Feature / Jordan Upshaw / March 2017

Does Champlain Protect Survivors of Sexual Assault?

jordan

Names have been changed to protect anonymity. Chivomengro does not publish the names of survivors of sexual violence. 

This article contains depictions of sexual and physical assault and may be triggering to some readers.


 

“Are you awake?”

That’s what Emily’s assailant said while in the process of sexually assaulting her. Terrified and frozen, she didn’t respond.

“I went over just to cuddle. I told him it was going to be just to cuddle. He said ‘fine.’ When the lights went off, he started touching me. And he didn’t ask. He acknowledged that I wasn’t awake and I wasn’t participating.”

Emily confided in a friend soon after the assault who encouraged her to report right away. “I gave my statement that day. [Champlain contacted] him and let him know that he was under investigation but he didn’t come in and make an official statement until almost a month later.”

After a four month investigation Champlain told Emily: “We believe you, but there’s insufficient evidence.” She was also told by the school they had to say they believed her in order to avoid filing a false report claim against her. Because the man was found “not responsible,” Emily is not permitted to reveal his identity or any “distinguishing characteristics” about him—not even to warn another woman about being alone with him. If she does, she could be punished for “retaliatory action.”

“He didn’t deny anything he did to me. He changed the consent factor and said that I was participating and my hands were over his. They disregard the fact that he took my hand and [physically] moved it to his body.” Champlain College consistently reminds students that “silence or an absence of resistance does not imply consent” and of course “sleeping people don’t want tea.” Yet Emily was told “a reasonable person could conclude she consented.”

Emily did not want to go through the formal reporting process and she did not ask for her assailant to be suspended or otherwise punished. “I just wanted him to be educated. PowerPoint presentationthis is consent, this is not consent. Just educate him on what consent is.” Since he was found “not responsible” he was not required to receive any consent education.

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Last semester, Teagan Cook, a senior law major, investigated Champlain College’s handling of sexual assault cases for their thesis project because “there is a culture of fear of sexual assault at Champlain which is permitted and exacerbated by the many ‘open secrets’ on campus.” Cook added that “people, by and large women living on campus, frequently pass along warnings about fellow students who committed assaults against them or their friends by word of mouth.” Cook believes this happens because of “a lack of faith in both the police and the College to adequately investigate these crimes.”

Cook studied Champlain’s policies and practices compared to federal standards under Title IXa federal law which protects students from sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and assault in federally-funded educational programs. Cook also reached out to students on social media and interviewed twelve who were sexually assaulted and went through the process of reporting through Champlain.

There were a bunch of people who were willing to share their stories with me. I ended up getting what I feel to be a very well-rounded picture. I’m pretty sure everyone I talked to with one or two exceptions were cis women.” They continued, “because I was doing this as my Capstone, I was a bit pigeonholed into focusing solely on male aggressor-female victim rape because that’s what the vast majority of rape statistics are about.”

When one student reports being sexually assaulted by another to the Office of Student Conduct, the investigation process is explained to them, and they can decide whether or not to pursue the case. The Director of the Office of Community Standards, Donna Swartwout, hands the victim a toy bus and tells them that they “are driving the bus.” While helpful as a metaphor, judging from Cook’s report, most of the cases don’t proceed in such a straightforward manner.

Cook stated: “I believe that [Swartwout] believes that [the bus] is a good and empowering thing. And I think that it would be less insulting if the ‘you’re driving the bus’ thing was true. But it’s not true.” According to students who have gone through the process, they “have no control over the process once they choose to go forward with the pursuing of the case.”

The interviews Cook conducted revealed an alarming pattern. Despite federal mandates dictating Title IX investigations take no longer than 60 days to complete, barring extenuating circumstances, Cook did not come across a single investigation that took less than three months. Often times this was due to the involvement of attorneys. According to Emily, her attacker (acting under the advisement of a lawyer) refused to comply with deadlines. The lawyer of one rapist went on vacation for three weeks, which effectively halted the investigation for that period of time.

Both respondents (those accused of committing sexual assault) and complainants (victims) have the option of hiring an attorney. But this requires significant economic privilege as Cook explains: “No one will do a pro bono case that isn’t even going to a court. Attorneys are expensive. Good attorneys are even more expensive. Good attorneys who are willing to waste their time on a case that isn’t even headed to court in any way, super fucking expensive.”

Even if a victim of sexual assault could afford one, that would require telling their parents what has happened to them. None of the survivors Cook spoke to had told their parents about the assault. “It’s a lot easier to just [tell your parents] ‘someone’s lying’ than say ‘this absolutely horrible thing happened to me that’s going to take me years to recover from.’” According to Cook’s report, several of the alleged rapists hired attorneys. None of the women interviewed were able to do so. This inevitably turned the cases from “him vs. her” to “him and his lawyer vs. her.”

Sometimes “he said, she said” or “insufficient evidence” isn’t even the problem. In Sarah’s case, her assailant admitted to everything he did. Sarah and her assailant exchanged texts in which both consented to oral sex and only oral sex. When he got to Sarah’s room he became violent. He beat her, strangled her, and vaginally raped her.

Sarah was traumatized by the event and terrified of her assailant so she did not report the assault right away. Her assailant used the delay against her as well as the text messages. At the start of the investigation Sarah was told it would be completed within 60 days. Instead it took five months. Sarah says she was never given an explanation for this.

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Throughout the process, Sarah did not feel supported by Champlain. “I felt alone in it. I was terrified, and they never told me that he had a lawyer. They said ‘support person.’ I had no idea until the end. I figured it out by reading the statements. All I had were my friends at that time because I’m a poor college student and he’s rich so he got a lawyer.”

Towards the end of the investigation, Assistant Vice President of Student Life Carol Moran-Brown called Sarah in for one more round of questioning. “I thought it was odd since I was already told that it was wrapped up but went anyway. When we met, all she did was ask very painfully triggering questions. One of them being, and I quote: ‘How hard did he squeeze your neck?’ I fucking sobbed after that meeting. There was no reason why she had to ask those questions. The only explanation I got was that it was for ‘further information.’”

Sarah did not verbally say “no” during the assault since she had just been beaten and strangled by a much larger and stronger person. Champlain College’s own sexual misconduct policy states sexual assault is “participating in a sexual act with another person… by threatening or coercing the other person or by placing the other person in fear that any person will suffer imminent bodily injury.” Vermont State law defines sexual assault as “a sexual act wherein one party threatens another, coerces another… makes the other fear personal injury, etc.

Despite this, Sarah’s assailant was not found guilty of sexual assault. He was found guilty of physical assault and given a single semester’s suspension. The sexual acts occurred after the physical assault. But Champlain did not consider that sufficient evidence that Sarah did not consent. Sarah attempted to appeal the decision but was denied. The letter from Donna Swartwout stated: “We thank you for availing yourself of the appeal process. This decision is final and may not be appealed.” At this point, Sarah is out of options.

The assailant’s suspension ended in January of 2017. He did not return to campus but Sarah was not told why. “I had to call [Swartwout] after she emailed and was vague about ‘news regarding the situation’ then she told me ‘yeah he won’t be here and I can’t tell you why.’ I have no idea what the reason is and that kind of scares me.” She was not told if he will be returning next semester or if he is gone for good.

Who exactly is making the final decisions in these cases? The Sexual Misconduct Policy doesn’t say. But Leslie Averill told Cook after the investigation is completed, she works with some combination of the AVP of Student Life, the Director for the Office of Community Standards, and/or the Director of Residential Life. All of these positions also have power over the student body.

Leslie Averill is both the Title IX Coordinator and the VP of Student Life. She’s in charge of overseeing sexual assault investigations, and if you’re a Peer Advisor or Resident Assistant, she’s also your boss. This is a violation of the federal standards put forth in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter which states the Title IX Coordinator (and anyone deciding the outcome of Title IX investigations) should not be in a position of power over the student body since this could create a conflict of interest. The “Dear Colleague” letter isn’t a law, but it is the guiding practice. Say you punch someone in the face. Following the law would be your parents calling the police. Following the guiding practice would be grounding you.

Why is Averill the Title IX Coordinator in the first place? Averill told Chivomengro that being the Title IX Coordinator is not a fulltime job at Champlain or most small colleges. She stated: “The college goes above and beyond the existing federal requirements today. It’s important that there’s an understanding of the comprehensive approach [to Title IX] rather than one person. In a small college we wear multiple hats and like other institutions across the country, the first priority is health and safety.”

Cook says they were told the issue is a problem with funding and the difficulty of finding someone who is trained and experienced, but this explanation does not sit well with them. “It’s not like [a full time Title IX Coordinator] is some nonessential thing. It’s not like we’re looking for a volleyball instructor. If you want a school that is in compliance with federal standards where people feel safe, it’s a necessity.”

Averill says she doesn’t believe it’s a conflict of interest for faculty members in positions of power over the student body (AVP of Student Life, Director for the Office of Community Standards, Director of Residential Life) to be deciding the outcome of sexual assault investigations. “Our work is about health and safety, regardless if it’s Title IX or student conduct or mental health or nurse practitioners. So no. Our job is to hold students’ health and safety in confidence and work with the student and/or family if needed.”

Averill also confirmed that Champlain policy allows complainants and respondents to have only one support person with them during the investigation. Even if you can afford a lawyer, you have to choose between hiring one and having the emotional support of a friend or relative—not an easy choice for survivors of sexual violence.

Even though Champlain’s policy says respondents and complainants are to be notified of the outcome of an investigation simultaneously, this is not the case in practice. Donna Swartwout (the person in charge of notifying both parties) informed Cook that she emails the respondents first and the complainants immediately afterward. The reason for this is unclear.

There is an appeal process for sexual assault investigations laid out in Champlain’s sexual misconduct policy but both parties have only two days to file one. They only get to appeal in the event of a procedural error, new information becomes available, or either party feels the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Three days after the decision, they no longer have the option to appeal and have to petition for an entirely new investigation.

Cook’s paper explains the problem with this policy by saying that it is “likely to drive down a complainant’s willingness to bring new evidence to light, as the tension of waiting for investigation results brings excess stress onto a person who is already focusing on dealing with the mental health effects stemming from sexual assault.”

It is important to note these effects on survivors are both mental and physical. “After a while, I collapsed in class and at work and ended up in the hospital due to severe dehydration and malnutrition. I was so disturbed that I had stopped eating and sleeping,” said Olivia. She chose to leave Champlain for several reasons, the assault and aftermath among them. According to Ashley: “The longer I had to wait to be able to read the respondent’s statement, the more on edge I became and the more often I was experiencing PTSD symptoms (nightmares, panic attacks and flashbacks). And the longer I had to wait, the worse those PTSD symptoms became.” Ashley’s investigation took nearly six months.

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According to Champlain College’s Annual Campus Public Safety and Fire Safety Report for 2016, there was a 400% increase in on-campus rapes between 2014 and 2015. Cook attempted to find out what could be causing this and made multiple requests for reporting statistics on the matter, but none were provided. “I asked Leslie Averill about any statistics that I could look at or if I could look just at the case reports repository with names redacted or whatever and then compile the statistics for her.” They continued, “if this is the level of efficacy that Title IX at Champlain has, then obviously someone somewhere in this process needs assistance. I offered that. Nothing came of it.”

Averill told Cook she believes the rise is simply an increase in reporting rather than an increase in assaults taking place, but Cook disagrees with that assessment. “I have no faith in the system here. That culture of secrecy and the fact that no one has the faith to go do a full report when they experience [sexual assault] here does not sit well with me.”

There also seems to be a lack of institutional support when it comes to the aftermath of sexual assault. When Jessica, a Champlain College student, was a RA, a sexual assault occurred in her hall with two of her residents while she was on duty.

“My co and I were promised a more prominent presence of [Area Coordinators] in our hall and help at our hall meetings that were going downhill every time we did them. We saw little action being taken and promises going out the window every day. We asked for help and got pulled into a meeting about how we are not doing our jobs correctly. I ended up leaving the position for many reasons—the main one being that I was being treated unfairly and having high expectations being put on me with little to no help from residential life. When I stopped being an RA, I did not have a place to live. I thought that going back to live in my car would be worth it if I didn’t have to feel like I was a complete failure every day.”

Clearly, changes must be made. The results of Champlain’s Culture of Consent Survey were recently released. 32.7% of students completed the survey. 84% of them indicated they believed Champlain would take a report of sexual violence seriously but only 8% had actually used the formal reporting procedures. 75% indicated college officials (administrators, public safety officers) should do more to protect students from harm—a statistic not included on the infographic.

If you look at the full report, survivors of sexual violence who took the survey seem to have less faith in the system. 61% believe college officials handle incidents in a fair and responsible manner. 60% believe the college would take action against the offender if a policy violation occurred. 46% believe the college would take appropriate action to address institutional factors that may have led to the sexual assault.

Champlain’s sexual misconduct policy is updated annually. According to Averill, this year the SEE SAY DO Advisory Board will use the results of the survey to make recommendations for policy changes. The current draft of the new policy is 38 pages long but contains no drastic changes. For example, the appeal process is still final so someone like Sarah is still out of luck.

Sarah’s last option at this point is to file a federal Title IX complaint, something she is in the process of doing with Cook’s help. Cook is confident that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will deem the filing worthy of investigating Champlain but time will tell.

Cook is clear throughout the report in their belief that institutions must not only do something—they must do the right thing: “Bystander awareness video games on the Canvas shell are not enough. A toy bus put into the hands of a rape victim is not enough. Serious change must be made… by not only Champlain, but all universities operating under similar policies.”

As sexual assaults on campuses across the nation become more visible, and colleges and universities scramble to protect their reputations and their students, the path forward is anything but simple. Cook’s paper concludes: “Where they create the atmosphere allowing sexual violence to thrive, be it by labor-intensive reporting systems, ineffective sanctions, a low-security campus or simply re-victimizing those who have already been victimized, these institutions have a responsibility—both legal and moral—to make the changes that will allow their students to flourish.
April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month and Champlain has a full calendar of activities planned, including t-shirt making and handing out ribbons. Raising awareness is always important but survivors such as Sarah want to see real action being taken. “What Champlain needs to change is how it treats survivors. It shouldn’t be up to us to find out whether or not our attacker will be back. They should give us a heads up, not a fucking toy bus.”

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