Special Report: Sexual assault survivors share stories of college process

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on sexual assault at Allegheny College. The first installment was published last Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is currently conducting two investigations into Allegheny College’s alleged violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a federal law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in higher education.

The OCR’s investigations were the result of two complaints filed to the Department of Education by current and/or former Allegheny students. One investigation, which began on Dec. 5, 2014, is based on a complaint that alleges that Allegheny perpetuates a culture of sex discrimination that affects all women on campus. Another complaint to the Department of Education alleges that the college mishandled a sexual assault investigation. This complaint led to an investigation that began on July 30, 2015.

The college’s 2016 Annual Security and Fire Report — which includes its Clery Report — states that eight sexual assaults were reported to the college in the 2015 calendar year, down from 12 in 2014 and 12 in 2013.

When students report their sexual assault to the Title IX Office, one method of protecting both the complainant and respondent during the investigation and proceedings is issuing a No Contact Order between them. Despite this measure, on a small campus like Allegheny’s, some survivors of sexual assault report having to see their attacker around campus frequently.

Madeline, ’20, who agreed to be identified by her real first name, said despite a No Contact Order from the school, she cannot help but to run into her attacker on campus.

“I feel like I see him everywhere,” Madeline said.

Madeline said she was attacked on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016.

Madeline and her assailant — a good friend — were drinking in North Village II, where he lived at the time, she said. After two glasses of wine and a few shots of liquor, she said, they walked over to Caflisch Hall to meet up with some friends.

Once in Caflisch, Madeline said she continued to drink before throwing up. Madeline said the last thing she remembers before the assault was throwing up in Caflisch. She woke up during the assault in his room in NV II.

“I don’t remember getting into his bed. I don’t remember my clothes coming off,” Madeline said. “I was too intoxicated to ask him to stop.”

The following day, Madeline questioned her assailant about the incident. She said he claimed it was consensual. However, Madeline said she does not think she gave consent, even if she had been able to.

“I still had my underwear on. It was just pushed to the side, and that didn’t feel normal,” Madeline said.

Pennsylvania law states that sexual intercourse can be defined as rape if the offender engaged in intercourse while the complainant is “unconscious or where the person knows that the complainant is unaware that the sexual intercourse is occurring.”

The Compass Student Handbook defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual activity perpetrated against a person’s will, where that person does not give clear and voluntary consent, or where the person is incapable of giving consent due to drug or alcohol use.”

Madeline said she reported the incident the day after the attack and had a meeting with Gilly Ford, Title IX coordinator, to go over her case on Sept. 26. At her first meeting with Ford, Madeline decided to file an informal complaint. On Sept. 28, she switched to a formal complaint.

“To feel closure on the situation and for my own mental personal safety, I had to switch to a formal [complaint],” she said.

During the investigation, Madeline said, she had several meetings with Joe Hall, director of student conduct and development, to strengthen her formal statement. She said Hall asked approximately four or five times if it was possible she may have consented.

In her assailant’s statements, according to Madeline, her assailant claimed that the encounter had been consensual and that she had coerced him into having sex. She said he further claimed that he was under the impression that the alcohol she had consumed was out of her system by that time.

Following the investigation, Madeline said, her assailant was placed on probation until he graduates in spring 2017 and was required to participate in several online learning modules regarding consent. She said Hall explained that there was too much ambiguity in her case to prompt a harsher punishment.

“Joe Hall said the situation was very gray, and it was not clear if I had consented or not,” Madeline said.

Following the decision, Madeline said it was suggested by Ford that she take a leave of absence until her attacker had graduated. She refused, saying it would have changed little.

“It doesn’t just go away,” Madeline said. “It doesn’t leave with him.”

Although Madeline chose to report her assault, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. Out of 1,000 sexual assaults that occur, 310 are actually reported to police, according to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Of those 310 reported cases, 57 will lead to an arrest, 11 will be referred to prosecutors, seven will lead to felony convictions and six rapists will be incarcerated.

Comparatively, according to RAINN, out of 1,000 “assault and battery crimes,” 627 are reported to police, 255 lead to an arrest, 105 cases are referred to prosecutors, 41 lead to felony convictions and 33 perpetrators are incarcerated.

The reasons survivors choose not to report vary.

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Justice, 20 percent of survivors who did not report said they feared retaliation. Thirteen percent said they felt the police would not do anything to help, another 13 percent claimed it was a “personal matter,” 8 percent did not feel it was important enough to report and 7 percent did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble.

Reporting, according to data gathered by the Department of Justice between 1995 and 2013, was lower among college students than non-students. The study found that 32 percent of female “non-students” reported to police, compared to just 20 percent of female students.

When Susan, who is not identified by her real name, was a first-year student at Allegheny, she was seeing another first-year student on a fairly regular basis before he assaulted her. She said she was intoxicated, and had gone back to his dorm to sleep.

“I woke up to it when it happened, and verbally expressed no, and it didn’t stop,” Susan said. “I was just waking up and he was on top of me and it took me a minute to realize what was happening, and I remember being like no, no, no, no, no, and it just continuing.”

When it was over, Susan said she began to cry. Her attacker made no attempt to comfort or console her. She said he may have been too drunk to even notice she had been cyring.

“I remember crying and wanting to leave, but kind of being afraid to get up and leave,” Susan said.

Susan said she left the next morning before he woke up and spent the rest of the day pretending nothing had happened.

“I remember hanging out in the dorm and like really just wanting to be alone, and it’s hard freshman year to be alone because you have a roommate,” Susan said. “I remember going to the hallway intermittently that day to cry for a little bit.”

According to Susan, she never reported the assault for several reasons. The first was she said she was not certain it constituted an act of rape because of the fact that she had given consent to her assailant on occasions prior to that evening.

“I thought that it didn’t constitute as rape because I thought, well, we had been hooking up,” Susan said. “I thought people would judge me about it or they wouldn’t really understand.”

Following the incident, Susan tried to act normal around her assailant because she did not know what else to do, but she said she could not bring herself to.

“I didn’t know how to handle it so eventually we just broke it off … I was just not in a very good place,” Susan said.

It took months before Susan recognized what happened to her as rape, she said. She realized the incident was an assault when she spoke with a woman who lived on the same floor as her, who said she had been attacked by the same man.

“She [said she] was really, really drunk one night, and he took her back, and just, stuff happened that she definitely wasn’t okay with,” Susan said. “And that’s kind of the moment that I finally admitted to myself that something had happened.”

Most rapists rape more than once, according to the article “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” by researchers David Lisak and Paul M. Miller. The article, published in 2002 in the bimonthly journal “Violence and Victims,” found that about 63 percent of the 120 in the pool of respondents admitted to committing more than one rape, and the repeat rapists averaged 5.8 rapes each.

Susan said that for her, it took about a year before she told anyone, and even after that amount of time she struggled to talk about it.

“It was to [my boyfriend] actually, because I just broke down one night and he asked why, and it took a really long time to like get it out of me,” Susan said.

After confiding in her partner, Susan eventually told a few of her friends, but she said there are still very few people who know about what happened. Although she does not mind sharing her experience, she does not want the stigma she believes is attached to being a survivor of sexual assault.

“I don’t want people to know it about me because I think they’ll just associate it like every time they see me. … I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to be looked at with pity,” Susan said.

Susan said that despite the fact that she recognizes what happened to her was rape, she sometimes still questions if she can consider herself a survivor.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not like a real victim because I had been hooking up with him,” Susan said. “I feel like people who get raped, they get raped in the street by a stranger, but like it was something like I knew him, I thought I trusted him, we were hooking up. … And then that happened, and I didn’t really know how to like process it.”

Contrary to popular stereotypes surrounding rape, RAINN reported that seven in 10 rapes were committed by someone the survivor knew beforehand.

Susan said that she has had several classes with her attacker since the assault, and she believes it is possible he does not know he committed an assault.

“I don’t think he knows that he did it. … He has a girlfriend right now and I’m just hoping it’s not happening to her. … He’s just going on with his life like any other person, and has no idea that I’m completely a wreck about it,” Susan said.

Although Susan knows she could have reported the incident to either the college, the police or both, she decided not to, even after realizing she was raped. She said her main reason for not reporting, was that she does not think people would have believed her.

“I could’ve filed a report, I could have taken action,” Susan said. “But that probably would have just ended up being more embarrassing and would have ended up with people thinking of me differently, and it really wouldn’t have gotten me very far.”

Susan said that she had difficulty coping with the incident and still struggles at times, even though it has been several years.

“I went through some really hard times, especially when I would get drunk or drink a lot, it would come out, but I kind of just suppress it, which is really screwed up, I guess. I just don’t like dealing with it so I try to avoid bringing it up,” Susan said.

Even years after the attack, Susan said she still copes with flashbacks. She said she often becomes nervous or anxious around men, as they remind her of the attack.

Despite the struggles she still faces day-to-day, Susan said that she believes she is coping with the incident better now than she was a year ago.

“I think it was kind of hard to realize [I was sexually assaulted], but I think that it kind of gave me strength in that I could then mark it for what it was, see it for what it was, and then start to move on from it,” Susan said.

I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to be looked at with pity.

— Susan

RAINN reports that students in their first or second semester of college are at an increased risk of sexual assault compared with all other students. Additionally, over 50 percent of sexual assaults in college occur in months during the fall semester — August, September, October and November.

Jessica, who did not wish to be identified by her real name, was also in her first semester at Allegheny when she was assaulted by a student of the same year. He and Jessica both lived in Baldwin Hall.

Jessica had just finished a shift at her work-study job on Sept. 20, 2015, and got food to go from McKinley’s Food Court, planning on eating it while watching “Friends.” Instead, her friend, who she said she was “kind of” friends with, had asked if he could come over to her room in Baldwin.

Jessica said she did not want him to come over, but said he was insistent.

“He was like, ‘Please, just let me come over. I’m having a hard day, I’m insecure, can you just like talk to me?’ And after a lot of incessant, ‘Can I come over?’, … I was like, ‘Yeah, fine, whatever,’” Jessica said.

Around 6:30 p.m., Jessica said, her friend came to her room. After some time talking, he kissed her, according to Jessica, and put Jessica’s hand on his pants. He then moved to the center of Jessica’s room and asked her repeatedly for oral sex.

“I said ‘no’ multiple times, and it was at kind of the point where it became very clear he would not be leaving — he would make an extremely large scene if I didn’t do it,” Jessica said. “And, so, I did. And then he was like, ‘Okay, thanks, now you never have to see me again,’ and he left.”

Jessica said she stayed in her dorm room until her roommate came back. After telling her what had happened, her roommate told her that what had happened was an assault, Jessica said.

The next day, Sept. 21, 2015, Jessica and her roommate went to Bentley Hall to report the assault to the Title IX Office, she said. Immediately after reporting, a No Contact Order was implemented, Jessica said.

In addition to a No Contact Order, Jessica said she asked the Title IX Office about having her assailant removed from Baldwin Hall and for a deadbolt to be installed on her door. The office, Jessica said, did not remove her assailant from the residence hall, stating he would have to first be found responsible, but the college installed a new lock on her door within five days.

Despite the temporary measures taken to ensure Jessica’s safety, she said her mental health suffered.

“After that happened, basically, I kind of fell apart in ways that would have been expected,” Jessica said. “I stopped going to classes.”

Later in the week, Jessica gave a formal report to Hall and the college’s investigation into the assault began.

“I was told it would take two weeks; I believe it took about a month, at least,” Jessica said.

After the investigation, Jessica said, she received the verdict: her assailant was suspended through the rest of the fall semester.

Jessica said her assailant appealed the verdict and that the investigation then proceeded to a hearing in front of a panel comprised of five college full-time staff and/or faculty, including Hall.

“Going to the hearing came with a lot of unexpected things,” Jessica said. “I did not understand or know that I would have to make an opening and closing statement. I didn’t really know how questions would be asked. There were papers in my file that I didn’t know what they were.”

Some members on the panel asked Hall if she was lying about the assault, Jessica said.

“I really appreciate Joe Hall. He was great to me,” Jessica said. “He defended me incessantly when we were in the hearing because a lot of people tried saying I was lying, even the board. I guess, in a sense, you have to ask that. But you don’t.”

After the hearing, Jessica said, her assailant’s punishment was increased from a one-semester suspension to being suspended through the 2015-16 academic year, a two-semester suspension. She said she does not believe her assailant returned to Allegheny after the suspension ended. Her assailant’s name does not appear in the college’s email or mail room directories.

After that happened, basically, I kind of fell apart in ways that would have been expected. I stopped going to classes.

— Jessica

Jessica began sharing her experiences with the college’s Title IX processes on social media. She said a number of people reached out to her after she began sharing her experiences.

“Immediately, as soon as I started saying anything about having an experience with Title IX, a lot of people either contacted me, or came up to me, or friends that I didn’t know that well told me their stories with Title IX or not with Title IX,” Jessica said. “It’s a whole new world, because the Clery Report — I think from last year — says there was seven or eight total sexual assaults.”

A 2015 study by the Association of American Universities found that, in a survey of 150,000 students at 27 universities, 23.1 percent of female undergraduate students experienced some form of sexual assault. In addition, a 2008 article written by Leah E. Daigle, Bonnie S. Fischer and Francis T. Cullen, published in the “Journal of Interpersonal Violence,” found that between 22.8 percent and 25.5 percent of female undergraduate students who experienced some form of sexual assault were victims of multiple sexual assaults.

Jessica, too, is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults.

After her first sexual assault, Jessica said, she would visit friends when feeling depressed. She said she texted one of her male friends with the intention of sleeping on his floor in November 2015, shortly after the end of her Title IX hearing.

She ended up sleeping in his bed, when he assaulted her.

“He pinned me down, and I was like, ‘You’re bigger than me. I don’t know that to do. So I’m just going to lay here,’” Jessica said.

Jessica said she did not report this assault to the Title IX Office, saying her first experience with the process “probably” had some influence on her decision.

“I guess I just didn’t want to go through it again, and there’s also the fact that he … has a lot of social pull and we share a lot of the same friends,” Jessica said. “There’s also the stigma that comes with reporting a separate assault from a separate person. It does not become a question of ‘How does this happen to you?’, it becomes a question of ‘How did you let this happen to you? What is it about you that’s the problem?’”

After her second assault, Jessica said, her mental health continued to suffer, resulting in low grades. She said these low grades threatened the continuance of her education at Allegheny, as individual professors had the discretion to pass or fail her, regardless of documentation from the Counseling Center or the Title IX Office.

Jessica said that, regardless of any dissatisfaction with the Title IX process, she does not harbor any animosity toward the college. Although her assailant was suspended and no longer attends Allegheny, she said she feels the Title IX Office could have handled the process better.

“I have gone on rants about how hard it was and how I felt like I didn’t get any information and how I feel like the Title IX office as a whole is a mess, but I feel like that’s something that needs to happen on a higher level than just us,” Jessica said.

Jessica’s case demonstrates that even when sanctions are imposed, survivors of sexual assaults often still struggle with the aftermath of an assault.

Heather — who did not want to use her real name — is another student who was assaulted in the first semester of her freshman year. She said that her problems with reporting began at Allegheny’s Counseling Center.

Her sexual assault occurred on Oct. 26, 2016, in her car while parked near Robertson Athletic Complex. She said she had thought she and the man who assaulted her were friends, since they were in a club together. He asked her to hang out with him after one of their club meetings, and she told him she needed to go to the store. She said he also claimed he needed to go, so she offered to drive him, but he did not purchase anything.

“That was very strange,” Heather said.

Once they returned to campus, Heather said the alleged assailant requested multiple times that she hang out with him longer, though she said no to several of his requests. Finally she agreed, and they parked up by Robertson Field. It was at that time that the assault occurred, according to Heather.

Heather said she was already planning on going home that weekend, but ended up staying at home through the following Monday and most of Tuesday in fear for her safety.

“I was just scared about what happened and really upset and didn’t want to be on campus,” Heather said.

She said she returned to campus late Tuesday night, and the next day she told a friend a what had occurred. The friend encouraged Heather to go to the Counseling Center to get help in contacting the Title IX coordinator on campus, but when she went to the Counseling Center on Friday, she was not directed to the Title IX office.

“I was like, ‘a week and a half ago almost, Oct. 26, I was sexually assaulted by another student on campus and I want to file a Title IX report. I’ve been missing my classes and haven’t really been leaving my room even to go to the dining hall because I’m scared I’m going to see him,’” Heather said.

The Counseling Center informed her that they were “booked full” with appointments, and would not be able to schedule a meeting for her with a counselor until the following Friday.

Heather said the secretary spoke briefly to the director of the Counseling Center and Heather went into the director’s office to speak with her.

Heather’s friend, who is also not identified by name in order to maintain both Heather and her assailant’s anonymity, said she went with Heather to the Counseling Center, and she said while she was with Heather, the center did not mention the Title IX Office or Gilly Ford.

In the director’s office, Heather said the director told her that the center might be able to “squeeze her in” on the following Monday and said she could go to the women’s center in Meadville, but said they could not provide a shuttle into town.

“They just told me to go to the women’s center for counseling when I specifically told them I wanted to file a Title IX report, and they didn’t push me in a different direction,” Heather said.

At the time of the alleged conversation, the director of the Counseling Center was Theresa Palaski. Palaski left Allegheny at the end of the fall 2016 semester, according to an employee of the college’s Counseling Center.

Though not speaking to any specific incident, a male licensed professional counselor with the center, said when a student comes in saying they have been assaulted, the staff works with the student to decide what is best for them.

“We work with the person to come to a decision,” the licensed professional counselor said.

The counselors, he said, are bound by confidentiality and are not bound to report the assault to the Title IX Office unless the student requests they do so. He said the center will refer a student to Title IX once they make the decision to report.

In addition to offering on-site counseling, the counselor said the center also makes the student aware of their options on and off-campus, including Women’s Services and the Meadville Medical Center.

Later that day, Heather visited Women’s Services. Once at Women’s Services, she said, she did not have much more luck. She said the person who she spoke with there relayed her own experience of being sexually assaulted and it “didn’t really help.”

Heather said she went to her classes the following day, but when she went back to her room, she became increasingly anxious.

“I got so anxious, like I had such a big panic attack, that I ended up calling the police and they told me to go down to the office and file a report with them,” Heather said.

Heather said she was accompanied by three friends, one of which was the same friend who went to the Counseling Center with her.

She then filed a formal report with the Meadville City Police Department, Heather said. At this point, she said, the time was around midnight. After she returned to her residence hall, her resident adviser found her in the lounge. She told her RA that she was not doing well, and after explaining her situation, she said her RA started crying.

Her RA then received a call from Director of Public Safety Ali Awadi, Heather said, who told her RA that he had been contacted by the police and informed of Heather’s situation. At this point, Heather said Awadi called Title IX Coordinator Gilly Ford, who came to campus at approximately 2 a.m.

Although Heather said Ford began giving her her options for reporting, Heather said it was too late.

They just told me to go to the women’s center for counseling when I specifically told them I wanted to file a Title IX report, and they didn’t push me in a different direction.

— Heather

“I was like, ‘It’s too late now that the police are involved and I have to go through a police investigation. It’s too late to do a confidential report. … That’s why I went to you guys and no one would even let me talk to you, or like tell me that you existed,’” Heather said.

Heather said Ford told her she did not know why the Counseling Center had not put Heather in contact with her, but Heather said she was already planning on leaving campus. Ford said she would issue a No Contact Order between Heather and her assailant, according to Heather.

On Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, Heather went home.

Heather said that the Monday or Tuesday after she returned home, she received a phone call and a text from Dean of Students Kimberly Ferguson, neither of which she answered immediately.

She said Ferguson also had Ford and Heather’s academic adviser email her, and Heather finally answered to discuss her case. Heather said she was also contacted by her alleged assailant while she was home, in violation of the No Contact Order.

“He ended up texting me like three times, … after I’d already left campus and was home, and was like, ‘The Meadville Police department just called me.’ So he hadn’t even found out [that I filed a Title IX complaint] from the school,” Heather said.

The screenshots of text messages between Heather and her assailant that Heather provided to The Campus show that the alleged assailant first apologized for how she “interpreted” the events of that evening, but then claimed they were consensual. After his third text, she wrote that she had explicitly stated that evening she was not interested in sexual activity with anyone. She also mentioned the No Contact Order and asked him to stop messaging her. She said he did not contact her after that.

Heather said she returned to campus in January of 2017 to attend a Title IX hearing with the college in person. She said at the hearing she became frustrated at her assailant’s claims that the attack was consensual.

“He tried to argue with me that it was consensual. … He said, ‘You put your hand on my head for me to go down on you,’ but that didn’t happen. … I was like, ‘You sexually assaulted me with your hand, like, you penetrated me with your hand,’” Heather said.

At the conclusion of the proceedings, Heather said her assailant received probation for the rest of his time at the college and was ordered to complete two educational learning modules. Heather said she then appealed the decision, and his probation was extended until he graduates from Allegheny. The reason the college gave for not handing down a more severe punishment was that it was his first offense, according to Heather.

Meadville’s Assistant Police Chief Michael Tautin said the city’s police department does not comment on the status of investigations.

Heather never returned to Allegheny. Although she said she would want to come back to Allegheny if her assailant was not here, she is not sure she could ever feel comfortable again knowing the college’s procedures.

Eight sexual assaults were reported at Allegheny during the 2015 calendar year, compared to 12 sexual assaults reported during the 2014 calendar year. NPR reported on April 30, 2014, that when colleges have an adequate system in place to address sexual assault, reported cases of sexual assault increase.