A consideration of policy: reflecting on how the college handles sexual assault

As the College community grapples with the fallout from an account of a sexual assault case made public by former student Lexie Brackenridge, we at the Record condemn all forms of victim blaming, whether physical or emotional, past or present – this kind of reaction to sexual assault cases discourages survivors from reporting their assaults and hinders their recovery. In situations where evidence is often convoluted, we as a community must respect the privacy and well-being of those involved rather than pass judgment and accusations.

Under the assumption that Brackenridge’s allegations – that the College did not adequately support and protect her after she brought her sexual assault case to the administration – are substantiated, we at the Record commend the College for pledging to continue to examine its processes for investigating sexual assault and supporting survivors through their recovery process. That being said, we acknowledge that, in this and all cases involving sexual assault, the College is bound by its policies – as well as federal law – to maintain strict confidentiality, and thus is not able to address Brackenridge’s case directly.

One of the most upsetting of Brackenridge’s allegations is that the College explicitly discouraged her from pursuing a criminal investigation to avoid bureaucratic hassle, and rather encouraged her to adjudicate the case via the College’s disciplinary process instead. While the stress and bureaucracy of pursuing a criminal investigation is obviously relevant to college students’ lives, it also may be an excuse on the College’s part to avoid potentially tarnishing criminal cases. If for whatever reason survivors of sexual assault are being discouraged from certain options through which they can pursue redress, this practice cannot continue.

Furthermore, Brackenridge alleges she was not adequately protected from harass- ment at the hands of her assailant’s friends. In light of Brackenridge’s account that she was physically and emotionally abused as a result of going forward with her case, the College should re-evaluate its procedures by which it protects survivors from any and all repercussions associated with reporting their case. Helping survivors feel safe at the College should be a top priority, and under the assumption that the failings raised by Brackenridge’s allegations can be substantiated, those administrators who disregarded her harassment concerns should be held accountable. If individual students were victimizing Brackenridge for reporting her case, we feel that the College should have done its utmost to investigate and punish those students.

Regardless of the particulars of Brackenridge’s case, or any sexual assault case brought to the College’s attention, any time the College acts in a way that can be perceived as negligent is a major failing and should be investigated.

However, whether or not the decision to suspend Brackenridge’s assailant for three semesters was the correct decision, we at the Record would like to encourage the administration to continue to rely on a case-by-case sanction policy, rather than a mandatory sanction of expulsion for sexual assault or rape cases. Mandatory sanctions can obfuscate objective decision-making when the (often complicated) details of a case are being examined.

That said, the fear of “ruining lives” is not a good standard to decide whether to suspend or expel students found in violation of the sexual assault policies in the student handbook; when deciding punishment for guilty parties, survivors’ concerns

for personal safety should be of primary concern, and weighed against the fact that the College operates under low burden of proof for guilt (more likely than not). Additionally, the College should guarantee due diligence to prove that students found guilty of sexual assault and rape will not be threats to the community if they are to be allowed to return; violations of the student handbook committed by students under suspension should also be viewed with heightened scrutiny.

We would, however, like to commend the College for updating their sexual assault investigation process. The decision to bring in external investigators to examine sexual assault cases is a positive development, and removing students (who once comprised half of the disciplinary committee) from the adjudication process will also result in more objective handling of sexual assault cases in the future. We at the Record hope that Brackenridge’s allegations will spur the administration to further devote the College’s resources to addressing the scourge of sexual assault.

Finally, we would like to address the statements by the Brackenridge family, as well as faculty members and others involved in the case, that suggest that certain sports teams and demographics on campus are more likely to commit sexual assault. We believe this is a dangerous blanket statement that risks creating unsubstantiated accusations and potentially alienating a portion of the student body. If a pattern of sexual assault, harassment or promotion of rape culture can be explicitly linked to a specific group of students, it should obviously be investigated thoroughly, but cases of sexual assault are by no means limited to specific ages, affiliations or backgrounds.

  • Matt McCarron

    Nowhere in the NPR article is it suggested that the college dissuaded Lexie from pursuing legal action… It was her own legal council who did that.

    • Sam Hine

      Hey Matt,

      In Lexie’s op-ed she asserts that the College encouraged her not to pursue legal action:
      http://williamsrecord.com/2014/05/14/a-survivor-speaks-out/

    • Matt McCarron

      So I guess my question is which was it? The college or her own lawyer?

    • Alum

      First, a relevant bit of history:

      http://ephblog.com/2004/07/30/Foster-05-Acquitted-of-Rape/

      Second, a lot depends on the meaning if “encouraged.” Both the College and her lawyer probably told Brackenridge the truth: If she went to the police, the DA was unlikely to press charges because the case was loser. And, if the DA did press charges, the resulting trial would be a brutal experience for Brackenridge while still, most likely, resulting in acquittal. Might Brackenridge be discouraged by these statements. Sure! But that is the fault of the truth being what it is, not of the people telling Brackenridge the truth.

      • howard

        No way.

        An arrest, time in jail and a bail hearing is way more harsh a punishment than the college can muster, regardless of trial outcome. Even a simple criminal investigation would be much more enlightening. Much harsher than ‘double secret probation’. The man would be outed in the press, have to pay a lawyer, go through a trial. Of course so would the victim.

        Nothing says ‘don’t be that guy’ quite like seeing ‘that guy’ in handcuffs stuffed in the back of a cruiser. More arrests and police investigations would definitely act as a much stronger deterrent. The college should make every effort to encourage and help victims go to the police. Police engagement does not stop the college from pursuing its own investigation. What it does, is make sure that people who are paid to support the general public conduct an investigation. If anything, it takes the onus of going it alone off the school.

      • Charles Kronick ’91

        How is the case of Foster relevant? It’s about different people, and a court case of alleged rape. Ms Brackenridge does not disclose her complaint to the College and her complaint to the public switches between rape and general sexual assault.

        I am willing to guess what actually happened in the dorm room and after lies beyond the realm of what one could assign to probability. Why would concerns about the DA prevent the initial steps of a police report and medical examination? Why would a lawyer encourage someone not to take those first steps given the complainant can always decline to testify? In my experience, lawyers prefer action to be taken promptly regardless of whether they intend to pursue their case.

        As far as probability goes, I would argue that DA David Capeless would be very attracted to pursuing a sensational story involving a student driven from campus, alumni outcries, and hockey players.

  • Williams Student

    Great except the last paragraph. Male athletes ARE more likely to commit sexual assault than male non-athletes. I don’t have specific evidence for Williams, but here are some national trends:

    From http://www.wpr.org/student-athletes-commit-rape-sexual-assaults-more-often-peers:

    “nearly one-third of sexual assaults on college campuses are perpetrated by athletes have been proven by respected researchers like Jeff Benedict and corroborated by others. That’s a rate almost six times higher than that of their peers, she said….
    But research does point to some sports whose athletes are disproportionally represented in sexual assault cases — over and above the disproportionate number of athletes versus non-athlete peers. Finley said it is the athletes in “power and performance sports” who turn up over and over again as perpetrators. Those sports are football, high-level basketball, HOCKEY, wrestling and boxing.”

    From http://www.ncava.org/statistics.html:
    “A 3 year study shows that while male student-athletes comprise 3.3% of the population, they represent 19% of sexual assault perpetrators and 35% of domestic violence perpetrators. (Benedict/Crosset Study)
    One in three college sexual assaults are committed by athletes. (Benedict/Crosset Study)”

    Likeliness to commit sexual assault is of course not “limited to specific ages, affiliations or backgrounds,” but it is more likely for some groups of students to commit sexual assault than others. Male athletes, especially on certain teams, are statistically more likely to be perpetrators of rape or sexual assault. These claims have been investigated thoroughly, maybe not at Williams, but at colleges around the country.

    • Current Junior

      And blacks are more likely to commit crimes that whites and Asians are more likely to major in math. But since when is it ok to act on either of those statistics? Any given athlete is not any more likely to commit a sexual assault than any non-athlete, and can therefore not be punished for a national statistic. This is exactly the argument against racial profiling, a practice that many here are fervently against. Finally, varsity athletes make up 33% of the population at Williams and that number rises to 50% if you include club athletes, so how applicable is this study to Williams? Our rate of sexual assault is not 10x the national average, so maybe it’s not fair to hold these statistics as effective predictors of wrongdoing.

    • Charles Kronick ’91

      Wiiliams Studen:

      And as we know, there are ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics.’

      What would motivate someone to attempt to correlate behavior with athletics? It reminds me of a study, long lost, that correlated sociopathy with Drivers of VW’s.

      • Current Junior

        Charles, I am hesitant to simply disregard this statistics as untrue because they are statistics. We’re all mostly intelligent people here who can read the methods and conclusion of a study and evaluate their validity on a case by case basis. I am much more concerned with the fact that, even assuming that the study is entirely valid, the suggestions that people seem to be posing as a result are, by definition, bigotry. I am a strong proponent of using good statistics to inform a reasonable policy, but in this case the policy suggestions are ludicrous even given the statistics.

        • Charles Kronick ’91

          Current Junior,

          As you suggest, the dredging up of numbers to support a fallacy constitute one of the more insidious forms of lies.

          Now, if a proposal were floated to end co-ed dormitories and return to the supervised living conditions of our parents’ generation, who on campus would support that? It was a system that was accepted by women and men as both genders understood men despite the lack of statistics.

  • Alum

    I am unaware of Williams data on sexual assault specifically, but Williams male athletes, especially members of the football and hockey teams, are much more likely to get into all sorts of trouble:

    http://www.ephblog.com/archives/images/athletic_report.htm

    ———-
    Finally, our Committee reviewed data on disciplinary incidents and honors offenses assembled by the Dean’s office.� The data on discipline were assembled for the years 1998-99 through 2000-01, and on honors offenses for the years 1996-97 though 1999-00.� The numbers of incidents are small, and must be approached cautiously.� Nevertheless, certain patterns emerge.� First, disciplinary actions in general at Williams overwhelmingly involve male students; this pattern holds for athletes as well.� Second, 56% of the disciplinary actions taken against students with the A attribute were directed towards the members of two teams.� We have heard reports from athletes that the conduct of teams improves and deteriorates according to the comings and goings of a few players on teams.� Third, athletic admits were about twice as likely as the student body as a whole to receive �discuss/warnings,� and were more likely than the student body to be found culpable of multiple offenses, and receive probation, suspension, or expulsion.� Finally, athletic admits were three times as likely to be found to commit honor code violations than the student body as a whole, and are somewhat more likely to commit violations than members of the comparison group.� These figures are not broken down by team.
    —————

    By the way, isn’t the Record embarrassed to write something as weaselly as “We believe this is a dangerous blanket statement”

    The statement is either true or it is false. A real student newspaper would investigate it and inform the community.

    • Sam Hine

      Alum –

      “If a pattern of sexual assault, harassment or promotion of rape culture can be explicitly linked to a specific group of students, it should obviously be investigated thoroughly, but cases of sexual assault are by no means limited to specific ages, affiliations or backgrounds.”

      Our condemnation of the “blanket statement” is made in lieu of concrete evidence that any specific group of students on campus is more likely to commit acts of sexual violence than any other. The data you present here, while intriguing, is also more than 15 years old and should not be conflated with likelihood to commit sexual assault.

      • Williams Student

        Hi Sam-

        Your condemnation of the “blanket statement” is only made in lieu of concrete evidence because, in keeping with the Record’s tradition, you were too lazy to find the evidence. How about you actually do research before writing an editorial (and, at that, what you consider “the most important editorial [you] have and will ever pen”)?

        • Sam Hine

          hj19–

          The only evidence that would be able to satisfy this blanket statement would also have to be far-reaching in nature. As you may know, the College’s statistics on sexual assault are sparse and quite generalized – nothing nearly specific enough about sexual assault trends for the editorial board to conclude that specific groups of students at Williams are more likely to commit sexual violence. Beyond that, I don’t think the concrete evidence you assume is out there actually is, and even the most non-“lazy” research (because for some reason you suppose we didn’t do research before writing this?) simply wouldn’t be able to substantiate something you assume is true.

          • Howard

            Well stated Sam. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Just because something can be statistically applied to a specific group, that does not mean an institution should act on it. In fact, the exact opposite. When you start to generalize like this it only goes one place- racism, sexism, classism. In fact, the definition of bigotry is pretty much doing what some are advocating here: making individual decisions that impact other peoples lives based on broader statistics rather than the merits of the individual.

            We all have thoughts like that, but to act on them only means once thing, prejudice. You are correct for calling BS. It is BS that such an ugly pattern of thought (that we all have) finds it way past the point of introspection on the written page within the Williams community without more constructive review. We all know better than this. I applaud you for taking up the issue.

    • ’80s Alum

      Perhaps the Deans and Alums would like to see what kind of folks “low level drug violations” (pot, coke, meth, shrooms, crack) support and finance ( * which presumably don’t count re: Code of Conduct violations as a 1st Offense in Williamstown, sorry, on Williams Coll. property):

      Get ready to have your eyes opened, fellow Alums:

      http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/united-states/110913/hells-angels-bikies-motorcycles-murder-massachusetts-video

      • Current Junior

        I guarantee you or someone you know has financed more human suffering through your continued consumption of products produced in sweatshops in third world countries than any high achieving teenager ever could through recreational drug use.

        • ’80s Alum

          Pot gangs kill cops. Full stop.

          • Class ’15

            Sweatshops kill children… and a lot more of them. Like, the number of police deaths from pot gangs is statistically negligible in comparison.

          • ’80s Alum

            Hopefully this will change The Deans’ and your view of “low level drug offenses” with, illegally bought POT: fatal shooting and brazen attempt to execute 2 cops in Miami, FL when a “suburban weed-growing house” is raided:

        • ’80s Alum

          If you want to grow yoir own weed with a sunlamp…. fine. But the reason it is illegal in most states is FOR a reason! Until the laws change, buying illegal pot (even in Colorado where it hasn’t even been dented as the legal pot is 2-3x more pricey….), supports gangs also into guns, meth, ecstasy, synthetic weed being illegally sold into small deli/head shop/Stewarts type stores alm over USA. Do Williams students these days really not care what the State laws are, and that folks lime cops and bystanders die from drug-gang violence? I’ll let you decide when you’re a teen or young 20’s guy/gal if pot is good or bad for your still developong brain (google it….), but IF you want it, understand that buying from violent criminals supports…. um… violent criminals. Would you lime to join me for a week with the Narcotics squads in Miami or Boston or Pittafield or Los Angeles? BUT, serious query: where do most Wms students obtain pot from? Brougjt from home? Bougjt in Pittsfield or Bennington or New Lebanon or similar? Are kids ON-campus sealing? No names, but are there ON-campus dealers these days? Thanks.

  • Charles Kronick ’91

    One of the most upsetting of Brackenridge’s allegations is that the College explicitly discouraged her from pursuing a criminal investigation to avoid bureaucratic hassle, and rather encouraged her to adjudicate the case via the College’s disciplinary process instead

    According to the WBUR story, Ms Brackenridge sought ‘medical treatment’ but was not encouraged by her lawyer to press charges. It appears that directly after the incident – we don’t know what that was – she left campus and returned persuaded not to use legal venues. Did the medical treatment include forensic testing that victims would certainly obtain? That alone should give the reader pause.

  • ’80s Alum

    THIS IS AN EXTREMELY POWERFUL tedX LECTURE: on why men commit violence and sexual violence against women. Also a must-see for all incoming Wms Frosh, X’s & Y’s alike.
    http://youtu.be/KTvSfeCRxe8

    p.s. A relative of mine was one of the most accomplished, high-ranking and powerful female corp. attorneys in the USA and Canada (a firm like “McCarthy, Tetrault,” up in Canada, or White & Case, “Shearman & Sterling,” in USA etc.), and for the past 2 decades has run a nationally known pro-bono legal services firm (staffed by the ‘best of the best’ White-Shoe law firm pro-bono volunteers) for battered and assaulted women. It is for poor women, but the resources for survivors and friends on the “HerJustice” website are excellent. (fka ‘inMotion,’ and ‘Network for Womens Services;’ profiled by ABC News, NBC, newspapers, etc. if seek to learn more.)

  • ’80s Alum

    Women alums of Williams College:
    Were you raped at Williams on Williams College property? What year?