root of the problem, sources told the DP.

The lightweight rower spent one month away from the team while completing Restorative Practices training according to sources close to the women’s rowing team. In the aftermath of the alleged abuse, sources close to the women’s team were told that the steps of this training, which included an apology to the parties harmed, would be mandatory for the rower before he could return to the boathouse. However, the sources allege that the lightweight rower allegedly returned without apologizing to or notifying the victims.

In response to a request for comment, Penn’s Center for Community Standards and Accountability distanced itself from the alleged procedures used to punish the lightweight rower.

“[I]t is important to make a distinction between work that any student or students are doing with Restorative Practices @ Penn (RP@P) versus team-based sanctions or actions,” CSA wrote —  adding that all Restorative Practices training is “voluntary and private.” 

The statement suggests that the lightweight rower’s Restorative Practices training was separate from his suspension. It also appears that aspects of this process were not officially stipulated in the lightweight rower’s return.

“The restorative process takes time, and sometimes situations need immediate attention or action,” CSA wrote. “In such cases, teams, groups or other entities may choose to impose actions that make sense for their community or the concerns. This can be, and frequently is, done separate from the Restorative Process.”

During the Tuesday meeting with coaches and select players, the women’s team voiced their displeasure with how the situation had been handled by administrators and asked for additional assurances regarding the team’s plan to restore a more amicable boathouse environment, according to sources close to the program.

The women's team asked for an additional meeting with all members of Penn rowing – a meeting which sources said the team has been requesting for months and which they are seeking to address topics discussed in the meeting and establish a more uniform standard for acceptable boathouse behavior. The coaching staff initially agreed to hold said meeting on Wednesday, but later announced that it would be delayed to Thursday of the following week, the sources added.

Other Penn rowing teams have also expressed their disappointment following the allegations and vowed to ensure the betterment of the program moving forward.

“As the captain of the Pennsylvania heavyweight rowing team, I speak for our entire squad when I say that we are disturbed and saddened by the actions brought to light by the Daily Pennsylvanian,” senior heavyweight Ben Rutherford wrote in a statement to the DP. “The Heavyweight team does not condone these actions and we are engaging with the other teams and the school administration to ensure that progress is being made. We have already taken steps, and the Heavyweight team plans on continuing to help make the boathouse a safe and inclusive place for all.”

In response to a request for comment, USRowing — the national governing body for rowing in the United States — said they “do not have full details of the alleged abuse or Penn Athletics' response and so cannot comment further.” However, they emphasized the importance of inclusion for individuals of all identities within the sport of rowing.

“Racism has no place in our sport. We will never condone hate speech, racism, or intolerance …” a USRowing spokesperson wrote in a statement to the DP. “Safeguarding our participant’s physical, emotional, and psychological safety is of the utmost importance to us. … To make that happen, it takes awareness, intention, and commitment from the entire rowing community.”