A case of sexual assault at the College attracted media attention on Monday when a former student came forward to talk about her experience. Lexie Brackenridge, a current sophomore at Columbia who transferred from the College after she was sexually assaulted in fall 2012, discussed her treatment by the school’s administration and accused the College of mishandling her assault case.
The College responded quickly. President Adam Falk sent an all-campus email, which stated, “No sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, can have a place at Williams. We must all work together diligently to prevent it … Specific cases are confidential to protect the complainant, the respondent, and the students who were spoken to as part of the investigations. The future integrity of these processes depends on student confidence in their remaining confidential. Our commitment to confidentiality is firm, even if one party chooses to go public.” Falk’s email also included a link to his official statement on the matter.
Dean Bolton also sent an email to the student body, offering students the opportunity to gather in Dodd at 8 p.m. on Tuesday to discuss issues around sexual assault. An email was also sent to parents, assuring them that “In the matter raised by the former student and her parents, the College, as always, followed faithfully and fully its established written procedures in both adjudication and support.”
Assault and aftermath
Lexie Brackenridge stated that she was sexually assaulted in October 2012 by another first-year. She has also described how the Dean’s Office encouraged her to pursue disciplinary action against her assailant through the College’s system.
After a three-month investigation and adjudication process, the assailant was found guilty of sexual assault, and was assigned a sanction of suspension for 18 months. The student appealed the decision, but the Discipline Committee upheld the sanction.
Lexie Brackenridge also reported feeling unsafe and harassed by her assailant’s friends. She recounted an episode where people threw full beer cans at her head, shouting that she should have kept her mouth shut. Finally, after learning that the administration was not accommodating her desire for separate housing from those who had been harassing her in the following year, she decided to transfer.
Lexie Brackenridge’s parents, Alec Brackenridge ’85 and Heidi Brackenridge ’86, question whether the College had her best interests at heart, and whether the administration investigated and adjudicated fairly.
“We were naïve,” Alec Brackenridge said. “We thought that our interests and the schools’ interests were aligned. I’ve come to see now that in fact, the school is focused on getting this out of the headlines as quickly as possible and diminishing what happened. That goes for any case, not just Lexie’s case.
“One of the main problems with their policies is they tell students not to go to the police, not to file criminal charges,” he said. “They encourage people to go through the college’s process, and I don’t get that, because they’re not prepared to deal with it. In retrospect, maybe that’s a path we should have taken. There are certainly huge costs to that, both in terms of time and the emotional cost. But I can also see why the school wouldn’t want you to report, because they don’t want it on their list of violations. I think the College could do a much better job at the outset, informing the victims of the positives and negatives of either one.”
“The rapist and his teammate lied under oath to manufacture an alibi,” Heidi Brackenridge said. The lie was uncovered when the College examined the records of where and when the students had used their ID cards to swipe into buildings. Lying is a violation of the College’s code of conduct, but “the roommate never had any disciplinary consequences.”
The Brackenridges’ main concern is the return of the assailant to the College. When they found out that he would be returning, they wrote letters to faculty, alumni and trustees, asking for support in their request to have this decision reexamined. They have received an outpouring of support from the community.
“It’s worrisome to me that he is returning in the fall,” E.J. Johnson, Amos Lawrence professor of art, said. Johnson was particularly supportive of Lexie Brackenridge during her time at the College, and has remained in contact with her family. “I don’t know why the College thinks of rape the way it thinks of plagiarism. To me, those are not equivalent sins.”
John Campbell ’84, an alumnus of the College and a former classmate of Heidi Breckenridge’s, was horrified when he received their email. He has written letters to President Falk, to other alumni and to the trustees, and has encouraged alumni to stop donating to the College until this issue is resolved. “I’ve gotten as involved as I have for two reasons,” Campbell said. “First, I know that’s what I would have done if it were my daughter, and because I want to have a good feeling about the college I went to. I’ve given them money for 30 years, and I want to feel positively about Williams, but I’m disgusted with how they’ve handled this.”
The Brackenridges suggested that the College’s focus on athletics could be contributing to the occurrence of sexual assault on campus. “They accept 21-year-old freshmen to the College, and I’m not sure how that’s a positive addition to the community,” Alec Brackenridge said.
Heidi Brackenridge also suggested that the College follow the lead of other schools, like Dartmouth, in instituting policies of automatic expulsion in cases of convicted sexual assaults.
“I think the administration put a lot of emphasis on going through the motions rather than creating a more individualized approach,” Lexie Brackenridge told the Record. “One of the main, overarching issues was a lack of accountability. If someone harasses a victim or lies in a statement made under the Honor Code, they should be punished. People kept testing the limits and pushing the boundaries and because there were no repercussions from the College, the harassment continued and worsened.”
“There was also a pervasive sentiment coming from the administration that I should accept at least some part of the blame and that I shouldn’t want to ‘ruin his life,’” she said. “Hearing this from the administrators who I trusted with my case really altered my impression of myself. It wasn’t until I left Williams and got out of the environment that had become toxic for me that I realized how truly manipulative aspects of their response had been.”
Based on both federal law and College policy, the administration keeps all details of sexual assault investigations confidential, except for what is published in the yearly email that Bolton sends to the student body. However, they did comment generally on the College’s policies and procedures.
“I don’t think there is any more important issue for the College than the safety of our students, and one of the most important elements of that is prevention and response to sexual assault,” President Falk told the Record. “We have had that on the front burner for the last two years.”
Bolton emphasized that the administration’s priority in these situations is supporting survivors of sexual assault. “This involves a variety of things, including no contact orders, support from counselors, connection to medical services, opportunities for legal reporting, changes in housing and academic accommodations,” she said.
Meg Bossong ’05, the new director of sexual assault prevention and response, said that the College aims to be responsive to students’ needs in the creation of their policies. “Our goals when we evaluate policy are to listen to the experiences of students, especially survivors, and also to the broader college community, and to make sure that our policies are in line with both national best practices and our compliance obligations,” she said.
“We have already been planning to have a top to bottom review of our policies and procedures, quite apart from this situation,” Falk said. “That had already been planned for this summer with Meg Bossong’s arrival, and we have every expectation of doing that work.”
The College does not currently assign mandatory sanctions for any violation of the code of conduct. “All of our policies are based on the idea that you go through a process, and we’ve strengthened that process by bringing in external investigators,” Bolton said.
“We work with a preponderance of evidence standard. We’re looking to see whether it’s more likely than not that a violation of our code of conduct has occurred with regard to sexual assault, and then when we’re done weighing the evidence then we pause and determine a sanction,” Bolton elaborated. “It actually becomes harder to weigh the evidence carefully if you’re facing a mandatory sanction. It can be harder for people to make objective decisions about what often is complicated evidence.”
Recent changes in policy
In an April 8 all-campus email, Dean Bolton outlined recent changes to the College’s policies on sexual misconduct. These included hiring Bossong and a new process for the investigation and sanction of assaulters. In the previous policy, which was in effect during Brackenridge’s time at the College, the deans and Campus Safety and Security were in charge of investigating reports of sexual assaults on campus. The deans would make a ruling, and if the assaulter chose to appeal that ruling, it would go to the Discipline Committee, which is composed of students and faculty.
With the new policy, an external professional in the field handles investigation of the assault. After the investigation is complete and the investigator has written a report, a panel is formed to adjudicate the case. This panel will normally consist of a member of the Dean’s Office, and two trained staff members. Two “yes” votes from the panel of three are necessary in order to find a student guilty of sexual misconduct. If the panel finds the student guilty, they then determine a sanction against the student. After the final ruling is made, both students involved in the case have the right to appeal the decision if they believe there have been significant procedural errors, or if new evidence comes to light.
Emily Roach ’16 and Shannon Zikovich ’15, members of the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) highlighted the importance of continuing to examine campus policy and culture around sexual assault.
“We believe that, as we receive new information, it will bolster the conversations already going on between students and the administration to continue to improve support offered to survivors of sexual assault at Williams,” they said. “It is our hope that, in the weeks and months to come, the school community rallies around survivors and allies, so that we can continue to develop a campus culture where critical thinking and discussion surrounding sexual assault policies are met with swift and productive responses by the entire community.”