Hobart & William Smith Colleges does a Steubenville
Two weeks after the fall term started, an unknown number of male students, apparently including members of the undefeated football team at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Hobart), raped an 18-tear-old freshman girl who’d had too much to drink. Hobart’s response was to re-rape the child bureaucratically by ignoring evidence and finding the alleged rapists not guilty. It was a sham of an administrative adjudication that failed to meet even a shadow of fairness, competence, or even intellectual plausibility. Hobart stands by its dishonest decision. Case closed.
Actually, the case may not be closed. The freshman, who took a leave of absence after the repeated abuse by students and administrators, has said that she will return to campus this fall, against her parents’ wishes, and that she will be working with other abuse survivors. That is, she plans to do, as a student, what Hobart and its staff utterly and negligently failed to do for a victim who accused a winning football team of gang rape.
This harsh summary of events at Hobart in September 2013 and thereafter is based on a very long, detailed, and conscientious story by Walt Bogdanich on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday, July 13, 2014. Titled “Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t,” the story provides a detailed portrait of Hobart’s quasi-judicial process that was startlingly incompetent and unjust.
Hobart’s damage control started the day of publication, with a letter to the community from Hobart president Mark Gearan. His relatively content-free letter includes a link to an unsigned, longer document that purports to include “information that was provided to the Times reporter which is largely missing from the article….” Although much of the langue is identical in the two documents, neither offers much relevant information. Both are long on policy boilerplate without supporting evidence and without much relevance to the case at hand.
Does Hobart’s “institutional integrity” depend on its lack of integrity?
In essence, Hobart has voiced a non-denial denial, a non-defense defense. Hobart says the reporter got the story wrong, but offers not one example of error. Hobart provides no corrections, no particulars, no explanation, no contrition, and no effort to atone for its personal and institutional failures.
In a letter to the Times on July 15, Hobart’s board chair Maureen Collins Zupan wrote that: “it remains my opinion as a feminist, mother, daughter, sister and leader that Hobart and William Smith handled this case properly, with compassion, respect and seriousness.” Before that, the board chair wrote that the “community is heartbroken by our student’s experience, and we deeply regret the pain she has suffered,” which is strange coming from the head of the institution that inflicted much of that student’s pain and suffering. Hobart’s official responses are full of such smoke and mirrors.
With the exquisite illogic of a desperate denial of reality, the board chair ends her letter by stating: “That is why Hobart and William Smith Colleges pledge to build a new model of governance for this issue. Our attention and focus have never been higher.” That sounds like an acknowledgement of failure, but without the decency of an admission.
Hobart under federal investigation for responses to Title IX cases
Hobart is one of 55 American colleges and universities currently under investigation for civil rights violations in their response to cases of sexual violence. In a May 1 announcement from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), that office explained:
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. In the past, Department officials confirmed individual Title IX investigations at institutions, but today’s list is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review by OCR for possible violations of the law’s requirements around sexual violence.
Among the other institutions joining Hobart on the investigation list are Harvard, Dartmouth, Amherst, Princeton, Ohio State, Arizona State, University of Chicago, and University of California-Berkeley. The Dept. did not release details of any of the particular investigations. Whether the specific Hobart case reported by the Times is under federal investigation is uncertain. If the Office of Civil Rights is looking at it, it will use these criteria:
Under federal law, sexual violence refers to physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent — including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse and sexual coercion.
Preponderance of evidence clear: Hobart freshman was raped
Anna, who allowed the Times to use her first name, did not consider herself a stereotypical Hobart freshman girl, which she described as preppy, small, blonde, and wearing $500 sunglasses. Being different, Anna said, was “a culture shock for me.” An unnamed professor confirmed this distinction to Anna’s mother, saying “I’m going to look out for her.”
On Saturday, September 7, 2013, sometime after 9 p.m., this “different” freshman went to a big deal social event at Kappa Sigma fraternity. By all accounts she was drinking heavily that night, heavily enough that she would be throwing up multiple times into mid-morning. In the intervening four or five hours, the consistent credible evidence is that she was raped multiple times. Anna does not remember much that happened during that time.
Around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 8, another freshman, a male friend with whom Anna had texted during the evening, found her after a short search. The earlier texts had caused the friend, also a football player, to be concerned for Anna’s safety. “We need to find her,” he had texted around 1 a.m., “she is so drunk.” When he found her, another football player had Anna bent over a pool table, apparently having sex with her (both had their pants down) while several onlookers laughed and commented.
Anna’s friend broke up the gathering. The football player, standing behind Anna with his pants down, tried to blame her: “It wasn’t me, it was her.” Anna’s friend walked her back to her dorm, crying. Anna was pale, disoriented, vomiting. Her friends in the dorm called campus security.
At 2:10 a.m., Sgt. Anthony Pluretti arrived and soon realized, as he wrote in his report, that she “could not remember how many drinks she had consumed and that she had no idea that she was at the Barn” where her friend found her. Sgt. Pluretti called campus paramedics, who recommended that a trained sexual assault nurse examine Anna.
Sgt. Pluretti drove Anna to see the nearest such nurse, at a hospital about half an hour from campus. Anna’s male friend accompanied her to the hospital. Over the next several hours, she was examined and she began to tell her friend what she was beginning to remember.
Nurse trained in sexual assault: unambiguous findings of rape
Around 7:30 a.m., the nurse reported what she found to Sgt Pluretti: within the past 24 hours, Anna had suffered blunt force trauma suggesting “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful.”
The nurse said that she had found “internal abrasions and heavy inflammation” that led her to believe that Anna was forcefully sexually assaulted.
This belief was further supported by tests showing “sperm or semen in her vagina, in her rectum and on her underwear,” as the Times reported.
The hospital’s tests showed no date-rape drugs. But the blood-alcohol test at the hospital indicated that, at the time of the assault, Anna’s blood alcohol level would have been about twice the limit for being considered legally drunk. Even then, almost twelve hours after the assault, when Sgt. Pluretti drove Anna back to her dorm, he had to pull over four times for her to vomit.
Anna slept for a few hours in her dorm, then gave another statement, this time to the Office of Campus Safety. That office also took statements from other students, including the three football players who were then accused. Around 2:30 Sunday afternoon a school psychologist called Anna’s mother to tell her what had happened.
Hobart failed procedurally, rationally, and most of all humanely
Hobart hasn’t said officially why it rushed to judgment on Anna’s case. A typical campus sexual assault case takes about 60 days to investigate, according to the Dept. of Education. Hobart wrapped up the case against three football players in just 10 days.
The campus police apparently went about their job professionally, interviewing numerous witnesses and participants. The campus police interviewed the three accused football players multiple times and got multiple, contradictory versions of the events.
Given the overwhelming evidence of sexual assault together with the semi-admissions of the football players, a quick resolution does not necessarily seem an untoward outcome. But Hobart’s speedy resolution was to exonerate the football players, ruling in effect that the evidence of a sexual assault was irrelevant to the promise of a winning football season. Basically Hobart’s official position became: a terrible crime was committed, but no one seems to have committed it.
Until recently, Hobart’s process for dealing with sexual assault cases was managed, in part, by the college’s chief fundraiser. That makes sense from the perspective of institutional damage control. And it shows stunning institutional indifference to the possibility of re-victimizing victims.
In Anna’s case, the panel acting as prosecution and defense as well as judge and jury in the case comprised three people of uncertain training and competence in sexual assault cases: a vice president of human resources chaired the panel (Sandra E. Bissell) and the other members were an assistant psychology professor (Brien Ashdown) and the campus bookstore director (Lucile Smart).
Panel bases its decision on only some of the evidence
Despite the expectation of a fair and reasonable adjudicative process under federal law, there is no compelling evidence that these three people performed even competently. The evidence presented by both the Times and Hobart supports the conclusion that the panel performed a travesty of analysis and a mockery of justice. The Times based its evaluation on a transcript of the proceedings. Hobart wants to know how the Times got a transcript, on which it declines to comment for reasons of privacy. Those reasons did not prevent the college from circulating Anna’s full identity in a public letter some months ago.
On September 17, less than ten days after the events the three-person panel met to hear the case behind closed doors. The Times report, based on the hearing transcript and interviews with some participants, portrays a panel that was in over its depth and was unaware of its failings, as it asked:
questions that jumped around in time, interrupted her answers and misrepresented witness statements. One question incorrectly quoted one of her friends asserting that at the dance Anna had told her that she wanted to go upstairs and have sex; in fact, the friend had said, Anna told her that the football player wanted to have sex.
The panel’s questioning was disorganized, with panelists interrupting each other and changing to new subjects before the subject at hand was fully addressed. One panelist asked if a witness had actually seen a player’s penis in Anna’s vagina. A panelist asked if a witness might not have mistaken dancing for sexual intercourse when a player had Ana bent over a pool table and both had their pants down. A panelist advised Anna:
And for all of us, as hard as it is, if you could be specific, if you are going to talk about a hand holding you, was his left or his right? And if there’s a penis involved, is it flaccid, is it erect?
No curiosity about lying, witness tampering
Even though the record showed that the football players had lied by offering different accounts of the events, the panel did not question them about their discrepancies or lies to investigators.
The panel did not question the football coach (Mike Cragg) who had held a private meeting with the accused players two days after the events. The coach met with the three accused players, the two team captains, and Anna’s friend, the freshman who had witnessed the scene at the pool table. A competent panel might well want to know whether a meeting ripe with potential for witness tampering wasn’t a meeting that led to witness tampering.
That question looks even more relevant when Anna’s friend, one of the most relevant witnesses available, chose not to testify.
The panel chair, vice president for human resources Bissel, exercised her prerogative as chair to withhold evidence from other panel members. One part of the evidence she withheld was the sexual assault nurse’s report that Ann had been subjected to blunt force trauma and left with traces of sperm and semen.
A few hours after the hearing was over, the panel cleared the football players of all charges. The next day panel chair Bissell sent a written confirmation of the decision to Anna and advised her of her right to appeal. Regarding the appeal, panel chair Bissell directed Anna to the sexual misconduct policy section about “False Allegations.”
Whether this case is over remains to be seen
So far, Hobart has shown little capacity for shame, except perhaps for trying to shame the victim. Anna has shown more courage and integrity than most of those involved, directly or indirectly.
Hobart trustee chair Zupan wrote to the Times that, “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.” She did not explain how adjudicating this case on the preponderance of the evidence was even possible when important evidence was ignored.
In another letter to the Times New York lawyer Terry Eder Kaufman writes: “As the mother of a daughter attending a liberal arts college and as an attorney, I was shocked to read your account of the abominable failure of Hobart and William Smith to humanely and fairly investigate campus rape accusations.”
In her letter, board chair Zupan wrote accurately, somewhat cruelly, and perhaps with unintended irony: “Nothing I am writing diminishes the student’s suffering.”
And nothing anyone at Hobart wrote or did seems to have addressed the full import of the medical evidence, including the DNA it contains.