The Gap Between Being Found Responsible and Being Held Responsible for Sexual Assault

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This article may contain triggering content regarding sexual assault.

When I was raped last semester, my world imploded. At first, I tried to push away my feelings. I wanted to compartmentalize all the emotions I felt—pain, humiliation, grief, shame, confusion, fear, and all of the shades and mixes of each ugly emotion. I dropped a class and tried to focus on simply getting through the semester. Getting through the semester was everything but simple. Each day I was still stuck in that room, in that night. My mind refused to offer me any relief. Every time I saw him on campus, I immediately fled to my apartment and cried.  I used to say, “I’m not a crier,” and mean it, but after being raped last semester, I am a crier. I cried in public, in private, in bathrooms, in dorm rooms, and in deans’ offices. I remember thinking that there was just too much pain to keep inside of me. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to go about daily activities like nothing had happened, like nothing had changed me.

When I wasn’t crying, I was hyper alert 24/7. Every time I left my apartment I was seized by adrenaline and fear.  I obsessively looked over my shoulder to see who was around me. I walked with my shoulders tensed by my ears, permanently ready for fight or flight. Each night I returned to my apartment physically and emotionally exhausted. Clearly, compartmentalizing was not working. I left the semester early without even taking one of my finals. Thoughts of the rape were all consuming. I didn’t even care that my choice made me fail a class: I just needed to be as far away from the person who did this to me as possible.

When I came back in the spring, I tried to make myself a ghost and move around campus under the radar. I had to walk the same paths my attacker walks. I had to see him in the Union, in Chambers, and drunk at parties and at F. I tried to avoid him, but you know what they say about Davidson: you always see whomever you’re trying to avoid. I started to feel helpless. Even after a month away from Davidson, I experienced the same levels of anxiety when I encountered him on campus in the spring. I still couldn’t be in the same building as him without panicking. When friends touched me from behind, I broke down sobbing. I started having panic attacks and grew to be terrified of leaving my apartment. I needed friends to walk with me to class. My psychiatrist diagnosed me with PTSD and added another three medications to my arsenal just to keep me moving. Finally, in early February I realized that I was losing my internal battle to be fine. I couldn’t sustain this. I didn’t want to spend the next year and a half hiding. I knew that I couldn’t be at Davidson while my attacker was at Davidson; the campus is too small and the way he violated me was too severe. I needed to do something; the question was what could I do? What or who could protect me and help me stay at Davidson College without daily fear?

I talked to Georgia Ringle and Dean Bray about my options. Both of them have been extraordinarily supportive and helpful throughout this process, and I don’t think I would have made it through without each of them. They explained that I could file a report with the police, request a no contact order, request that the Dean of Students speak with my attacker about the assault, or file a formal complaint with the Dean of Students office that would be heard by the Sexual Misconduct Board (which I ultimately decided to do).

I first considered having the Dean sit down and talk with my attacker. I only briefly considered this because it wouldn’t remove him from campus or make any meaningful change in my life or his. I didn’t think a conversation could effectively convey the severity of what he did to me. The next option I considered was pressing charges with the Davidson campus or town police. I knew that the legal system wasn’t a perfect option: by February, the rape had occurred months ago, I didn’t have physical evidence because I had been too upset to go to the hospital the night of the rape, and prosecutorial discretion could prevent my case from moving forward. Even if my case did move forward, trials can be so traumatizing they’re often called “the second rape.” The re-traumatization might be worth it, but nationally only 7.5% of rapists reported to the police go to jail. The odds were not in my favor.

There was another problem with pursuing legal options. I had been anally raped. North Carolina’s antiquated laws define rape as strictly penal vaginal penetration, preventing a prosecutorial case from addressing the rape of a man or a woman rapist. So even though I match the classic female-raped-by-male victim profile, this law meant that my painful, forcible rape was relegated to the status of a second-degree sexual offense. The words themselves are insulting. Being anally raped was the worst possible thing I could have ever imagined happening to me sexually, and it is just an offense? It’s also just a Class C felony that carries a sentence of three years in prison. Add on top of this that in 2012, 1,950 rapes were reported in North Carolina and only 29% of the accused rapists (577) were arrested. Remember, these numbers only include female victims who were vaginally raped by males and the conviction rate is even lower than the arrest rate. Realistically, North Carolina’s legal system would not help me. The numbers and disgusting, outdated laws convinced me: Davidson College was my only hope for getting justice.

I decided to file a complaint with Davidson under its newly revised Sexual Misconduct Policy. When I read the letter Dean Shandley would give him, my hands shook. I was scared to let my attacker know that he had this much power over me. I was embarrassed that I was so affected by being raped that I had to report it. But as scared as I was, I was also sure of myself. I knew what happened. To me, there was no grey area in my rape.  At the beginning of the process, I was sure that any panel would be able to see what happened as clearly as I had experienced it. I was scared, but I thought that filing this complaint was crucial to helping me remain at Davidson. I needed for him to be held accountable. I had no idea how messy it was about to become.

My biggest problem with the policy came from not knowing what I had to prove in order to have my rapist suspended. Since our policy doesn’t allow for lawyers or student representation like the Honor Code system, which utilizes student solicitors and defense advisors, students represent themselves. The complainant essentially serves as the prosecutor and the victim and the accused serves as the defense attorney and the defendant. The idea that the hearing is “non-adversarial” is ridiculous; the parties are not cooperating together and no outcome of the hearing will be pleasing to both students. To best represent our interests, students involved in the process need to have a clear understanding of first, what the possible sanctions are and second, what criteria the board uses to determine the appropriate sanction. In terms of suspension, the Sexual Misconduct policy states:

“The sanctions of suspension for a definite time and indefinite suspension, involving loss or interruption of educational opportunity, are appropriate only when the violator’s continued membership in the College community is judged to: (i) fundamentally be at variance with the integrity of its educational mission; (ii) pose a specific threat to his or her own emotional health; or (iii) pose a specific threat to the minimal internal order of the community.”

Each Dean operationalizes and interprets the terms slightly differently, creating ambiguity and preventing me from having a clear understanding of our policy. How can sexual harassment not be at variance with the college’s educational mission? How much does the act have to oppose the college’s educational mission to warrant suspension? What are the criteria are used to determine this? There aren’t any criteria. The panel just talks about it. Next, accused students can be suspended if staying poses a threat to the ATTACKER’S emotional health. The victim’s emotional health is not considered. Finally, posing a threat to the minimal internal order of the community is incredibly vague and, again, has no clear criteria for panel members to use while deliberating. Since the standards for suspension are so subjective, I didn’t know what the panel needed to hear from me or whether my interpretation of the wording would be the same as theirs.  I did not feel that I was going into the hearing with a sufficient understanding of what information and concerns the panel considered behind closed doors during deliberations.

When the hearing finally came (I say finally because this process will, by the end, have taken 70 days of the semester), I was frustrated with the way evidence was presented and the panel’s apparent lack of proper training. Though character evidence isn’t allowed, the accused student’s entire opening statement presented testimony of his nonviolent, respectful character. This was a loophole I didn’t know about; he could testify to his character in an opening, but I couldn’t question him about his character and none of the witnesses could speak to his character. Essentially, he could paint a picture of who he was to the panel, and I had no opportunity for rebuttal. I was so angry that he was lying about what had happened that I didn’t look at him once during the entire proceedings.

Instead, I watched the panel. I watched as one panel member read the Red Book (where our Sexual Misconduct policy can be found) and ignored the witness who was testifying. The investigator had no questions for any of the witnesses. Davidson administrators say that if you don’t want to, you don’t have to be at the hearing or write any questions. I came ready with my questions, but if I hadn’t, I would have had no voice or representation of my interests. No one would attempt to highlight the inconsistencies in his statement. No one would advocate for me. When I was questioned, my attacker asked me if it was true I was depressed and on medication to imply some sort of lack of credibility. Some panel members asked no questions. At the end of the evidentiary portion of the hearing, the panel deliberated for an hour and a half. Then the chair of the board and the investigator came and told me that the hearing would resume--he had been found responsible. For the first time in weeks, I smiled.

In this next part of the hearing, I was allowed to make a statement about the impact being raped has had on me at Davidson. In a sentence, it’s impacted me in every way. I walked the panel through the fear I felt on campus, the worry I had for other girls, and the huge hole in my life caused by the rape and this resulting process. I told them I didn’t feel like the same person I used to be. I told them that I hadn’t been able to keep food down because of anxiety and had lost over ten pounds in about a month. I described my panic attacks that occur when I’m triggered or when I see him. I explained how scared I was moving around campus. I almost cried, but I refused to do so in front of my rapist. In his statement of mitigation, he had the audacity to talk about how hard the process had been on him. He never accepted responsibility for raping me. I have no pity, but apparently the panel did.

The panel imposed two sanctions: first, he needs to spend 20 hours in a counseling office talking about relationships and alcohol consumption. Only two of those hours have to be completed by the end of this semester. Well, I see two different therapists each week. The week after spring break I was hospitalized and missed a full week of class because my PTSD symptoms were too bad for me to keep functioning. I will spend far more than twenty hours in therapy because he chose to violate my wants and my right to decide what happens to my body. If counseling is a sanction, I am being sanctioned for being raped.

Counseling appears to be a nuanced, personalized sanction. However, it doesn't apply to the details of this case. I had no relationship with my rapist. We did not have communication issues and seeing a therapist will not teach him the meaning of the word "no" if he doesn't know it at this point in his life. In terms of alcohol counseling, while he was using alcohol the night of the assault, he was not abusing alcohol and has no documented problems with drinking. Drinking does not explain or excuse his behavior, and while learning to drink more responsibly may benefit him in other areas of life, it would not have changed his decision to ignore my lack of consent.

The second sanction is that he cannot be in Martin Court, at PCC events, or at my Eating House. Unfortunately, this does little to help me. The panel essentially has divided the campus in half: he can move up the hill freely, and I can hide down the hill. This doesn’t help me when I’m attempting to fulfill academic obligations up the hill in academic buildings and am frightened to run into him and risk a potential panic attack. Additionally, because of confidentiality rules, no one knows he is on probation besides the administration, a few witnesses, him, and myself. The campus police are notified, but realistically there is a low chance of them recognizing any given student on a night out. This makes the sanction functionally unenforceable unless I happen to see him and file a report with the school. This places an undue burden on me and my few friends who were involved with the proceedings to watch out for him and do the administration’s job of holding him accountable for following the terms of his probation.

When I heard his sanctions, I felt like I must have misunderstood. These couldn’t be his only consequences. I thought he would be suspended. I thought the system, despite all its flaws, had worked. Title IX is a civil rights act; it is designed in part to protect students’ educational opportunity from discrimination based on sex. If being raped created a hostile environment that prevented me from accessing educational opportunities and resources, the college has the duty to provide accommodations or sanction him in such a way that allows me to access my education. The panel did not provide me a safe space to access education. There is no way I can perform to the best of my abilities in class if I’m reluctant to go to the library in case I might see him. If I’m spending hours in bed recovering from an anxiety attack, I’m not studying. These sanctions are a slap on the wrist for him and a failure to protect my civil rights to access education.

Finding him responsible and giving him these sanctions diminishes the severity of my rape. He raped me, and his punishment is that he can’t go to parties? The system had failed me. When I pass members of the panel now on campus, they don’t make eye contact with me. They look down and just keep walking. This case is out of their lives, and I wish more than anything that it could just be out of my life too, but it isn’t going away. I decided that I needed to appeal, and that appeal will happen on Tuesday. The Review Board is my last chance to be heard, and at this point, I can’t say I’m hopeful.

Today my therapist told me that she wished she had talked me out of filing a complaint. “Look,” she said, “I want to support you, but look how much emotional pain this has caused you. I hoped it would work out for you, but now we know the hearing didn’t work. Don’t file the appeal and put yourself through that again. Sometimes you just have to accept that the system is broken.” She’s right; the system is broken. As a rape victim, there is no way to “win.” If I hadn’t reported my rape to anyone, it would be guaranteed that my rapist wouldn’t face consequences. If I reported to the police, I would have to talk in detail about what I went through to strangers, have my credibility challenged (since rape shield laws are poorly enforced in trials), and even then, my rapist would be charged with a second-degree sexual offense and likely never go to jail.

I did report to the college, an institution that has the unique ability to determine who is and isn’t fit to be part of its community. I did everything they asked of me. And I did it all thoroughly. I wrote a statement, I had an interview with the investigator, I wrote a response to the entire investigative report, I selected and wrote questions for witnesses, I wrote questions for my attacker, I wrote an opening statement, and I wrote an impact statement. It was like taking an additional class except it was emotionally taxing in addition to being time consuming. For all my work, there was no meaningful punishment. He lost the hearing; I lost an entire semester to this process. I potentially lose Davidson College, because I don’t know if I can stand another year of being on campus with him. I lost my faith in Davidson’s ability to protect sexual assault victims. I lost my sense of safety here. So my therapist is right: my options aren’t good options at all. My question is why does no one care enough to fix the system? If the school hasn’t acted, why haven’t his fraternity brothers (several of whom know about this process and the outcome) kicked him out of the fraternity? Why do students not know our policies and procedures? Why aren’t the College Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians working together to ask the state senate to change North Carolina’s rape laws? Why are rape victims the only ones ever advocating for rape victims?

So where do we go from here? The answer isn’t to keep silent. The answer isn’t to stop reporting. The following are my suggestions to improve Davidson College’s Sexual Misconduct Policy:

·      The college should use more precise language in charging statements and discussion of offenses. Currently, students are charged with violating the Sexual Misconduct Policy. Words like “sexual assault” and “rape” are absent from the hearing and conversations about the offense. It may seem like a semantic issue, but the subtle word change makes the issues at hand sound much less serious. Sexual misconduct ranges from sending a pornographic email to brutal rape. As a blanket term, it’s fine, but in the context of a hearing there need to be specifiers. The reason we have different words for different actions (e.g. harassment, assault, rape) is because they are qualitatively different acts and should be treated with the appropriate severity. By not using the proper word, rape, to describe what he did to me, the panel was slightly desensitized. They don’t have to see him as a rapist, and so it’s easier to justify allowing him and others to stay a part of the college community.

·      I suggest the college mandate a minimum sanction of suspension for one semester for students found responsible of sexually assaulting or raping a fellow student. While the Sexual Misconduct Policy is separate from the Honor Code, it is easy to imagine a case in the terms we associate with honor: rapists steal the victim’s right to decide what happens to his/her body. The perpetrator disrespects the values of trust and honesty that our community is based on by taking advantage of an opportunity to assault a fellow classmate. In Honor Council cases, students are often suspended for egregious violations of the Honor Code (e.g. cases of extensive plagiarism or cheating). Rape and sexual assault are egregious violations of the Sexual Misconduct policy, and therefore deserve a punishment that is severe. Junior member of the Honor Council, Blake Nickles, spoke with me about why she feels suspension can make sense for Honor Code infractions. “Suspension is a way to say that what the student did isn’t okay and that there are consequences for not upholding the Honor Code,” she explains, “It’s a strong enough sanction to teach them actions have consequences, but it doesn’t prohibit future success.” In a similar manner, suspending a student for sexual assault or rape sends a strong message that such behavior will not be tolerated at Davidson. It interrupts the accused student’s education, but it doesn’t end his or her opportunities to succeed. Suspension also gives the victim time and space to begin to heal, because otherwise it is likely that victims will drop out of college and lose access to their education when they did nothing wrong.

Moreover, suspending students who are found responsible of committing sexual assault or rape would strengthen our community. In Honor Council cases that result in suspension, Blake argues that suspending one student helps the Honor Code and the community, stating, “You feel like you’re creating a healthier atmosphere by removing people who don’t abide by the Honor Code. We want to build up a community with people who are really dedicated to those values.” In cases of sexual misconduct, suspension serves a role beyond creating an atmosphere. It can prevent future rapes. Studies repeatedly have shown that rapists are repeat offenders. Removing them from campus, even if only for a semester, prevents them from raping again during that time, and can serve as a strong deterrent against committing future acts of sexual violence. Finally, suspending students found responsible of such severe violations of the Sexual Misconduct Policy sends a message to campus that students will be protected by the administration and that sexual violence will truly not be tolerated. If Davidson does not adopt these minimum sanctions or start to increase their rate of suspensions, the Sexual Misconduct Panel risks sending the message that students are held accountable for their honor only inside the classroom, and that outside of academic settings they are free to violate the rights of their fellow students without fear of meaningful punishment. If the Honor Council, comprised of students, can make the hard but correct decision to suspend fellow students, our trained faculty and staff serving on the Sexual Misconduct panels should be able to do the same.

·      Currently, the investigator interviews all relevant issues, compiles a report of the interviews, and submits this document, any exhibits presented during interviews, and the complainant’s statement to the chair of the Sexual Misconduct Board for review. She then unilaterally redacts sections of the document (or deletes parts of the document) that she views as inadmissible in a hearing. The Sexual Misconduct Panel and the parties (the accused and complainant) never see the full investigative report; they only receive the redacted version. At no point can parties challenge the redactions (or even really know what was redacted unless it was from his or her own statement). The hearing only includes information included in the redacted investigative report, responses to the report (also subject to redactions), and any approved exhibits. The policy does not include a third party who can hear objections to the redactions prior to the hearing. After the hearing, The Review Board only considers evidence presented during the hearing, meaning information that has been redacted stays redacted. So, if you disagree with a redaction, you’re out of luck.

Therefore, there needs to be a method to challenge redactions and the inclusion or exclusion of evidence. This method must be explicitly and clearly outlined in the Red Book. For examples of evidence that could be ruled inadmissible and yet are relevant, we can look at my hearing as an example. Witness statements of impact (meaning how being raped affected my life) were redacted during the evidentiary portion of my hearing because they were beyond the scope of the hearing. The panel would only hear these portions if the panel found the accused responsible. Then in the sanctioning period of the hearing, the statements would be read to the panel. I feel that this material is relevant during the evidentiary portion of the hearing, because reports of impact show whether or not the victims truly believe their complaints. If their lives have been seriously disrupted in a noticeable way to others, then their claims, in my mind, have more validity.

Another example is excluding evidence. In my case, my rapist included every single text message I’d ever sent to him as evidence, and despite the fact that not a single text prior to the rape discussed sex, it was admitted into evidence. A photo of my Facebook page the day after the rape was admitted, as if I was expected to broadcast to my family, friends, past and potential future employers that I had been violated and posting normally meant I was lying. We do not expect to see happy sexual exploits on these pages, so why then was this expected to be different? There was nothing I could do to block the entrance of either even though both had no bearing on the facts of the night in question and served to distract the board. There needs to be a method to address concerns like these.

·      Students need more assistance in preparing for the hearing. There should be guidelines as to what opening statements, closing statements, impact statements, etc. should look like. The Red Book could provide samples or examples of potential questions that would be admissible during the hearing. While the college offers advisors for students, at this time there are only three trained advisors available for students to pick from. One of these people is Georgia Ringle, who will often be unable to serve as an advisor because she is frequently the first person contacted by the victim, and therefore a potential witness. We need more options for advisors so that students can choose someone they can trust and feel comfortable talking to about such hard material.

·      The Panel should have to write a justification for the sanctions they impose. This way, the panel is accountable for their choice and, at the very least, the process will be more transparent. In addition, panels should look to past cases for precedence for their sanctioning (like the honor council does). Each case should have a record of the digest of the hearing and the sanctions if applicable. These cases should be available for students to read with their advisors once names and identifying information have been redacted to protect the privacy of past parties. By considering past decisions, the panel would generate more standardized sanctions. The victims and the accused students will also have a greater understanding of what sanctions to expect given the nature of the alleged offense (e.g. if a student receives social probation for stalking another student, then in the next case of stalking the accused student might expect a similar sanction).

This is a short list of suggestions. There are many more things that can and should be done to help Davidson College deal with sexual misconduct more effectively. I encourage students to care now, today. The time to change the policy is not when you or a friend has been assaulted and need to report it. As students, we should understand our policies and question them when we disagree with them. Complacency is not an option in dealing with sexual assault. Colleges have the obligation to protect the rights and interests of students, and we need to demand that Davidson meets this obligation. When students are found responsible, they must be held responsible.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Davidson College or Her Campus Davidson.

 

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