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Title IX tales: Uneven gender justice at Williams

By   /   December 12, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Creative Commons/User David Reed

OVERDUE PROCESS: A male student’s complaint was ignored while a female’s complaint was investigated by officials at Williams College.

A male student from Williams College in Massachusetts accused his ex-girlfriend of sexual assault. A month later, she made a counterclaim against him. Guess whose accusation was taken seriously.

John Doe, as he is identified in his lawsuit against the university, had been dating Susan Smith (not her real name) for two years between fall 2013 and winter 2015. In spring 2015, Smith graduated and took a job with the college, where she worked until June 30, 2016. Doe was still a student at the university when Smith became an employee, and they continued to date.

(This report is based on court documents from the U.S District Court in Massachusetts, including Doe’s lawsuit against the university and supplemental materials that include email exchanges, phone records, investigative materials and attorney letters. None of the participants would speak on the record for this story. Watchdog was unable to locate the female accuser, and colleges and attorneys involved are unable to comment on the specifics of any case because of federal law protecting student records.)

‘A cry for help’

The relationship between Smith and Doe was far from perfect.

In October 2014, according to court documents, Smith emailed Sarah Bolton, then dean of Williams College, claiming she had an argument with Doe. The argument, in which Doe allegedly called Smith “selfish” and told her he couldn’t even look at her, caused Smith to request a week off from classes to recover. At no point in the email did Smith allege that Doe had physically hurt her.

Bolton, apparently sympathetic, emailed back and directed Smith to call Associate Dean Rosanna Reyes to discuss the relationship with Doe. After the call was made, Reyes sent a note to Smith’s professors to get her excused from classes for the week.

A year later, on Dec. 5, 2015, Doe danced with another woman at a party. Smith graduated and was working for the college (in part to stay close to Doe, as she admitted in a subsequent email to Bolton). She went to the party and saw Doe dancing with the other woman and confronted him. Doe alleges in his lawsuit that he walked away from Smith around midnight, but she followed him.

Doe said he told Smith she violated college policy as an employee attending a student party. At some point during this argument, Smith grabbed Doe’s phone and said she would give it back if he spoke to her. He agreed, but as the argument grew more heated, Smith slapped Doe. Doe left to return to his dorm room, without his phone, saying he would call security, and Smith called Doe’s sister (they were friends while Smith dated Doe).

Doe’s sister relayed Smith’s phone call to her from that night because the school was investigating the incident. Doe’s sister explained how Smith took Doe’s phone and admitted to slapping him. Doe’s sister said Smith “kept repeating ‘he’s gonna report me for assault and I’m gonna lose my job!! They’re gonna fire me!!”

Doe’s sister tried to calm Smith down by saying her brother probably was just angry but wouldn’t actually go to security. Doe’s sister described Smith as sounding “out of breath as she sobbed uncontrollably.” Smith also allegedly said her life was over and that she wanted to kill herself.

Shortly after the phone call ended, at 2:27 a.m. on Dec. 6, 2015, Smith emailed dean Bolton — the same dean she emailed a year earlier about her relationship with Doe. She claimed she could not “live like this anymore,” that she was “too beaten [emotionally] to show up to work” — as she had been for class in the earlier incident — and that Doe kept finding ways to “draw me back to him.”

In this email to Bolton, Smith also claimed that Doe convinced her to help him write essays for his Spanish class and that she knew this was against the school honor code.

“I am writing this to you as a cry for help, but mainly out of shame and embarrassment given that I have crossed a line and even crossed a line in my life,” Smith wrote. “These aren’t unfounded accusations but the truth about what I’ve been doing for him all semester.”

Bolton, who was not the proper reporting authority for the matter, did not direct Smith to an appropriate person for reporting Doe’s alleged honor code violation. Also, Smith was admitting in her email to Bolton that she was violating school policy by dating a student, yet she was never punished for this improper relationship. The Williams College harassment policy was clear: “All faculty and many staff are potentially in a position of power with regard to students; hence, sexual relationships between employees and students are in almost all cases inappropriate.”

On Feb. 23, 2016, the Honor Committee held a hearing to determine whether Doe violated the Honor Code by having Smith write portions of his essays in three courses, Spanish 201, 308 and 403. None of Doe’s professors suspected his essays were not his own, yet the claim of academic misconduct went forward.

Professors for Spanish 308 and 403 attended the hearing and provided evidence that the essays in question were consistent with Doe’s other work. Doe was found not responsible for Smith’s allegations with regards to Spanish 308 and 403. The professor for Spanish 201, however, was not present at the hearing nor was she available by phone. The paper Smith had allegedly written for Doe was not presented into evidence. Despite finding Smith’s other claims of academic dishonesty against Doe unfounded, the committee found Doe responsible on the allegations relating to Spanish 201.

The committee’s finding was based on a single email Smith sent Doe on Oct. 6, 2015, in which she told him to “do your work.” Doe contends in his lawsuit that the committee chose to interpret these words as “do your [own] work” instead of multiple other interpretations, such as “get to work” or “stop procrastinating.”

The committee recommended expulsion for Doe’s alleged academic misconduct. During the hearing, Smith cried and claimed she was “scared for her life” because of her relationship with Doe. Bolton called Smith after the hearing to say she expected Doe to be expelled and to not tell Doe she had called. Doe knows about the call because he was in the room with Smith when she received the call and was told what was said (so much for Smith fearing for her life around Doe).

The call was improper for Bolton because she was sharing privileged academic information with a third party, a violation of  the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal privacy law enacted in 1974 that prevents the release of certain student records unless requested by the student’s family.

Doe appealed the “responsible” finding on April 26, 2016. His Spanish 201 professor attended this hearing and supported Doe’s assertions. Doe was also able to demonstrate that Smith used passages from her own paper for another professor as evidence against Doe. The finding against Doe was overturned.

The disciplinary hearing was not the end of Doe’s problems with Smith. Prior to the appeal hearing, on March 4, 2016, Smith told Doe that Bolton had again contacted her to say Doe would be expelled. Doe told Smith he no longer wanted to hear from her and didn’t contact her again.

The final breakup

This seems to have set Smith off.

On March 13, 2016, Doe’s attorney sent a “cease and desist” letter to Smith regarding her actions toward Doe after she had accused him of academic dishonesty and immediately after Doe ended things a final time.

Smith had made those accusations in early December, claiming Doe “taunted” her for staying at the school and that she was “beaten emotionally.” She followed that up on March 8, 2016, by calling Doe 11 times (eight within six minutes), according to phone records included in the cease and desist letter. On March 10 she called Doe 41 times (most of the calls occurred within a minute or less of each other). On March 11 she called Doe three times. During this time she left two voice mails and nine texts.

Two days later, Doe’s attorney, Stacey Elin Rossi, blind copied Bolton on the cease and desist letter, informing the college that further action, possibly civil or criminal would come in connection with the Dec. 6, 2015, fight during which Smith slapped Doe.

On March 14, Doe and his attorney met with Bolton and Williams’ counsel, expressing a fear that the school was protecting its employee, Smith. Doe explained how Smith had abused him and her power after he rejected her. While Title IX tells schools to report possible criminal acts (such as assault like Smith’s slap) to police, Bolton – according to Doe’s lawsuit – appeared unconcerned.

On April 7, Bolton told Doe that a “no-contact order” was put in place between him and Smith. Since he had not contacted Doe in a month, he thought it might have been the college’s way of handling his complaint against Smith. But on that same day, Bolton told Doe not to participate in a dance team performance because Smith was coordinating the event.

On April 13, 2016 — a month after the cease and desist letter was sent — Doe’s attorney sent a letter to Toya Camacho, Williams’ Title IX coordinator and assistant vice president for institutional diversity equity. The letter was to inform Camacho of Doe’s official Title IX complaint against Smith, though he had raised the issue a month prior in the cease and desist letter. This complaint was filed prior to the appeal hearing that found Doe not responsible for the remaining allegation of academic misconduct. The complaint details the night of Dec. 6, when Smith followed Doe, took his phone and slapped him.

It wasn’t until April 21, more than a week after Doe’s official Title IX complaint and more than a month after the abuse was brought to the attention of the university, did Bolton reach out to Doe. Bolton mentioned only the April 13 complaint, indicating to Doe that she did not take his cease and desist letter serious enough to investigate.

After the appeal hearing regarding Smith’s allegations of Doe’s academic misconduct, Bolton emailed Smith to inform her that Doe had been cleared and that now “the most important things are to continue to get support, and to ensure that you are safe,” even though Doe had informed Bolton of Smith’s abuse toward him.

On April 27, because of her previous actions with regard to Doe, the Williams student asked Bolton to recuse herself from the investigation of Doe’s claims against Smith on the grounds that she was also included in those claims.

On May 3, Doe met with Camacho to discuss the Title IX complaint he filed against Smith, now nearly a month after it was filed. Camacho asked if Doe wanted to officially file the complaint and why he wanted to do so now. Doe informed her that he wasn’t just filing now, but that he sent the Title IX complaint a month earlier (and informed the school of the abuse a month before that) but the school was just getting around to it.

Around this time, Smith filed a counter Title IX complaint against Doe, alleging “abusive behavior” toward her for the previous two years, including sexual assault. Doe was informed of this complaint on May 10. Williams policy for adjudicating Title IX complaints allows for an 11-week process. Doe claimed that had the college investigated his complaint back in March and not allowed Smith to file a counter complaint more than a month later, he never would have been subjected to an investigation from Smith’s latest accusations.

Doe alleged that Smith’s counter-complaint was retaliatory and lodged after she learned she would be investigated for assaulting Doe. She had failed to get Doe expelled on academic grounds, and even though she had complained about him for more than a year to Bolton, was only at this point interested in filing a complaint.

While the Williams College Code of Conduct does not say employees can lodge complaints against students, Smith’s complaint was investigated.

On May 20, 2016, Doe informed Camacho that Title IX does not protect employees and asked why the school was investigating Smith’s complaint against him. Camacho responded on May 23 by incorrectly stating that Title IX protected employees. Doe emailed back on May 24 asking why Smith’s complaint was not seen as retaliatory, to which Camacho responded that Smith was allowed to file a complaint and the process would determine if it was legitimate. Doe and Smith’s complaints were both being investigated by the same person – attorney Allyson Kurker.

Doe was allowed to walk at his graduation, but could not receive his diploma while the investigation was ongoing. After the ceremony, he requested transcripts of all the interviews in the sexual misconduct investigation. He received only two interviews – two of his own three sessions – but nothing else. He was then informed he was not allowed to receive the transcripts.

On Sept. 13, 2016 – far more than 11 weeks after any complaint was filed, contra to Williams policy – Doe received the investigative report, which showed college administrators conversing with Smith, a female, and Doe, a male, quite differently. Smith was comforted and coddled. Doe was not. For example, when Smith emailed Bolton a year earlier to request time off from class due to a fight with Doe, Bolton responded sympathetically, saying what Doe had done was “scary and upsetting” and that “People who love you shouldn’t treat you that way.” But when Doe’s attorney emailed the cease and desist letter detailing the stalking, harassment and assault from Smith, Bolton didn’t respond at all.

Doe countered the report by saying school policies had been misapplied, but even if they did apply, nothing he did amounted to a policy violation. Doe also stated that current policies were being applied to past actions, which occurred when different policies were in place. This response is included in court documents, but is heavily redacted. Doe’s response to the report also included more evidence for his own complaint against Smith.

Doe alleged that Smith violated the school’s stalking policy by “monitoring” his Facebook and Snapchat accounts. He alleged Smith logged into his Snapchat account while she was in Colombia. Doe knew this happened because he received a notification from the app that someone logged into his account from Colombia during a time he knew Smith was in the country.

Smith also claimed she just casually glanced at Doe’s Facebook page and discovered he was chatting with another woman. Doe said this was impossible because his computer locks after a couple minutes, as does his phone, so it could not have been open at any time for her to see while he was not there. Smith also claimed she saw these messages on Doe’s computer, but the screenshots she provided of the conversations are clearly from a phone.

Suddenly, sexual assault

As to the allegation of sexual assault, Smith had never mentioned it before, even though she had informed Bolton of other alleged transgressions by Doe.

The alleged incident had also occurred two years prior and a witness Smith identified as having been told about it could not recall the conversation. Another witness said Smith had told her the previous year — before all the allegations — that Doe had never engaged in non-consensual sex with her.

After Doe submitted his detailed response, Bolton’s successor as dean, Marlene Sandstrom, informed Doe that current policy could be applied to past incidents, claiming that previously vague wording in policies allowed for it. For example, a previous rule telling students to “respect the rights of others in the community” could be used to prohibit dating violence as outlined in the current policy.

Smith and Doe both included new information in their responses, and the college allowed them each to respond to the new information. The investigator was then to create a “revised” report, but Doe was never given a copy.

On Nov. 22, 2016, Doe was found responsible for sexually assaulting Smith. Even though Williams policy stated that both parties were responsible for obtaining consent, the policy was applied only to Doe. Smith told several witnesses that she didn’t like the sexual position with Doe one night, though she didn’t categorize it as assault. The Williams hearing panel concluded that the “unusual sexual position and roughness were indicators that you did not have consent.”

Doe’s lawsuit alleges that the witnesss never mentioned “roughness.”

The only evidence against Doe was Smith’s allegation, which evolved over time when the relationship was deteriorating. The first person she allegedly told about the alleged incident didn’t recall the conversation. The fact that Smith continued to see Doe for 18 months after this alleged assault does not appear to have factored into the ruling.

Sanctions for sexual assault at Williams include expulsion, but Doe had completed all of his coursework and walked at graduation. His lawsuit alleged that any punishment would be “vindictive, spiteful and [the] retaliatory aim of employee Smith.” He has so far not been given his diploma, and therefore cannot apply to graduate schools. His suit against Williams for “wrongful, improper, and negligent disciplinary actions” is pending.

It also doesn’t appear as if any action was ever taken in response to Doe’s complaint against Smith. Smith apparently does not work for the college anymore. Her email address bounced back when Watchdog attempted to contact her. She also appears to have removed her LinkedIn profile after the lawsuit was filed, and could not be located by other means.

Bolton is now president of the College of Wooster in Ohio.

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