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Title Mine: How Washington University Woke Up to the Issue of Sexual Assault on Campus

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Students papered campus with a list of demands. - ANNA WILSON
  • ANNA WILSON
  • Students papered campus with a list of demands.

"My decision was a no-brainer," Rachel says on publishing her piece, "Consider This a Warning."

Then a sophomore, Rachel had previously contemplated making her story public. Several survivors had come forward in Student Life's pages over the preceding years. But Nat's piece perhaps gave a final push. That week, in addition to serving as a core organizer for Title Mine, Rachel estimates she poured twenty hours into writing "Consider This a Warning." It ran on April 19.

"I was like, alright, I have to keep this fire going, I have something worth telling," she says.

In the piece, Rachel shared her personal experience after she made a sexual assault complaint against an ex-boyfriend: When the Title IX Office refused to add a clause to her no-contact order to bar him from Greek life parties she was at, she wrote, she called a meeting with the leadership of his fraternity. They told her that their international organization's policy held that they couldn't help her unless she handed over her confidential Title IX documents. When she called the fraternity's national headquarters to fact-check, the executive director was horrified, saying that even allegations could put a member on inactive status.

Rachel says her assailant manipulated and abused her for the duration of their seven-month relationship, until she broke it off in August 2017. A week later, she says, he showed up at the club she was at.

"He went to the club, he found me, and he just attacked me from behind and he started groping me and kissing my neck and he fingered me really aggressively," she remembers. The entire interaction was non-consensual, she emphasizes, and occurred as he held her tightly despite her attempts to escape. "I was bleeding, that's how aggressive it was, and a friend who was in my vicinity pulled him off of me, pulled him into the men's restroom, told him off." She says he emerged from the restroom and assaulted her again as witnesses nearby attempted to intervene and told him to back off.

In January, Rachel went to Washington University's Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center and met with Director Kim Webb. Rachel opened a Title IX case on February 7.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education said the Title IX process should last no longer than 60 days, according to Jessica Kennedy, Wash U's Title IX office director. Yet during her first conversation with RFT in mid-July, Rachel was more than six months into her case. It was another month before her assailant was found responsible.

Wash U has never completed an investigation in 60 days, Kennedy says. In general, she says, the process lasts around six months. Last year, one case lasted nine.

A 1972 federal civil rights law promoting equal opportunity between genders in education, Title IX leaves procedures for implementation up to individual institutions — and in recent years, many universities have come under fire for failing to live up to its ideals. Students at Boston University, Harvard University and Swarthmore College are among those who have led campus rallies or protests in the past year or so.

Title IX had a national moment last September when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos changed Obama-era guidelines to the law. She eliminated the suggestion of the 60-day investigation period and also raised the burden of proof from "preponderance of the evidence" (meaning an allegation more likely than not is true) to either "preponderance of the evidence" or "clear and convincing evidence."

At the time, Wash U released a statement reestablishing its commitment to the Obama-era guidelines.

"I think that when we look at the national climate, our students are coming with an activist and a social justice lens, and so I think this is something they can get on board with, that everyone wants to rally around survivor protections and survivor rights," Webb says.

Wash U's current Title IX process took form in 2013, Kennedy says. Under it, a Title IX report begins when a complainant makes a report alleging sexual discrimination, sexual harassment or sexual violence. If the Title IX office determines that the reported behavior would not violate the University Student Conduct Code, administrators will meet with the complainant to discuss alternative options.

If the behavior alleged may be a code violation, the respondent receives a formal notice of complaint. A contract investigator then interviews both parties and any witnesses and reviews other evidence.

A three-person panel, chosen from a pool of 110 trained university faculty, staff and students, reviews the initial report and can ask for further information, which the investigator uses to create a final report. Both parties are allowed to provide a written response. The panel reviews the report and responses, and interviews both parties and any useful witnesses. From there, it writes a decision determining whether the student more likely than not violated the judicial code. The discipline it orders can go up to expulsion.

Kennedy says students' most common qualms with the process are that it takes too long, and that those involved in the investigation may use victim-blaming or trauma uninformed-questions. And while Rachel brings up both of those concerns in her case, her issues with the process go much deeper.

"The Title IX process is a second assault," she says. "I don't think anyone would go through it if they knew better at first."

First, Rachel notes a discrepancy between the types of witnesses she and her assailant provided. Her witnesses, she says, were unbiased individuals who all happened to witness the public assault. On the other hand, the eight people who testified on her assailant's behalf were his good friends, she says. Much of that part of the report, she says, explained that her assailant is an "ROTC scholar," a "best friend" and "really respects women."

"For fifteen pages, I was slut-shamed and my personality was attacked, even though these people don't know who I am and don't know me at all, nor were they present at the incident," she says.

Many of his witnesses, Rachel alleges, were dishonest about being present.

"Easily proven-wrong lies, but the fact of the matter is that he was allowed to lie and he did it and he did it everywhere in his case," she says. "I wondered, why is this even worth it? Like the only bit of truth you'll see is gonna be from the survivor, because there's nothing in it for us. There's literally nothing in it. And for him, on the other hand, he has an ROTC scholarship [to protect]."

In part because he had provided many witnesses, the initial investigative process didn't end until April 24. As it trudged forward, Rachel feared for her safety. She and her alleged assailant were enrolled in two of the same courses.

"I actually failed my first exam in one of those. I had prepared, I tried to feel good about myself that day," she remembers. "And I just went in and just like every other day, he just stared me down, stared into the back of my head. It was intimidating and not OK. And I felt very threatened."

The Title IX Office's initial solution, Rachel says, was a modified seating arrangement. After hours of meeting with the dean, her assailant was eventually moved to a different class. (Once he was out of her class, she says, she began earning near-perfect scores again.)

Still, his new class was directly after hers, and he would make a point of sitting outside the classroom, she says. For the first time in her life, Rachel began experiencing panic attacks.

Rachel moved to an off-campus apartment to reduce potential contact. But when she told the Title IX Office she wanted to ensure he wasn't allowed at parties she was at, she says, she was told it was not possible.

That became the subject of her op-ed.

"They will keep you safe in the classroom, but it's stupid, because it's not like I'm going to get assaulted in the classroom," she says. "I'm going to get assaulted in a dark room with alcohol where the risk is higher."

That wasn't Rachel's only frustration. In one instance, Rachel says the Title IX office tried to give her assailant access to her health records, including psychiatric history, medications and birth control information. She says she wasn't clearly told that by sharing them with investigators, her assailant could see them too, and she had to fight to pull them back after learning he'd have access to them.

"[The Title IX Office] will release your private and protected health records without your consent to your assailant and without your knowledge, which is horrific," she says. (Kennedy emphatically denies this: "Washington University does not, under any circumstance, provide access to or share an individual's personal health records of any kind without the consent of the individual.")

And Rachel balks at the idea that the burden of proof falls on the survivor. Even after she won her case, she wonders how anyone ever does. She felt it was hard to provide the evidence the panel wanted because she didn't send a text or give a friend a play-by-play right after it occurred.

"It takes a while to open up about assault, not necessarily saying that you were assaulted. I was able to say that within the first day, within the first week, I was telling people I was assaulted," she says. "But it takes much longer to say, and be comfortable with saying, 'His fingers were in my vagina, they were scraping me, he was aggressive and I bled.' That was something that took me a long time to be able to say."

Once she finally made it to the panel interview, she grew even more frustrated.

"They just asked me really intrusive, borderline victim-blaming questions," she remembers. "The first thing they asked me too was physically how he assaulted me, and I was just floored, because they already have an audio recording of it from my interview with the investigator, they have seen me write it out in three different forms and they wanted me to say it again."