College values own liability over the health and safety of students

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May 1, 2009

1:26 AM

Three years ago this April, I was sexually assaulted at the College of William and Mary. For the purpose of this article I will refer to my assailant as John Doe.

I made the decision to report the incident to the Dean of Students Office during the summer of 2006. After a seven-hour hearing, Doe was found responsible and dismissed from the College until my graduation. His subsequent appeals were denied.

I cannot properly describe how profoundly the assault affected my personal life and academic career. I felt incredibly alone and isolated as I realized many of my peers judged and blamed me for my assault. Prior to the judicial hearing I was harassed, and my car was keyed with “shut up whore” by members of my assailant’s fraternity. In my junior year, I took a medical withdrawal from the College to take time to deal with my issues stemming from the incident.

In December of 2006, then-President Gene Nichol was asked to review the case in the last line of appeal. Imagine my surprise when the Dean of Students Office informed me at the end of last year that Nichol had ruled on my case. Unbeknownst to me, Doe’s lawyer and the Office of the President had been in continuous contact for the last two years.

Before Nichol left the College, he granted Doe a degree in absentia. The deans expressed their outrage over the decision to me. In their words, this ruling was “completely unprecedented.” In previous similar cases, presidents have consulted the dean of students and asked how and why initial rulings were made. Nichol made this decision without consulting anyone. By granting a degree in absentia, Nichol completely undermines the entire judicial process.

Doe eventually would have been allowed to return to the College. However, the original sanctions would have required him to undergo counseling, perform community service and report to a committee on what he had learned before he could return. Nichol’s decision removed all responsibility and accountability for Doe’s actions.

Nichol also clearly saw the value in keeping Doe off campus, considering he was not allowed to return for his senior year or participate in Commencement. In his resignation e-mail to the College, Nichol said, “I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale.” Where was this sentiment to refuse to compromise in my case?

After the initial shock and anger wore off, I was determined to figure out what had transpired over the last two years. My inquiries were stonewalled by the current administration. I only received meetings with high-level administrators by being obnoxiously persistent. Since this was a legal case between Doe and the College, I was not entitled to know the details even though the case directly involved me.

I learned that Doe appealed the ruling under the four umbrella options for sexual misconduct cases, including “additional material evidence to his benefit.” I cannot even know what this new evidence was. As far as reasons for why the decision was made, administrators cited “institutional concerns” and fears over creating an incident similar to the one at Duke University.

What institutional concerns are these? Not to get sued? Nichol and the current administration need to think of exactly what message they are sending to other victims of sexual assault. Their handling of my case sets a dangerous precedent for similar cases in the future.

Of all of my friends in college who were sexually assaulted, I was the only one who went through with a judicial hearing. I felt like justice was done and that my voice was heard through my hearing, but now I feel like my voice was effectively silenced by the actions of Nichol and the administration.

My case highlights a serious lack consideration for victims’ rights in judicial cases. That it took months for the College to inform me of Nichol’s actions is inexcusable. The Student Handbook requires written notification to the reporting party of the outcome of the initial hearing. However, the Student Handbook is silent on informing the reporting party of the outcome of appeals, which I believe is an intentional oversight.

The College’s number one concern, after all, is liability. The same confidentiality clause that serves to protect the victim also acts to protect College administrators. The handbook also offers reporting parties no protection from harassment.

I cannot help but compare the lack of transparency in my case to the Board of Visitor’s actions last year. For that reason, I end with Nichol’s own farewell words: that in the future, the College should not “be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.”

Laura Rogers is a senior at the College.
Editor’s Note: The views, opinions and assertions of the writer do not neccessarily reflect the opinion of The Flat Hat.

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