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Colleges move to overhaul antiquated response  to assaults, reform practices that blame victims

  • Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.

    Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.

    Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.<br/>

    Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>A boy and girl converse outside a dormitory on the Amherst College campus Saturday night.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    A boy and girl converse outside a dormitory on the Amherst College campus Saturday night. Purchase photo reprints »

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after being tackled short of the goal line in the fourth quarter an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after being tackled short of the goal line in the fourth quarter an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.
  • Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.
  • Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.<br/>
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>A boy and girl converse outside a dormitory on the Amherst College campus Saturday night.
  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after being tackled short of the goal line in the fourth quarter an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

— Former Mount Holyoke College student Alexis Myers says she thought the day she was raped would be the worst day of her life, but it wasn’t.

The campus hearing held to decide whether or not a student had assaulted her in early 2011 at Amherst College’s King Hall dormitory was far worse, she said. The questions asked of her by a panel of students and faculty still flash through her mind, stirring up all the blame for the assault Myers felt they put on her.

In September 2011, seven months after Myers said she was raped by an Amherst College student on his campus, she attended a six-hour Committee on Discipline hearing at Amherst College in which she participated as a witness and did not hear her assailant’s side of the story, apart from a closing statement. He had brought in five character witnesses and 80 pages of Skype conversations between himself and Myers. The board fixated on the online conversations and how the two knew each other, Myers said.

“The questions they were asking were not relevant. It was this whole idea of blaming the victim,” Myers said in a telephone interview from a private college in the South which she now attends. “You can’t ask someone ‘Why did you sit on the bed two weeks ago if you didn’t want to have sex?’ ”

After she reported the assault to both Mount Holyoke and Amherst college police, Myers received a restraining order against her assailant, but she was advised that her chances of justice were better in the hands of the college rather than through the state’s criminal justice system. The Amherst College student was found not guilty in the college adjudication.

“The hearing committee just got so caught up in our story — how we met, the relationship we had with other people — that’s not the point of rape,” Myers said. “Rape is rape. It does not matter if it’s your husband or boyfriend. They seemed to miss that.”

Myers is one of an increasing number of college students — at the Five Colleges and nationally — critical of the way colleges and universities handle cases of sexual misconduct, only 5 percent of which get reported to the police, according to the American Association of University Women.

Title IX, a federal regulation meant to uphold equality and stamp out sexism, and most commonly known for its role in bringing equality into school sports, requires on-campus investigations and grievance procedures for sexual misconduct. This puts colleges and universities in the sometimes untenable position of adjudicating a rape allegation in which both the accused and accuser are students. In addition, colleges sometimes wind up conducting an investigation while a police investigation is under way.

Why aren’t all rape allegations taken up by the police departments in whatever community a college is located? The college hearing process moves faster and has a lower standard of evidence than the legal system, attributes that encourage some victims to seek a hearing instead of or in addition to pursuing criminal complaints. It is up to the victim whether or not to file a complaint with police or press charges, though in extreme cases, the district attorney can prosecute a case without the victim’s cooperation.

Colleges typically rule on sexual assaults with a panel of undergraduate students, faculty and staff who received, usually, about a day or two of training on how to conduct hearings on anything from stealing and fights to academic dishonesty and rape. The most serious breaches of these student codes of conduct would be felony offenses in a court of law.

Many colleges have policies that look good on paper. But in practice, critics say, they are insensitive to rape victims, and display ignorance and confusion about the meaning of consent and the role alcohol plays. Advocates for victims have sought better training of staff and improved protocols for instances of alleged rapes and sexual assaults. But the pace of change has been slow, say those familiar with the trials of rape victims on college campuses.

“It was like the Wild West for lack of a better way of explaining it,” said Colby Bruno, an attorney at the Victims Rights Law Center in Boston. “It’s better now.”

New steps

At the Five Colleges, administrators are tackling this problem anew, in part due to a call to action by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights last year. The federal office had issued a high-profile, 19-page communication known as the “Dear Colleague” letter reminding institutions of their Title IX requirements and responsibilities to take immediate and effective actions to respond to sexual harassment, which includes sexual violence.

For Hampshire College, that letter prompted a serious review of its sexual offenses policies and informational materials, which the college overhauled. A new approach began this semester.

“It made us change greatly what we did,” said Renee Freedman, deputy Title IX officer at the college, who oversees the investigation and hearing process for complaints of student sexual offenses.

Among the biggest changes at Hampshire this year was making its hearing process more “humane,” as Freedman put it, by not pitting one student’s story against another in a hearing room — and by training in-house investigators to gather evidence and conduct interviews to present to such boards rather than forcing victims to do so themselves in rooms facing their alleged rapists.

“We thought we were doing the right thing by giving the victim some control,” Freedman said. “We can’t just leave it up to them. We have to ensure that our environment is hostile-free.”

The push from the federal Office of Civil Rights is hardly the only game-changer, however. Student rape victims are also driving the changes on college campuses by telling their stories.

In recent months, a stinging batch of student-written articles detailing Title IX shortfalls related to sexual assault, and the June suicide of rape victim Thomas F. “Trey” Malone, who was distraught with how administrators responded to his case, thrust Amherst College into the national spotlight. In a suicide note made public, Malone, a former student, had described the college’s handling of his case as an “emotional hand-washing.”

“In those places I should’ve received help, I saw none,” he wrote.

The reports pushed the college and its president, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, towards a public examination of how it handles and responds to sexual misconduct and educates its campus about it.

“They have done everything they can possibly do to tackle this head on,” said Gina Maisto Smith, a Philadelphia lawyer who is working with the college on the issues. “They are not just fixing a problem. They are engaging in changing a culture. It is the most well-rounded, effective response I have seen in this country and I have been doing this work for a long time.”

Amherst College hired Smith, a national expert on sexual assault who specializes in helping institutions develop and implement effective Title IX policies.

“The schools must assess and incorporate the regulatory terrain, they have to be compliant with what the laws tell us,” Smith said. “Most schools have not done that.”

After arriving on the campus last year, Martin, Amherst College’s president, began working on Title IX reforms as they related to sexual assault. A former student’s first-person account of rape published in the Amherst Student newspaper caused a fire storm, however, an account that Martin described as “horrifying” and which prompted more accounts of previously unreported sexual assaults that other students from the Five Colleges had experienced. The report by former student Angie Epifano prompted an ongoing investigation into how the college handled her case and a series of communications from Martin to staff, students, administrators and alumni outlining the college’s action plan.

“Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served,” Martin wrote in a statement on sexual assault to the wider Amherst College community Oct. 18. “That must change and change immediately.”

College’s vow

In the wake of Epifano’s published story, the college vowed to create a gender resources center, bolster support and counseling for victims of sexual assault, appoint a Title IX coordinator and support staff, and hire a trained outside investigator to handle reporting and evidence gathering aspects of internal sexual assault cases so that the process is more equitable and less of a burden to victims and the accused. The college created a sexual respect and Title IX home page on its website, with information and resources on sexual assault and chronicling, by means of a detailed checklist, the status of its work. A Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct, a Title IX Committee and Sexual Respect Task Force are helping inform broad reforms at the college.

Smith, the consultant working with the college, called the progress meaningful. “I really attribute that to the leadership of Biddy Martin and the courage of the students to engage.”

Other local colleges

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has been evaluating its sexual misconduct policy and grievance proceedings for a couple of years. A review of punishments for student code violations — which include sexual assault — began in 2010 after a student reported to the dean of students that she had been raped. The rapist admitted to assaulting the student during an on-campus hearing and for this he received a deferred suspension.

After an account of the incident was published in the Boston Globe and other publications, UMass officials acknowledged the punishment didn’t fit the crime and changed its sanction process. The university has since made it a requirement that all punishments for serious crimes be evaluated by the dean of students, which is something that didn’t happen in 2010.

“If a student is found responsible for a sexual assault or rape, they are typically suspended or expelled — this is an intolerable crime,” said Ed Blaguszewski, a UMass spokesman.

After the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter, the university also reviewed its response to sexual assault and found that it was suitable.

“Percentage-wise there is not a lot of recidivism,” Blaguszewski.

UMass officials did create what they term a Title IX team, which includes police, dean of students, residential assistants, Title IX coordinator, athletics, health and mental health services and the Center for Women and Communities among other groups. The team meets weekly to discuss incidents of sexual harassment or assault and the university’s response. After months of preparation, the group officially met for the first time in October.

Blaguszewski said that the team was necessary because it offers a way to keep the needs of victims paramount.

“Previously something was investigated by police, but then some counseling or other service didn’t happen as soon as it should have because that agency was focused on their task and what they were doing didn’t get shared with others immediately,” he said.

In addition, UMass recently received renewed grant funding to keep a sexual assault coordinator/victims advocate on staff.

“We sought to improve our outreach and coordination and I think there have been some positives coming out of that and we need to continue to improve and address these issues,” Blaguszewski said.

Smith College Dean of the College Maureen Mahoney said it’s important to have an established protocol to bring fairness to the grievance process in cases of sexual assault. Smith College is in the process of review its protocol, and the review team of students, faculty and administrators are expected to have recommendations for change ready by the end of the school year.

Already, student analysts have reported that some of the writing on sexual assault in the student handbook seems to blame the victim, Mahoney said.

“I think our procedures are good, very, very good, but we always need to be reviewing and comparing them to best practices,” Mahoney said.

The college recently began using an online tool called “Understanding Smith’s Sex Harassment Policy.” Faculty, staff and students are made aware of this five question quiz on the college’s policy. Completing the quiz isn’t mandatory, but Julie Ohotnicky, dean of students, said the college has received a high response rate: more than half of students completed the quiz this year and about 80 percent of staff responded.

“It’s a way to ensure that the entire community understands what basic services are available and what is and is not sexual harassment,” Ohotnicky said.

Faculty also receive some sexual assault training in new professor orientation. They are instructed how to help students reach supportive services.

“They need to be able to refer students — it’s not their job to know how to deal with it, but they do need to know how to direct someone to call and get help,” Mahoney said.

“One thing we know is that for a survivor of sexual assault, gaining control of what happens next is paramount,” Mahoney said.

One student’s story

As for Myers, the former Mount Holyoke student, she found her experience with rape and the college hearing process so traumatic she decided to transfer.

After a day or two of deliberation following Myers’ sexual assault hearing, she received a phone call from the Amherst College dean of students who said there was not enough evidence to find the accused guilty.

“He said he was sorry and that he hoped to see me back at Amherst,” Myers said.

Ever since reporting being raped in February 2011, Myers had been thinking of transferring to another college. She didn’t feel safe and she didn’t feel like the Five College community understood what she had been through.

The next couple of semesters were difficult for Myers as she attempted to keep up her grades while working through the trauma of sexual assault and taking advantage of services offered by the Everywoman’s Center, now called the Women and Community Center at UMass. She transferred to a new college this September, but asked that the name of her school not be used. She is concerned about a backlash over her remarks and to an article she wrote about her rape.

“It was the hardest time of my life,” Myers said of continuing to attend classes on the Five College campuses while applying to other schools. Rape “isn’t just something that happens at so-and-so’s college or is someone else’s problem. This is all our problem. These issues are happening.”

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