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Alleged rape case at Brandeis casts doubts on assault policy effectiveness

Published: April 27, 2012
Section: Front Page

Alleging she was raped by a Heller School student at their off-campus apartment nearly a dozen times from October 2010 through January 2011, an undergraduate student now on medical leave said the university cared more about closing the case than listening to her story and protecting her safety.

Advisers for both students doubted whether Brandeis sufficiently fulfilled its legal obligation to conduct a campus investigation following the complaints, according to emails sent last May to Scot Bemis, the university’s Title IX coordinator.

Comment Read The Hoot’s editorial, “Attitude change needed for defunct sexual assault policy

The facts of the case are fogged in a he-said, she-said story. But a yearlong investigation supported with several documents and emails obtained by The Hoot reveal an administration more fearful of lawsuits than student concerns and officials more willing to defer questions than to answer them directly.

“The school was more interested in protecting its image than removing the hostile environment for me. They were afraid of being sued [by my alleged assailant],” she said. “I think they did not care about my safety at all.”

The Hoot interviewed her multiple times since May but has withheld her name and his to protect privacy. The paper’s attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. University officials declined to comment, citing federal privacy laws.

It was a case of his word against hers. She said her assailant and his friend currently enrolled at the Heller School repeatedly threatened and sexually assaulted her. He filed a criminal complaint that she threatened to kill him, a claim she denies. In response to the rape allegations, he provided a Word document of instant messages to university police showing her aggressive pursuit of him. She said the Word document was heavily edited and falsified.

Although the student conduct board found him responsible for nine of 11 code violations in Rights and Responsibilities, including section 3.1, which prohibits sexual contact without consent and an appeals committee later upheld the board’s ruling, prosecutors at the District Attorney’s office decided not to charge him.

Administrators faced a challenge of credibility—two international students, one a graduate in his mid-30s and a medical doctor and the other an undergraduate in her early 20s.
When a student life official contacted her regarding her assailant’s criminal complaint, she felt intimidated by his response to her claim and pressured to complete a referral and police report in order for the university to respond. The official also warned that the process could end with her suspension.

“He treated the situation like a disagreement between two students,” she said. “He thought the issue should be over by now—that I shouldn’t have any more complaints. I felt that he was trying to silence me.”

Questioning their response in emails and meetings, the student voiced repeated concerns about her safety on and off campus. A student life official advised the student to have her parents contact the university’s lawyers. When the student did meet with university police to report the multiple sexual assaults, a detective categorized the complaint as a “tempestuous relationship,” according to a May 8, 2011, email sent to Bemis.

Before the female student’s interview at the District Attorney’s Office in Woburn, the university police officer met privately for more than 15 minutes with an assistant district attorney. He also presented the Word document containing the instant messages that the student claims were falsified, according to the email to Bemis.

“He never questioned the authenticity of the evidence he presented,” she said. “… [He] was so determined to prove that he did nothing wrong and make it go away that I felt my safety was not his concern.”

Alwina Bennett, associate provost for graduate student affairs and a public contact for the rape crisis hotline, served as the male student’s faculty adviser during the student conduct board process.

Bennett’s role as a contact for the crisis hotline poses a conflict for students. Although encouraged to speak to her peers at the hotline, this student then saw Bennett advising her alleged assailant in a conduct board hearing.

Few faculty members are willing to serve as advisers in student conduct board cases regarding sexual assault. The student said at first she had no advocate and felt intimidated because Bennett had been defending her alleged assailant from the beginning. She later found a faculty adviser for the student conduct board process.

In addition, a case file in the office of student rights and community standards contained no evidence of a university police investigation, a Title IX requirement, according to the email sent to Bemis.

In an email sent to Bemis the next day on May 9, a different university employee agreed that the university had not fully complied with its requirement to investigate the case under Title IX and Rights and Responsibilities. Had the outcome of such an investigation been completed, she wrote, there would be insufficient evidence against the male student.

When the student met with university police to file a no-contact order and expressed safety concerns about listing her address on the form, an officer promised her it would be redacted, she said. Yet a student life official showed her alleged assailant the full report with her new address.

Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) proposed an amendment at a faculty meeting on May 24, 2011, urging her colleagues to reject the list of proposed degree candidates. She did not refer to any details or to the specific conduct code violations in question.

The amendment read: “This vote to award the degrees does not extend to a student whose name appears on this list of degree candidates but has been accused of serious violations of Rights and Responsibilities and whose disciplinary process has not yet been concluded. Should the process be resolved in favor of said student, the vote of this body would extend to the student.”

Then-Provost Marty Krauss spoke out against the amendment and Brooten’s motion failed when it came to a vote.

The case posed a range of decisions requiring the entire senior leadership team, including police, student life, academic officials and President Fred Lawrence to be briefed on the case.

Brandeis reported three sexual assaults between 2007 and 2010, according to campus police.

Last April, the Department of Education sent a new guidance letter, reminding school administrators of their obligations to comply with Title IX.

One of the most important requirements is the obligation for universities to conduct internal investigations when they hear of sexual assault or harassment. University policies shifted to a lesser burden of proof for cases of sexual assault heard before the student conduct board. Like many other universities, prior to the April guidance, Brandeis used a “clear and convincing standard” as opposed to a “preponderance of the evidence standard” required by Title IX and applied in this case.

The student conduct board last May found him responsible for violating section 3.1, which prohibits sexual contact without explicit and clearly communicated consent, according to an email obtained by The Hoot. He was found not responsible for violating sections 3.2, prohibiting consent through incapacitation, and 3.3, prohibiting consent through prior sexual activity or relationship status.

Following the board’s recommendations, the Dean’s office announced a suspension under Section 21 effective immediately until commencement on May 20 this year. Stipulations during the suspension period include that the student’s official transcript and diploma be withheld from him until May 20. The decision also banned him from university property and accessing university services, according to the email.

The dean also prohibited him from enrolling at the university while she was here, and prevented him from ever living on-campus should he reenroll in the future.

On May 20 her alleged assailant’s suspension will end. But she has spent more than a year trying to talk to administrators, growing only more frustrated with the tone of their response.

“They’re very defensive of the university instead of trying to minimize the impact on me,” she said. “I raise an issue, I get a reply from an administrator saying that the university did nothing wrong.”