Four Years Later: the Herald Investigates Sexual Misconduct Response at HWS

By The Herald News Team

On July 12 2014, The New York Times published an article on the front page of its Sunday edition titled “Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t: How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint” that specifically focused on the adjudication process of the alleged rape of a first-year student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The article was preceded by a notice from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that HWS was among 51 institutions under “investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.” Since that notice, a second investigation has been opened, examining Title IX at Hobart and William Smith, and both are focused on sexual violence.

The Herald News Team reached out to the Office for Civil Rights, and a Department of Education spokesman told us: “[The] OCR does not have any record of investigations into Title IX issues at Hobart and William Smith Colleges that resulted in resolution agreements.” These are still considered open investigations by the OCR.

The 2017 “Living Safely: Annual Security Report” published by Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Office of Campus Safety notes that rapes on campus have doubled in two years: going from 7 in 2014 to 14 in 2016. While it could be that, of those assaulted, more students are reporting, however, the statistical increase remains concerning to students.

For the past three months, The Herald News Team has been researching and investigating Title IX and sexual assault on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In the process, team members have conducted more than a dozen interviews with members of the campus community in addition to attending meetings, researching and reading documents, filing a Freedom of Information Act with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and assembling an independent commission to review the pieces in advance. All of these measures were performed in order to adequately, and diligently, research this piece to ensure that it is fair, fact-based, and unbiased.

In the process of our investigation, we have discovered how sexual assault, and reporting to Title IX, has changed in the last few years and what that means for students. The Herald found that some survivors report that they feel silenced by the Title IX office, that they are not able to make their own decisions and the process is too clinical. The burden of advocacy, as sexual misconduct survivors told the Herald, is thus placed on the shoulders of those who have survived sexual assault, harassment, and abuse.

This burden is not entirely the fault of the Title IX office; the staff members are bound by New York and federal law to be fair and in all proceedings. They need to be respectful of all parties involved and ensure that all processes are lawful. That does not mean that they do not want to see a change in the culture.

The difficulty is that students fear retribution and ridicule from their classmates and abusers, who still foster an atmosphere of fear that allows them to assault and silence so many of our classmates.

The students the Herald spoke with do not feel safe in reporting to Title IX. They cannot speak to faculty members because all faculty and staff are considered “responsible employees” and there is an obligation on the part of faculty to report to Title IX when sexual assault or misconduct is revealed to them. One of the few confidential resources on campus, the Counseling Center, emailed a long list of students about their appointments and everyone could see who was on the list — it was no longer safe and confidential.

One survivor of sexual assault, who went to the Counseling Center, noted that her abuser and his friends were on that list, and they could see that this survivor was as well. This was reported to the Herald as a one-time inciden. The Herald reached out to the Counseling Center for comment and, unfortunately, they were unable to provide more information, before we went to print, as to whether this was a one-time thing and whether there are new procedures in place to prevent it from happening again.

All of these things ruin the foundations of trust that Hobart and William Smith aims to provide its students. The goal of maintaining a safe environment for students to thrive somehow seems less plausible. With a new administration in place, now is the time to advocate for change.

We should note that this is not a problem that only pertains to white, heterosexual, female-identifying persons on campus. The Human Rights Campaign notes that “46% of bisexual women have been raped compared to 17% heterosexual and 13% lesbian.” While this investigation focuses on heterosexual sexual misconduct, several of the survivors interviewed identify as queer, and one identifies as gender non-binary. The Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) survey reports that all of the thirty-nine women who self-reported sexual assault indicated they were assaulted by a “male.” However, of the seven men who self-reported in the survey, three were assaulted by a “female” and three were assaulted by a “male.” It is also important to note that of the data we pulled from the HEDS survey, 76% of the students surveyed self-identified as “heterosexual.”

There are eight pieces in this issue relating to Title IX: six articles and one Op-Ed by a first-year student who has experienced sexual misconduct on campus. These pieces paint a picture of a campus community that does not promote a culture of respect or advocate for discussions around these issues like there  was in 2014.

In August 2014, following The New York Times article and as students from the Class of 2018 began to arrive for Orientation, The Finger Lakes Times published an article about the changes being made on campus to create a safer environment for students. The article, “New initiatives, policies greet HWS students,” is hopeful and provides insight into plans that were being launched following internal review of the Colleges’ policies. “Robert Flowers, then the Colleges’ vice president for student affairs, said a rape hotline should be up and running within the next two weeks,” the author writes. A student was working to set it up, and held trainings with Safe Harbors on campus, so that students would be able to staff a campus hotline dedicated to HWS students.

The hotline is not in operation anymore. Professor Chris Woodworth, who was an adviser for the hotline, noted that “there were concerns on the part of the institution about the legality and the liability issues of having students run a hotline. When the general momentum dissipated, the hotline went away entirely.” What did evolve instead was a closer relationship from the Colleges with Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, which has its Ontario County Office located in downtown Geneva. In fact, it is the place that one faculty member recommends all survivors go to for help.

Flowers also said in the article that “Hobart fraternity leaders recently sent a notice to all students saying they have indefinitely suspended any and all social activities.” However, an August 2016 review of fraternities on campus, submitted to the Vice President for Student Affairs, noted that the perception is that, “HWS social life seems to have revolved around fraternity parties and the fraternity social spaces. With the perception that fraternities are the center of social life … there seems to be no other campus events or athletics interest to serve as a ‘social destination point.’” It is clear that Hobart fraternities have resumed social activities, and that they are, once again, the center of campus social life. Flowers said in our meeting with him that “there is still a social balance issue with the degree to which fraternities play a role in what is perceived as the social life of students on weekends.”

But during our interview he noted change must come from the discussions on campus and, ultimately, from the students: “There’s only so much that policy can do… And I think the broader conversation…is to continue the conversation because there’s a cultural ethos shift that has to go along with any kind of change that becomes meaningful.” He said that it is easy for the campus to resort back to its previous norms and that conversations that were so important at the time do not lead to action or continue to be present on campus. “We have to continue to have [these conversations about sexual misconduct] on our campus,” Flowers concluded.

In the time since The Times article was published, has there been a meaningful change on our campus to improve the student experience? Have social spaces become more balanced and less “rapey,” as one faculty member noted, so that students can feel safe wherever they are at any time of the day? Has sexual assault on our campus actually declined and have reports been addressed fairly and quickly? In the four years since the article, has there been change? Have we, as a campus community, learned and been able to change the culture and climate that surrounds the student body?

Those questions guided The Herald News Team in its investigation. The goal of this edition of the Herald is to bring the issue of our campus culture and sexual assault to the forefront of campus discussion in the hope that we can, as a campus community, work together to change the culture regarding sexual misconduct that prevails over the student body.

Everyone on campus deserves to feel safe and valued wherever they are. As a community, we need to not only provide that assurance, but also work to ensure that it is maintained.

Continued Herald News Team coverage of campus climate here:

Reporting Concerns: Survivors Describe Experiences with the Office of Title IX

A Culture of Respect?

Blue Lights at HWS: A Complicated Necessity

Social Space & Social Responsibility in Fraternities

Troubling Statistics of Campus Sexual Assaults

 

Correction: In an earlier version we identify the survivors we spoke with as heterosexual women. That has been amended in this version.

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