A YEAR IN REVIEW: One College's Response to a Federal Investigation

In light of a New York Times article condemning the school's sexual assault handling and an investigation into their process, HWS vowed to review and update its policies.

This investigative piece was originally developed for an undergraduate journalism class and later adapted within a senior writing seminar.. 

GENEVA, NY – With a picture perfect campus and esteemed academic reputation, HWS (Hobart & William Smith Colleges) appears at first to be a typical small liberal arts university. And typical it is, right down to its alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases.

US Colleges Federally Investigated

The story truly began in May of 2014 when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released the list of 55 colleges – including HWS – that were under investigation for their apparent mishandling of sexual assault cases.

The total number of schools being investigated reportedly rose to 76, according to a Huffington Post article in August. A similar article in October claimed an increased total of 85 colleges were under investigation.

 “We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a press release for the Department of Education.

“We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue. I also want to make it clear that a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”

Enforcement of Title IX means that discrimination in education programs on the basis of sex is prohibited at any schools that receive federal funding. The investigation meant to probe for any violations of the law with regards to sexual violence.

The list was released in conjunction with the Obama administration’s commitment to end instances of sexual assault on college campuses. President Obama’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault aims to increase transparency for responses to sexual assault cases by the federal government.

HWS Comes Under Fire

News of this federal investigation of the Colleges spread throughout the college community when the list was initially released by the Education Department, but was quickly pushed aside after classes let out for the summer.

On July 12, HWS community members awoke to an article on the front page of The New York Times denouncing the school’s handling of a specific sexual assault case. Reported by Walt Bogdanich, “Reporting Rape and Wishing She Hadn’t” detailed the experiences of a William Smith first-year student named Anna after she reported to the school administration that she was sexually assaulted on campus.

Although there were apparent witnesses to the attack, these witnesses declined to testify during the Colleges’ hearing and HWS did not have the power to call these students to testify in the resulting university hearing, according to the article. Only a court of law could have issued a subpoena for their testimony.

The Times article also claimed that the accused changed their stories multiple times, while Anna stayed consistent with hers.  However, the students Anna named as her attackers were cleared of any wrongdoing by the school twelve days after she reported the alleged assault.

The response to the article was mixed. Many faculty and students were outraged at the school’s handling of Anna’s case. Others felt that the Times did not present an accurate representation of events.

“HWS officials met with the Times reporter for two lengthy interviews and answered numerous questions via email and phone, all in an effort to fully explain our approach and philosophy regarding sexual assault cases,” President Mark Gearan wrote in an email to the school.

 “Regrettably, these responses were either ignored or downplayed in the article.”

Nevertheless, the school’s administration, specifically President Gearan, promised to review the school’s implementation of Title IX policies, as well as its overall handling of reported sexual assault cases.

A Promise for Change at HWS

A physical office has since been established for Title IX at HWS that includes Interim Title IX Coordinator and Associate Dean of Students Stacey Pierce, Assistant Director of the Center for Counseling and Student Wellness Maria Saavedra Finger, Staff Psychologist Elizabeth J. Carroll and Legal Advisor Theresa A. Conroy.

The Colleges’ Culture of Respect webpage details some of the promises for change.

“As we acknowledge that we have systems, policies and caring professionals that exceed the standards at many other institutions, we are called to do more. We are called to be better,” the page states.

Part of this promise for change has included the creation of a steering committee headed by former William Smith Admissions Head Mara O’Laughlin ’66 and Professor Emeritus Pat McGuire of the Economics Department. Committee members include faculty, alumni, students and parents.

The mission of the committee is to “examine, research and offer recommendations designed to elicit important positive change at Hobart and William Smith Colleges,” according to its website.

“Specifically, the committee will offer recommendations designed to cultivate a culture of respect.”

It aims to create focus on various areas specifically:  safety and wellness, campus facilities, history and heritage, dialogue across differences and the curriculum review.

Pierce spoke in further detail about changes being made to the school’s policies in an interview.

Since the start of the 2014 – 2015 academic year and the establishment of the Title IX office on campus, a new adjudication process has been implemented.

The procedures for no contact orders between students involved in a sexual assault case have not changed and no additional enforcement of them is in place at this time.

The work being completed by the Title IX office is reflected in “Title IX Know Your Options” brochures and posters; resource magnets, bookmarks, and posters; and the Nine from IX weekly e-newsletter.

When asked about what she considered to be the main accomplishments of the Title IX office during the fall semester, Pierce responded with the following:

  • Increased dialogue and outreach through a variety of platforms:
    • The Sexual Violence Response Evaluation Team (SVRET) which includes a representatives from students, faculty, staff, Geneva Police Department, District Attorney’s office, Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, and F. F. Thompson Hospital.
    • Dine with IX lunches and Community Conversation events to hear from students regarding their concerns, ideas, and suggestions which could provide a safe environment and one where students can comfortably access on and off campus resources and supports.
    • Various trainings with students, faculty, and staff, including Bringing in the Bystander training, have provided an opportunity to increase knowledge and awareness on campus.
    • The distribution of revised and new resources across campus and electronically has increased awareness of options, resources, and supports.
    • The weekly Nine from IX e-newsletter provides regular updates on the work in the Title IX office and other relevant programming and interest pieces.

Prior to The New York Times article, there were already plans in place to update the school’s policies.

“The Colleges were planning to update and revise the policy based upon the April 2014 guidance issued by the White House and the Office for Civil Rights,” said Pierce.

The office has taken no action in reviewing the school’s handling of past cases of sexual assault.

Colleges Respond

HWS is not the only school that has recently come under fire. Also included on the list of colleges being investigated were University of California – Berkeley, Boston College, Harvard College and Harvard University Law School, Carnegie Mellon University, and University of Virginia, among others.

It is hard to deny that sexual assault is a serious issue on college campuses across the country. One in five women will be raped during college, according to the National Institute of Justice.  Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that almost 5,000 forcible sex offenses on a campus were reported to the department in 2012 alone.

Yet, the majority of college presidents across the country appear to be under the impression that their campuses remain largely immune to any problems involving the existence and reporting of sexual assault cases, according to a recent Inside Higher Ed survey. 

Approximately a third of the polled presidents responded in agreement or strong agreement that sexual assault is rampant on American college campuses. Yet, a minimal percentage acknowledged that cases of sexual assault were prevalent at their university. 

The survey also gauged the presidents’ opinion on policies around the country. The state of California instituted an “affirmative consent” law this past year that requires students to obtain a verbal “yes” before engaging in any sort of sexual activity.  The majority of the presidents answered “not too effective” or “not at all effective” when asked about the outcome this law would have on college campuses. 

“More than three-quarters of presidents agree or strongly agree that their campus is doing a good job protecting women from sexual assault on campus,” stated the survey.

Almost all of the presidents agreed or strongly agreed that their institution provides appropriate due process for those accused of sexual assault on campus. Nearly half agreed or strongly agreed that local law enforcement should be responsible for handling all sexual assault cases on campuses.

Reconciling the alarming statistics on campus sexual assault with the fact that the presidents of these colleges are largely unaware of the prevalence of sexual assault, it is evident that clear change of some sort is needed.

HWS President Gearan maintains that the school conducted the investigation appropriately.

“We handled it fairly with the evidence that we had,” Gearan told the Finger Lakes Times.

“Within an hour, the Geneva police were engaged with it. ... But I’m not unmindful, too, of the heartache of this student, so I do think we are, and have been over the course of the year, actively thinking through what are the best practices and policies. These are issues that every college and university are facing.”

Federal Response

Last month saw a bipartisan group of senators introduce legislation that would further allow the federal government to reprimand colleges and universities after the mishandling of a sexual assault case. 

The bill is known as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA) and would require the implementation of surveys to better gauge the prevalence of campus sexual assault, as well as implement required steps for helping victims and seeking justice against the accused. Schools that failed to properly follow requirements could be fined up to $150,000 per violation. 

"The reason why schools are failing is because they do not take this crime seriously," said Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York during a press conference about the bill.  

Gillibrand and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri are proposing this legislation in conjunction with Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada. First introduced in July of 2014, the bill is now being reintroduced to Congress by the senators.  

“The senators also added a provision to ensure fairness in the adjudication of sexual assault cases,” reports the Huffington Post.

“Colleges would have to disclose details of any sexual assault complaint to the accused student, including a full summary of the disciplinary proceeding and the rights and due process protections available to both parties.”

Students Take Action

Following The New York Times article, HWS students began to take matters into their own hands. The Coalition for Concerned Students (COCS) was established as a means for students to join the conversation surrounding the school’s handling of sexual assault cases, as well as provide a support system for victims.

William Smith Senior Carly Petroski spearheaded a campaign to start a sexual assault hotline for students. Student volunteers have been trained in coordination with Safe Harbors, a nonprofit organization that provides support for victims of sexual assault and their families.

Victims Speak Out

A group of close to 20 William Smith students staged a protest on December 12 in support of one senior woman who was being kept in the dark about details surrounding her sexual assault case, particularly with regards to whether the perpetrator would be allowed to return to campus as a full-time student.

After 3 meetings this student and her faculty advocate had scheduled with Dean of Students Robb Flowers were cancelled, the protesting students accompanied her to the Office of Student Affairs.

This student spoke about her experience of reporting a sexual assault to the school and how her assaulter was allowed to re-enroll at HWS this fall without her or Flower’s knowledge due to lacking communication between the administration, Title IX, and Student Affairs offices.

“Overall, this process has just drained me and has pushed me so close to just giving up and not fighting for a better system anymore, which I find to be a HUGE problem,” this student said in an interview.

These women chanted their grievances with the process during the protest.  Many carried signs with messages such as: “Change the System” and “I’m tired. Come on, Robb.”

A separate female student described how despite previous support from Flowers with regards to her own sexual assault case, no amount of push back against his office made any difference when her attacker was allowed into the same class with her last semester.

“The office of Student Affairs has systematically left survivors to fend for themselves throughout the processes of sexual assault cases, made survivors and witnesses feel alienated and alone, and disregarded the voices of women on this campus to serve the status quo,” said a student organizer involved with the recent protest against the Office.

HWS Reflects

After the release of The New York Times article, many HWS community members were outraged at the lack of justice for Anna following her assault. Others disagreed, feeling the school had done its duty. The campus remains divided on the current status of the school’s handling of sexual assault cases.

There is little discord about the fact that sexual assault is an issue on all college campuses. Many members of the community acknowledge that the administration has made mistakes, yet feel the school’s handling of legal obligations was appropriate.

“The heightened awareness of the impact of sexual misconduct has led to increased dialogue and a shared commitment that our policy reflects our institutional values and provides the necessary resources and supports for students,” said Pierce about the overall campus atmosphere following the release of The Times article.

However, despite the efforts of the administration, Student Affairs, and Office of Title IX Programs and Compliance to improve the school’s handling of sexual assault cases, William Smith students feel silenced as they feel that the rights of perpetrators are still being prioritized over those of victims. Until victims feel enfranchised by the school to take action against their attackers, they will demand further action against perpetrators in service of the culture of respect that the Title IX office promises.