Gillibrand thanks mother of alleged sexual assault victim

Brian Tumulty, ROC - 7:19 p.m. EDT July 17, 2014

A New York Times story Sunday that raised questions about two regional colleges’ handling of a sexual assault case is the latest argument for stricter policies and stronger protections on campuses nationwide.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, Ontario County, defended their response after an 18-year-old freshman last September claimed she was raped and sexually assaulted by three members of the school’s football team. The student, identified only as Anna, received prompt medical attention and was advised of counseling and legal options, including reporting allegations to the police.

But like many students under similar circumstances, she opted to have the school investigate and adjudicate the complaint. And like many such students, she was left feeling ill served by a process that did not protect her identity, did not allow her to be represented by a lawyer during disciplinary hearings, and did not find her alleged assailants responsible.

In the same situation today, Anna wouldn’t even report an attack.

That is not an acceptable outcome; not when as many as one in five of the millions of female college students - including those among Monroe County’s estimated 40,000 attending four-year schools - will be the victim of an attempted or completed assault.

Remember, under-reporting has been a serious impediment to adequate response to the crimes. And dozens of schools - including Hobart and William Smith - are undergoing Title IX investigations by the Education Department for their responses to assault complaints.

Colleges’ President Mark Gearan, in a written reply to the Times story, outlined a number of continuing initiatives aimed at dealing with campus assaults. Good. Such attention should be ongoing at all schools.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, meanwhile, must wield her growing clout to secure stronger federal oversight. The senator - who called women like Anna who come forward “the definition of courage” - must also use her pulpit to urge better education. “These crimes are not dates gone bad, or a good guy who had too much to drink,” she correctly stated.

Resources like the federal government’s new website provide tools for those who have been assaulted. And a White House task force has urged colleges to conduct annual anonymous surveys to ascertain the extent of the problem on individual campuses - a precursor to a much-needed database to assist incoming freshmen.

Get all such tools on the table. Students like Anna cannot be left to feel they have been victimized twice.The mother of a woman who says she was sexually assaulted at Hobart and William Smith Colleges received a phone call earlier this week from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who said her daughter deserves thanks for coming forward to tell her story.

The alleged victim, identified only as Anna, provided in-depth details of her ordeal in a page-one story in the New York Times on Sunday.

Anna’s alleged assault occurred last September at one of the Geneva-based institution’s fraternities and later the same night at a dance hall called the Barn. The school cleared the three football players who were accused.

“I talked to her after the story appeared, just to express my gratitude to her daughter for being so courageous, for telling her story, to express outrage at what happened, and to tell her I was working very hard and (am) very committed to solving this problem,” Gillibrand said Thursday.

Hobart and William Smith have issued a statement saying they disagree with the New York Times reporter’s interpretation of events “and his portrayal of the colleges, its students and its processes.”

“The result is a story that unfairly portrays the colleges and belittles the urgency and seriousness with which we address reported violations of our community standards,” the colleges said.

Gillibrand thinks Anna’s story illustrates how colleges often mishandle allegations of sexual assault.

“Unfortunately, it happens at schools all across New York,” she said. “It’s not limited to any one school.”

Hobart and William Smith Colleges are among five New York colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. Education Department under Title IX, which bars unequal treatment based on gender. The colleges - Hobart for men and William Smith for women - are treated as a single institution by investigators.

The other four being investigated are Elmira College, Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, Binghamton University (part of the State University of New York system), and Hunter College (part of the City University of New York).

Gillibrand is among a bipartisan group of senators led by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri who are drafting legislation to improve the way colleges handle sexual violence.

Earlier this month, McCaskill released a poll of colleges and universities that revealed major problems in how schools report, investigate and resolve allegations of rape on college campuses. One-third of the 319 schools that responded indicated they fail to provide training on handling sexual assaults to people serving on campus adjudication panels.

The New York Times, which was given access to the transcript from the hearing held by Hobart and William Smith Colleges on Anna’s allegations, reported that the schools’ adjudication panel met before the results of a hospital rape-kit test were available.

The story said the panel’s chairwoman decided not to share with her two co-panelists medical records reporting that Anna had suffered blunt force trauma indicating “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful.”

Nor did the disciplinary panelists question the football players on why they changed the stories they initially told campus police, according to the Times story.

In addition, the school’s football coach held a locker room meeting with the three accused players to discuss the allegations in advance of the disciplinary panel’s meeting, the Times reported.

Maureen Collins Zupan, chairwoman of the board of trustees of Hobart and William Smith, wrote in a letter to the Times that the schools “welcome the conversation about whether higher education should even have a role in adjudicating cases like this one.”

“However, until federal law changes, we are required to carry out internal investigations and adjudicate cases based on the preponderance of evidence standard, as we did in this case,” Zupan wrote.


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