It’s an extended look at one investigation of a sexual assault complaint at a college.
She was 18 years old, a freshman, and had been on campus for just two weeks when one Saturday night last September her friends grew worried because she had been drinking and suddenly disappeared.
Around midnight, the missing girl texted a friend, saying she was frightened by a student she had met that evening. “Idk what to do,” she wrote. “I’m scared.” When she did not answer a call, the friend began searching for her.
In the early-morning hours on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York, the friend said, he found her — bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing. Some had their cellphones out, apparently taking pictures, he said.
A sexual-assault nurse said there was blunt-force trauma; the football player said he’d been too tired after the game to get it up; two other players, also accused, also denied it. The college investigated, held a hearing, and cleared the football players.
The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.
The Times got access to the records. (It doesn’t say how.)
Whatever precisely happened that September night, the internal records, along with interviews with students, sexual-assault experts and college officials, depict a school ill prepared to evaluate an allegation so serious that, if proved in a court of law, would be a felony, with a likely prison sentence. As the case illustrates, school disciplinary panels are a world unto themselves, operating in secret with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.
Well – that sounds exactly like the Catholic church’s way with accusations of rape and other sexual abuse. Most students who decide to press charges go to the school rather than the cops, thinking the schools will be kinder.
Yet many students come to regret that decision, wishing they had never reported the assault in the first place.
The woman at Hobart and William Smith is no exception. With no advocate to speak up for her at the disciplinary hearing, panelists interrupted her answers, at times misrepresented evidence and asked about a campus-police report she had not seen. The hearing proceeded before her rape-kit results were known, and the medical records indicating trauma were not shown to two of the three panel members.
Also? They ratted her out.
Yet privacy laws did not stop Hobart and William Smith from disclosing the name of the woman — a possible rape victim — in letters to dozens of students. “I’m surprised they didn’t attach my picture,” she said.
The college said it had to identify her to students who might have to testify, but a district attorney said nope, that was wrong.
And this is just one college, one sample.
Colleges nationwide are navigating the treacherous legal and emotional terrain of sexual assault. In May, the federal Department of Education disclosed for the first time the names of colleges — 55 in all, including Hobart and William Smith — under investigation for possibly violating federal rules aimed at stopping sexual harassment.
But it’s not as if the police do a better job.
For example, as The Times reported in April, the Tallahassee police conducted virtually no investigation of a Florida State University student’s rape complaint against the star quarterback Jameis Winston.
College administrators have their own incentive to deal with such cases on campus, since a public prosecution could frighten parents, prospective students and donors. Until last year, Hobart and William Smith’s chief fund-raiser also helped oversee the school’s handling of sexual assaults. The two functions are now separate.
Does that sound familiar? Yes that does sound familiar.
Here’s an interesting bit.
The second player, during three separate interviews with campus officers, denied even being in the fraternity room. It wasn’t until his fourth interview two days after the sexual encounter that he confessed to being in the room with his teammate and having oral sex with Anna.
That same day, the football coach, Mike Cragg, summoned the three accused players, two team captains and the pool table witness for a private locker-room meeting where he heard their recollections, then passed on details of Anna’s account, hearing transcripts show.
Two days after that meeting, the senior player changed his account a second time, telling the campus police that he “wanted us to know that he was ready to come clean about the truth,” records show. A second player had in fact been with him at the fraternity house, the player said, and Anna had given both oral sex. He said he had lied to protect himself and his teammate from Anna’s false allegations.
Mr. Cragg declined to answer questions from The Times. But in a written statement he said, “If I were to learn that a member of my team had behaved in a manner that violated our code of ethics or community standards, I would want him removed from the team immediately.” He added: “I have never and would never encourage any player or players to coordinate stories to avoid disciplinary actions.”
And, as mentioned, the panel cleared all three football players.
The next day, the panel chairwoman sent Anna written confirmation of the decision, informing her that if she wished to appeal, she could find directions on Page 13 of the sexual-misconduct policy.
But Page 13 said nothing about appeals. Instead, it contained a section titled “False Allegations.” The college admitted its mistake, Anna’s mother said.
And then, insult added to insult.
As students returned after winter break, amid swirling rumors of a gang rape, they were greeted by a new mandate: Everyone had to watch an interactive video designed to educate them about sexual assault. The video contained hypotheticals and a series of questions. Answer them, students were told, or be denied campus housing.
The video generated instant controversy, beginning with its title — “ThinkLuv.”
“So right from the start, it’s the kind of program that’s fun and playful and not something that needs to be taken seriously,” said Kelsey Carroll, a recent graduate who founded a student group to combat sexism. “Rape is not about love. It is about violence and power.”
The campus paper said the video attempted to educate students “while slut-shaming, generalizing and even being sexist in the process.”
I suppose they were going for balance.
Looking back, Anna said she knows only too well the price of pursuing her complaint — physical threats and obscenities on her dormitory door, being pushed in the dining hall and asked to leave a fraternity party. Her roommate moved out with no explanation.
Mr. Flowers said the school continued to strengthen programs to stop sexual violence. Over the last two years, he said, seven students have undergone disciplinary hearings for sexual assaults; four were expelled.
Against her parents’ wishes, Anna plans to return to Hobart and William Smith in the fall.
“Someone needs to help survivors there,” she said.
That is one brave college student.