Exploring Sexual Assault at RIT
by Alyssa Jackson | published Dec. 9th, 2013
“‘What were you wearing?’ – Public Safety.” This was a sign seen at the 2013 slut walk, hosted by the Center for Women and Gender. The sign was made by students involved with the slut walk, including future members and founders of the feminist coalition Michelle Civil and Zakary Skinner.
According to Civil, a third year Visual Media major, and Skinner, a third year Biomedical Sciences major, a survivor of sexual assault had come to them before the slut walk telling of her unfavorable reporting process with Public Safety and stated that she was upset about the situation.
Reporter has met with Sarah, the survivor mentioned above, as well as another survivor to look into RIT’s reporting process for sexual assault and rape.
Surviving Sexual Assault
Sarah was assaulted at a party off campus by an older student that she had met a few weeks prior. After being told by her roommate that she shouldn’t report the incident and should just forget it ever happened, Sarah confided in a friend that was a Resident Advisor (RA). Under Title IX – a law which requires any faculty or staff at an educational facility to report all accounts of sexual assault or rape – the RA and Resident Coordinator who heard her story were required to report to Public Safety.
Sarah explained that she felt Public Safety was forcing her to report when she did not want to. She was also confused about the process of reporting sexual assault and repeatedly asked for an explanation but never received a detailed answer. Just as she was about to sign her statement she decided not to because she felt she needed some control of the situation.
“I kept asking what was going to happen and nobody gave me a clear answer,” said Sarah. “When you have all your power and control taken away from you, you grasp onto any control that you can get, and they would not give me anything. I didn’t know what was going to happen and there was no clear answer. I felt like they didn’t have an answer, and I wanted answers.”
Then, Sarah explained that the Public Safety officer assigned to her case began to question her motives. “…I remember this very clearly, I was sitting in a chair and he knelt down at eyelevel so he could see me and he looked at me and he says ‘are you sure this really happened? Or were you just upset with him about something?’”
She said that her taking back her statement seemed to cause the Public Safety officers and investigators to question her story and motives for turning in the perpetrator. She explained that the officers and investigators seemed to take it less seriously after that and their demeanor changed toward her. In her follow up interview with a Public Safety investigator, Sarah said that the women asked her about her previous relationship with the accused and implied that Sarah was making the story up.
“So it was ‘your roommate said this; your roommate said that you had been thinking about sleeping with him, your roommate said this this this and this,’” said Sarah. “And I was like ‘it doesn’t matter what my roommate said first of all, and it doesn’t matter that I had thought about sleeping with him or I had thought about starting a relationship with him, because when I said no I meant no.”
Sally, another sexual assault survivor, had a different experience. She explained that her reporting process was as comfortable as it could have been, given the circumstances. “None of the questions were out of place and none of them made me feel uncomfortable or feel judged about the situation,” said Sally.
The survivor was assaulted by an individual on her dorm floor after she had been drinking. The individual denied that he had ever assaulted her, but was eventually charged with a deferred suspension for one year.
She said everything was explained very well to her. She visited the Center for Women and Gender, where Darci Lane-Williams, director for the center and CARES advocate, listened to her story and urged her to report to Public Safety. Sally stated that Lane-Williams explained the process very thoroughly for her.
Another difference between Sally and Sarah’s case was the gender of the officers and CARES advocates, or members of the RIT faculty and staff who are present when students report sexual assaults to be an advocate for them. The CARES advocates ask any questions the students might have and make sure that Public Safety handles the case appropriately. In Sarah’s case, the investigator, the Public Safety officer and the CARES representative were all males. “I think there should be a women officer,” said Sarah. “I think if it’s a male investigator there should be a women officer. I think that the CARES representative should be a woman. I know that people are going to be upset about that comment, I know that people are going to say ‘well what if it’s a male?’ Okay well, that’s not what I’m saying. I think in my case, it shouldn’t have been an old man.”
Sarah explained that at the time that she reported she was not comfortable with strange males and felt that they could not relate to her. When Sally reported, she had a female investigator and her CARES representative was Lane-Williams. She was at ease with these individuals.
For these reasons and more, Sarah explained that she had an unpleasant experience with the reporting process and with Public Safety’s handling of her case. Although the accused individual admitted to the story and was sentenced with a deferred suspension, Sarah wished that the experience was different and that he could have received a harsher punishment.
One of the major issues that Sarah had with her reporting process was with Title IX. Both the Center for Women and Gender and Public Safety agreed that the law can be difficult when dealing with sexual assault cases.
According to Lane-Williams, Title IX states that any faculty or staff at an education system is required to report all accounts of sexual assault or rape to a Title IX deputy. From there, the Title IX coordinator sends the information to Public Safety, after which Public Safety is required by law to investigate the case.
Lane-Williams explained this is hard for a lot of survivors who may need someone with whom they can talk about it or need a few weeks of counseling before they are ready to go to Public Safety.
“It used to be if a student met with someone and talked about it and didn’t want to go any further, it didn’t because we had to respect the student’s wishes,” stated Lane-Williams. “With Title IX it’s not just seen as an issue with that student, it’s seen as a potential danger for other students as well.”
According to Sarah, she did not know that the RA and RC she told her story to would be required to report under Title IX. Although she explained that she does not blame them for her experience, she wished that Public Safety would have slowed down and considered her emotional needs before the need for a signed statement.
Although the survivor does have the right to opt out of the investigation in that they do not have to participate by going to the hearing, signing a statement, etc., Lane-Williams and Stacy Derooy, assistant director of Public Safety, warned that this may cause an unfavorable outcome in the investigation from the perspective of the survivor. For this reason, they encourage each individual to participate.
The Truth Behind “What Were You Wearing?”
“What were you wearing?” can be a loaded question that implies that the survivor was to blame for the sexual assault by dressing a certain way. Public Safety explained that this is not the case. “We will certainly ask, if there’s an accusation of a physical sexual assault, we will ask the victim what they were wearing because we’re trying to understand step by step what happened,” said Derooy. “So if someone was wearing tight zip up button jeans and they’re saying ‘he pulled my pants down,’ how did that physically happen, did he unbutton your jeans or did you unbutton your jeans? We’re not asking because we think that the accused was dressed inappropriately.”
The victims tended to agree that the question was harmless in this situation. “Everyone seems to focus on that question, and I know it’s a big question and I know it’s a loaded question sometimes,” said Sarah. “I think I became more upset about that question when other people started becoming upset about the question.”
Lane-Williams said that the question was important to the investigation and had at times helped Public Safety prove that the accused was guilty of sexual misconduct due to a major inconsistency with the person’s story. Derooy explained that they also ask the accused individual what they were wearing.
A separate question that also seems to receive a lot of heat is “Were you drinking?” This may blame the victim by suggesting that if they had not been intoxicated they would not have been assaulted. Public Safety stated that these questions are asked to get the most detailed version of the story.
“There’s never blame put on, because they could have been like ‘why did you decide to drink,’ which they did ask that in the hearing,” said Sally. “It all seemed fair. None of the questions were out of place and none of them made me feel uncomfortable or feel judged about the situation.”
“Both stories can be either so close to the line of violating or so far apart, so completely different, and because there aren’t witnesses and because maybe alcohol was involved there are circumstances where it might just really come down to what the hearing officers believe happened is more likely than not to have happened,” said Derooy. “So that’s why we collect as much evidence as possible, why we ask so many invasive questions about what the person is accusing, to try to understand can this physically have really happened, who said what when?”
All-in-all, there seemed to be a general consensus that the questions “What were you wearing?” and “Were you drinking?” are not offensive to the survivors of a sexual assault when asked in an appropriate manner.
Student Conduct, Repercussions and Sexual Assault
Sarah’s perpetrator was in a fraternity at the time of the attack, and although his punishment prohibited him from being on campus except for classes, she felt that this wasn’t enough to make him understand that what he did was wrong. The individual lived off of campus at the time and was allowed to stay in his fraternity. For these reasons, Sarah felt that the decision was inadequate, especially considering that Public Safety can’t enforce that the student stay off campus.
“There’s no way to make sure that he follows the rules unless I see him and tell him he can’t be on campus, and I’m not going to do that,” said Sarah. “I have no more energy to do that.”
Derooy admitted that the punishment is not enforceable. “It’s not enforced unless somebody sees them, unless their seen some place,” she explained. “It’s not like we can put ankle bracelets on them.”
The perpetrator in Sarah’s story was still allowed to stay in his fraternity because the fraternities and sororities on campus are part of national organizations with smaller chapters at RIT. Each has their own separate system when dealing with crime related activity.
Eric Pope, associate director for Greek life and departmental assessment, explained further. “If an individual were to join a fraternity or sorority…and something were to happen, we don’t have any influence on their [the fraternity or sorority’s] decision to keep them or remove them from that organization,” said Pope. “Their practices are all their own.”
Pope stated that if RIT was asked by the fraternity or sorority’s individual headquarters about a the suspension or expulsion of a member, they would give them as much information as possible without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which limits the amount of information a school can give to any individual about a student.
“It’s not a perfect system by any means whatsoever,” said Pope. “As a fraternity man, most organizations require you to take some oath where you agree to be an outstanding citizen and not break the law. Each organization has their own oath. In violating this you violate your oath.” Pope also stressed that there are often instances where individuals are punished by the fraternities for such actions.
Although the hearing process for RIT may not be able to affect the individual’s standing in their fraternity, Joe Johnston, director and chief conduct officer for the Center for Student Conduct and Conflict Management, stated that they do their best to create the most fair outcome with the information that they are presented. RIT works on a preponderance of evidence, meaning that the hearing officers listen to the stories of the two individuals and make decisions based on what they believed is likely to have happened.
There is an appeals system set in place for the individuals involved in the process. Individuals that are unhappy with the outcome of the hearing can choose to appeal within seven business days. The appeal is heard by the Institute Appeals Board, a body that is completely separate from the Student Conduct Office. If the student is still unhappy with the decision after appealing to the Institute Appeals Board, they can then appeal to the Senior Vice President for Student Affairs, currently Heath Boice-Pardee, who will make the final decision on the matter.
Sally’s perpetrator did decide to appeal after the original hearing with student conduct. She stated that this process was difficult on her because after the hearing she hoped to put the incident behind her, but she explained that everyone involved was supportive of her and did not require her to go to the second hearing. Nothing was changed after the appeals hearing.
RIT’s Crime Alerts
In the 2011-12 school year, nine acts of sexual misconduct were reported to RIT. Public Safety sent two crime alert emails to students. This means that seven acts of sexual misconduct at RIT went unreported to the RIT student body. Public Safety also explained that they do not have the jurisdiction to send out reports to the surrounding Henrietta area.
Public Safety explained that the reason for not sending emails every time an act of sexual misconduct occurs was to avoid desensitizing the RIT community. Derooy stated that Public Safety does not send out these crime alert emails when they believe that there is not a substantial benefit.
“I do see the value of notifying the campus every time, but we don’t most of the time because the person is known and it’s being handled,” said Derooy. “Putting a notification out won’t stop him.”
Some students felt that there needed to be more done. “There needs to be more discussion,” said Skinner. “There were several instances last year where sexual assaults occurred on campus and the most that we as a student body heard about it was a small email from RIT Message Center, which is important but there needs to be more; it needs to be a larger discussion.”
Amy Vorenberg, a survivor of a serial rapist that took place in Boston in 1971, is an advocate for open reporting between the public and college campuses. She is a law professor at University of New Hampshire School of Law. Vorenberg and 43 other girls were raped or the subject of an attempted rape between 1970 and 1973 in the Boston area. According to Vorenberg in her article in the Boston Globe, 18 of these rapes occurred near Harvard’s Radcliffe campus in Cambridge.
Vorenberg believes that if the Radcliffe campus had notified the surrounding community, assaults could have been prevented and the perpetrator would have been caught earlier. She’s an advocate for information sharing between campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods.
“There’s a difference between alerting the campus to danger and reporting every single offense,” said Vorenberg in a phone interview. “The information should be easily accessible to the community…Law enforcement should be aware of repeat offenders.”
Vorenberg suggested a weekly or monthly log that lists all of the criminal offenses and what their circumstances were. She agreed that desensitizing the community was a concern that they should keep in mind when deciding to report to the public. “Security should put out warnings for incidents, but they don’t want to desensitize the community,” said Vorenberg. “They need to regulate when they report to keep people vigilant.”
Sally felt that RIT should take an all or nothing approach when sending crime alerts to the campus. She explained that the fact that her case didn’t result in a crime alert made it seem less legitimate because a crime alert for a different sexual assault was emailed to the RIT students shortly after Sally’s assault occurred. “Each case is important,” Sally said. “I know I was a bit on edge when they did send that e-mail out because I thought it must have been horrible if they sent an e-mail out. But I believe that even the "smallest" sexual misconduct case should be noticed. Especially with the ratio of male to female, these issues need to be taken especially seriously.”
Sarah disagreed with Sally. “I personally don't feel like it is any of the other students business about what happened,” Sarah explained. “We don't get emails every time there is a break-in or someone is physically hurt on campus. There are many people who feel very different from me, and want there to be an email sent out every time a sexual assault is reported. But I think that if I had received an email that gave vague details about my personal experience, I would have been very upset.”
Consent at RIT
Lane-Williams, Skinner, and Civil all agreed that there needs to be an increased effort on the RIT campus of what consent means and why it is important.
“I would say the biggest solution is education,” explained Civil. “You can’t make a change unless you know something’s wrong and a lot of people unfortunately don’t realize the extent of their sexism, even if it’s calling someone a bitch. A simple thing like that, and consent education for the sexual part of it.”
Skinner agreed with Civil. “Especially for our freshmen coming in,” he added on. “We live in a very hyper sexualized culture, which is nice in some ways but also a lot of things aren’t revealed to us. I think there should be mandatory classes for people that are coming in because it affects every single student.”
Lane-Williams explained that drinking and intercourse becomes a grey area that students need to be more aware of. An individual that is intoxicated does not have the ability to give sexual consent. “If you find that the first time you’re having sex with someone, they’re drunk or you’re drunk, that right there might be a red flag that this is sexual assault,” she said.
For this reason, Lane-Williams explained that RIT’s campus needs to do more to educate people on what is okay and what is not. She also explained that people should be careful with the phrase ‘no means no,’ because there isn’t always a ‘no.’ Students that are impaired, frightened or bullied into having sexual intercourse are the subjects of sexual assault, whether or not there was a clear ‘no’ or struggle.
“We don’t have a campus full of rapists, we have an ignorant campus,” said Lane-Williams. “We have people who just don’t realize that a drunk girl can’t give you consent.”
Parting Words of Wisdom
Lane-Williams explained that generally, survivors of the assaults tend to go to a close friend or a roommate before anyone else, and that the reaction of these people can make or break the will of a survivor to report.
“You’re never going to understand what they’re going through and they don’t expect you to understand,” said Sarah when asked what she would tell people who are being told about a sexual assault by friends. “They don’t expect you to say the right things all the time, but if you can just stay with them and make sure that they know you believe them.”
Students are encouraged to report sexual assaults and seek help if they believe that they have been the subject of a sexual assault. “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain if you come forward,” said Sally.
Sarah said that reporting, despite the difficult and less than ideal process that it was, helped her in the long run. “Stepping forward will be one of the hardest things you will ever do,” Sarah explained. “I’m not going to sugarcoat that, but it’s the first step towards working towards a new normal. It’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be people who leave you and there’s going to be people who don’t want to deal with it because it makes them uncomfortable, but those people don’t matter. It’s the first step towards working towards a new normal, and as soon as you start making that step you start moving forward.”
How You Can Report Sexual Assault at RIT:
- Students can call CARES (Campus Advocacy Response and Support). Students may report an incident at any time by calling or texting the number (585) 295-3533. The CARES volunteers will meet with any student wishing to report and will act as an advocate for them through the process.
- The Center for Women and Gender is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. in the Campus Center, 1760. Students may report any incident to the counselors of the center and may also continue visiting the center for follow-up counseling.
- The Public Safety Office is located in Grace Watson Hall and can be reached for emergencies at (585) 475-3333. For general problems, students can call (585) 475-2853.
- Any RIT faculty and staff that a student feels comfortable with can listen to their story and help them and explain to them their options.
- In the case of an emergency, students should call 911 to report.
Definition of Rape and Consent:
- According to Lane-Williams, sexual harassment is bothering someone in a sexual way, with comments that are of a sexual nature. “Generally, it makes you feel uncomfortable,” said Lane-Williams. “I always tell people that if your gut is talking to you it probably means it’s something that is wrong.”
- At RIT, sexual misconduct is an umbrella term that includes rape. This includes anything from forcible touching to forcible rape.
- At RIT, “Rape involves some sort of penetration in some sort of orifice,” explained Lane-Williams.
- According to Lane-Williams, the legal definition of rape varies between states.
- According to Article 130 of the New York Penal law, rape in the third degree is a class E felony. Rape in the third degree occurs when there is sexual intercourse with someone who is incapable of consent, either because one person is under 17 years old and another person is 21 years or older, or because the individual is incapable of consent for other reasons.
- Rape in the second degree occurs when the person is 18 years or older and engages in sexual intercourse with someone younger than 15 years old, or when sexual intercourse occurs with someone who is mentally disabled or incapacitated. This is considered a class D felony in the state of New York.
- Rape in the first degree is defined as a person that engages in sexual intercourse with another person by sexual compulsion, who is physically helpless, who is less than 11 years old or who is less than 13 years old and the actor is 18 years old at least. This is a class B felony in New York State.
Myths of Sexual Assault:
- There needs to be physical marks and bruisers on the survivor’s body.
- If the person was drunk and acting promisculously, then it’s not considered sexual assault.
- If the person tends to sleep around, then it’s not sexual assault.
- If the two individuals have slept together before, then it wasn’t sexual assault.
- If the survivor did not say no or fight, then it wasn’t sexual assault.
Photographs from Lydia Billings' Trigger warning
Disclaimer: The survivors of sexual assault wished to remain anonymous. For their protection, their names have been changed to Sarah and Sally.