By WALT BOGDANICH - JULY 21, 2014
With a new school year approaching, administrators, students and alumni at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York are grappling with questions raised by a New York Times article examining the school’s handling of a sexual assault complaint filed by a female student last fall.
In a broad show of support for the student, known publicly only as Anna, students and alumni last week organized meetings, issued policy statements, set up a Facebook page, collected 3,000 signatures through an online petition, and met with the school’s president to discuss ways to improve the administration’s handling of sexual assaults.
The president, Mark D. Gearan, said the school was re-evaluating its sexual assault policies, a process begun during the last school year. In a letter to the Hobart and William Smith community, he called his meetings with students over the last week inspiring. “We have a moment of opportunity before us to make a difference in our community,” he wrote.
Anna, a freshman, said she was assaulted by three football players last September, after two weeks on campus. The school’s disciplinary panel quickly cleared the athletes. Six months later, after Anna belatedly pursued a criminal complaint, the district attorney declined to bring charges, saying he believed the sexual encounter had been consensual.
The examination by The Times, based in part on internal school documents and interviews with Anna and college officials, offered an inside look at Hobart and William Smith’s adjudication of the case and depicted a hearing panel struggling to evaluate an accusation of what would be a felony if tried in court.
While defending his school’s handling of Anna’s case, Mr. Gearan said in an interview that as the father of two daughters he was “especially disheartened and sorrowful that our campus was the place of such tragedy and pain for one of our students.”
And he added, “What is particularly important for readers to know, that from all this heartbreak and pain I spoke to, members of the community are focused now on how to make Hobart and William Smith an even better place.”
Shortly after the article appeared in print, on July 13, 23 current and former students of the small liberal arts school in the Finger Lakes region began an online petition drive, stating that “the current state of affairs concerning sexual violence is a source of shame for the school and needs to be addressed immediately.” Most of the activism has since coalesced into a group called HWS Community for Change, consisting of what organizers say is about 250 students and alumni.
On its new Facebook page, “William Smith Stands With Anna,” which has 1,300 supporters, the coalition posted five recommendations for Mr. Gearan, including more transparency and “new procedures and rules governing the adjudication process.” (William Smith confers degrees for women and Hobart for men, but both operate under the same administration, with students from both colleges sharing residence halls, classes and other functions.)
Gretchen Sword, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said its members felt compelled to press for changes after reading about Anna’s case. “Our little school does a pretty good job of dealing with a lot of tough things, so there is a sense of wanting to help and to get things right, but also to be supportive of what is a pretty fine institution,” Ms. Sword said.
As The Times reported, records showed that two of the accused football players cleared by the hearing panel had initially lied to the campus police, saying they had had no sexual contact with Anna. They subsequently admitted to engaging in oral sex with her, but denied having intercourse. Laboratory tests later found seminal fluid in the woman’s vagina and rectum. The Ontario County district attorney, R. Michael Tantillo, closed the case without testing whether that seminal fluid matched the DNA of any of the accused.
In interviews with a local television station and a newspaper, Mr. Tantillo said that, based on his review of school and police records, he believed that The Times had given too much credence to Anna’s account. He declined to answer written questions from The Times about the case, saying, “I don’t want to debate you on this issue.”
In the local interviews, the district attorney blamed Anna’s family for the failure to test the DNA because they initially chose to adjudicate her rape complaint through the school, rather than the criminal justice system.
Anna’s lawyer, Inga L. Parsons, said she requested that the rape kit be tested by the police even though Anna was pursuing her case through the school, and offered to pay to have it expedited. Ms. Parsons eventually arranged to have the rape kit samples sent to a private lab, which identified the seminal fluid.
Then in February, Ms. Parsons asked the police about getting DNA from one of the football players Anna had accused of repeatedly assaulting her. She said that it was warranted “given that we have extensive seminal fluids from the rape kit” and because the football player had denied having sexual intercourse with Anna. Even so, Mr. Tantillo decided not to test it.
Anna’s case is the reason Hobart and William Smith is one of more than 50 schools being investigated for possibly violating federal rules intended to stop sexual harassment. In a letter to The Times, Maureen Collins Zupan, chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees, said that one of the country’s leading experts on the issue “affirmed the conclusions of this case and observed that our process meets or exceeds best practices for higher education.”
That expert, Brett A. Sokolow, is a legal adviser to the school who also helped to train the school’s panelists, according to the school.
One of the recommendations of HWS Community for Change, the newly formed advocacy group, is to “hire a new external and objective third party consultant to advise HWS leadership and to provide accountability.”