Breaking Down the System: Students report sexual misconduct investigations lead to re-trauma

Tuesday, April 23, 2019 - 7:42pm

.

Design by Sherry Chen

Over the past five years, the University of Michigan has made large-scale changes to its sexual misconduct policy. In 2014, The Department of Education placed 55 institutions, including the University, under investigation for management of sexual assault and harassment complaints. In response, administrators at the University issued a campus climate survey and released a complete overhaul of their policy, aiming to make the investigation process more sensitive toward the needs of survivors without sacrificing fairness.

The Office for Institutional Equity — the entity charged with enforcing Title IX violations and civil rights complaints — conducts these investigations into reports of sexual misconduct.

But after a Sept. 2018 court ruling, along with new proposed federal regulations, the University is now required to work to improve due process within sexual misconduct investigations, with new measures including a live hearing and cross-examination process. Survivors of sexual misconduct argue these changes will only exacerbate existing problems with the system.

Each year, a small fraction of reports made to the Office for Institutional Equity wind up being investigated. Between June 2017 and July 2018, the office received 277 reports of prohibited conduct, but carried out only 20 investigations. While 175 cases were resolved through other non-investigative channels, the office found 102 reports did not fall within the scope of University policy. This represents an investigation rate of less than 10 percent of reports.

President Mark Schlissel sent students an update Wednesday morning with an external review of the University’s policies, recommending that the University implement an “an umbrella policy that addresses sexual misconduct and applies to the entire University community.” He also noted a staff increase in OIE and a new database and case management system to increase the process’ efficiency. Furthermore, OIE will now report directly to the U-M Ann Arbor provost.

Schlissel discussed the development of the Interim Policy Student Advisory Board to help the University review its sexual misconduct policy.

“Their input will be invaluable as we consider the next steps for the policy, and will further inform the work of the team developing the overall policy and procedural changes,” Schlissel said.

The University’s efforts to improve their approach to combating sexual harassment comes amidst complaints from students of the investigation and decision-making process being anywhere from insensitive to retraumatizing.

The Michigan Daily sat down with six of these students who reported instances of sexual harassment or assault to the University.

The Daily has compiled the six students’ stories on a timeline navigating how far they got in OIE’s investigation process. The following are four of their stories, showing various ways OIE’s process can make students reporting feeling unsupported:

**

Student 1: Conflicting evidence

Student 1 alleged she was assaulted in the winter semester of her freshman year. As an out-of-state student, she was eager to find a community on campus. She quickly formed a large friend group, but one member made it clear he wanted more than a platonic relationship. When Student 1 told him she did not feel the same way, she said he became emotionally abusive, important context she said was not included in the report. At one point, Student 1 attempted to end all communication between the two of them.  He responded by showing her he had self- harmed.

She told The Daily she began to lower her boundaries out of fear he would harm himself again. One night, when she was drunk, she said he convinced her to return to his dorm with him, arguing he needed to keep her safe. That evening, she said, he assaulted her.

The next morning, he texted her and asked if what had happened was sexual assault. Overwhelmed by the guilt and shame of what had taken place, as well as fear of retaliation, Student 1 responded “not at all”

She recalled telling her resident advisor about some of the actions he had engaged in prior to the assault — stalking and emotional abuse — but did not tell the RA about the assault itself. As a mandatory reporter, the RA filed a report with the University. As a result, OIE emailed Student 1 asking to schedule an initial meeting. It took her more than a month before she felt ready to report.

Student 1 set up a meeting for April 27, 2017 with Title IX investigator Daniel Ferency, who left his post at OIE late last semester. Ferency informed her she could bring someone to accompany her to their initial meeting, but at this point, many of her friends had already finished finals and gone home, so she went to the meeting alone. She felt the reporting process was going to be traumatic no matter what. She understood it was the investigator’s job to remain objective. But Student 1 felt some of the questions cast the blame on her and were not relevant to her particular allegations of stalking.

At one point, Ferency asked her if she had prior sexual contact with the Respondent. Student 1 answered no. She understood how this question could be relevant in other cases, but felt the investigator focused on the sexual nature of their relationship rather than the issues of stalking or emotional abuse.

The student sexual misconduct policy in its current form states that “prior sexual contact between a Claimant and a Respondent will never be used to prove character or reputation. Moreover, evidence related to the prior sexual history between the parties is generally not relevant to the determination of a Policy violation and will be considered only in limited circumstances.”

Though Ferency is no longer a member of OIE, he told The Daily it would not be appropriate for him to comment on any investigations handled during his time at the University.

“All individuals impacted by alleged domestic and sexual violence should be afforded the opportunity to speak their truth and to seek improvements to processes, policies, and laws that affect them and their community,” he wrote.

Student 1 said she felt the initial interview didn’t contain the sensitivity and support she needed. By this point, only one friend from the friend group had remained by her side, believing her.

“In the early stages of sexual assault, especially for me, there is a lot of unprocessed trauma and a lot of guilt — internalized guilt — and there’s this huge fear that you’re in the wrong and this person (investigator),  especially with the coldness of the process, this person is blaming you with the questions that are asked and all of it,” she said.

Student 1 received a notice of investigation on May 9. She revised a copy of her statement on May 11 and then heard nothing for months. On Sept. 5, she emailed Ferency asking for an update. He responded the same day, informing her she would receive her initial draft report in a day or two.

The initial draft report arrived Sept. 18, 2017. Student 1 learned through reading the report that the Respondent had obtained a lawyer.  She was given a week to make edits to her draft report and felt this was not enough time to obtain a lawyer, especially without her parents' support. She felt this put her at a disadvantage and the process did not account for her financial constraints.

“I had no idea of any of that — despite this being a five-month process,” Student 1 said. “And that was really difficult because once I got the draft report I could review it and fix anything I wanted to fix within my claim, but I had seven days to do that and I couldn’t get a lawyer.”

Student 1 said she chose not make edits to the draft report, completely overwhelmed and quickly losing hope in the investigation and any chance of a judicious outcome.

On October 9, Office of Institutional Equity emailed her, saying “there was insufficient evidence to support a policy violation.” They sent the email twice within an hour. Student 1 said it read like a college rejection letter, automated and lacking any sensitivity.

According to Student 1 and the draft report she provided to The Daily, there was no mention of previous threatening actions the Respondent sent and the emotional abuse it incurred.

Student 1 had supplied the investigators with texts between her in the individual, including the text where he asked her if what occurred was sexual assault.

“I presented that as evidence because the fact that he was wondering if it was sexual assault — at least to me — says that something was wrong and he knew that…he did something wrong,” Student 1 said.

She said the investigator found her initial response — “not at all” — was substantial proof the incident was not assault.

“I feel like I should be allowed to change my mind about things, especially with something as sensitive as sexual assault,” she said. “It is ridiculously traumatic and there’s a lot of — especially with the culture we live in —  there’s a lot of self guilt and shame that goes into that so I think most people when they get sexually assaulted don’t process that what has happened to them is sexual assault within the first few hours, days, weeks, it takes a while for it to hit and I don’t think that’s uncommon.”

Student 1 was devastated by the University’s findings. She reached out to Ferency and asked why there was no mention of the stalking or emotional abuse in the report. The sexual misconduct policy’s definition of stalking is a course of conduct toward another person under circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury to themselves or to others, or experience substantial emotional distress. He told her it did not pertain to University policy.

“There are no winners in a situation like this but it felt like I had lost and he had won,” Student 1 said. “It's already really upsetting because I know that this will always affect me more than it will ever affect him. I’m the one who has to deal with the fall out of all of this and I will always have to continue with that and it affects how I live my everyday life.”

In a separate interview with The Daily earlier this month, Seney echoed Student 1’s feelings about there being “no winners.” She emphasized that the process is not easy, even if it’s conducted in the best way possible.

“Certainly it's the case that these are not pleasant things,” Seney said. “No one is going to be like, ‘Oh, that was a great time. I'm super glad that I got the opportunity to go through that process.’ No one on any side of it feels that way, no matter what. It can be done the best it possibly can and it's still not going to be pleasant.”

That being said, Seney said OIE strives to do the best it can to make claimants and respondents feel respected and listened to. She noted that OIE welcomes feedback. 

“Of course we want to do the best we can to mitigate the extent to which it is additionally unpleasant, beyond it's an inherently stressful situation,” Seney said.  “All of that is to say that it is not uncommon that someone might have a concern or feel sort of unhappy and that might be general or it might be about one specific aspect. For example, if they felt like someone said something to them that was offensive or they didn't feel respected in an interaction. That is definitely feedback that we welcome and want.”

**

Student 2: Back and forth

Student 2 alleged she was sexually harassed and assaulted at the end of the 2018 winter semester — in the final weeks of her senior year — by a fellow student organization board member. The two were slated to work together on campus over the summer, which is why she initially reported the incident at the beginning of May to the University’s Office of the Ombuds, an office that serves as an impartial conflict broker for students and staff alike. Student 2 initially disclosed her experience in the interest of seeking space at her workplace, but also to ensure the perpetrator’s behavior would not result in a pattern of harassment to future co-workers or students, especially as he intended on pursuing a career in academia.

University Ombudsman Thomas Lehker referred Student 2 to OIE, where he ensured staff members would properly investigate the incident. Lehker declined The Daily’s request to comment.  

Student 2 made her way to the office on Greene St. and met with two investigators. She said she explained her situation, and the two investigators then excused themselves and left her in the office waiting room. A little over five minutes later, she said, they emerged, only to inform her they would not be investigating her case.  

Student 2 was stunned by the speed and lack of empathy with which the decision was conveyed, and broke down in front of the investigators. Student 2 said while explaining their rationale, the female investigator suggested that Student 2 consider seeing staff at Counseling and Psychological Services to deal with the pain instead. Student 2 bristled at the suggestion, another sign to her that she was merely being shuttled between University offices.

The investigators’ referral to CAPS may have been an attempt to provide Student 2 with the appropriate confidential resources. Seney told The Daily that in the initial email OIE sends claimants, they always provide information about CAPS and SAPAC to make the claimant aware of their resources.

Even after OIE’s decision not to investigate, though, the institutional indecision wasn’t over. Unbeknownst to Student 2’s knowledge, Daniel Ferency sent an advisory no-contact request to her workplace manager, a notice encouraging the office to keep distance between the two employees. Student 2 did indicate to OIE that she wanted such an action, but only found out it occurred through a personal conversation with her manager.

“What I wanted to happen happened, but in a really disappointing way,” she said.

After Student 2 doubled back to Lehker to inform him of OIE’s decision to not investigate, she said the Ombudsman apologized profusely to her over the phone and vowed to clear up the confusion with OIE staff and make sure the office handled such cases with better care in the future. She allowed him to use her name in these communications and disclosed more personal information. But throughout the summer, Student 2 had to follow up herself multiple times with Lehker and investigators to receive further information about her case. Getting OIE affiliates to respond, she said, was “like pulling teeth.” Emails forwarded to The Daily confirm these correspondences.  

Seney said investigators do their best to keep both parties in the investigation updated, but sometimes they can become absorbed in the process to the extent that they fall behind on emailing the parties. She also said investigators sometimes receive complaints of emailing too much and being disruptive. But she encouraged people who want to be updated to reach out.

“There are times when you’re investigating a case where there might be a long period of time where you’re talking to witnesses and you're working on it every day... I know I’m working on it everyday cause here I am doing it,” Seney said. “I’m thinking about this case all day, every day and the parties might be thinking, ‘Why haven't heard from her in two weeks, what’s going on?’ So we try to stay on top of that.”

Seney said with the new policy, a student’s Office of Student Conflict Resolution manager will function as primary points of contact for both respondents and claimants, creating more opportunity for regular check-ins.

“The OSCR case manager will be doing quite a bit of that now, which I think might be helpful for parties’ comfort, in reaching out to the case manager that’s a little bit more removed from the actual investigation process, and that also might create a little more space for some more regular check-ins,” Seney said.

By May, Student 2’s alleged perpetrator received an “educational conversation,” an outcome Student 2 ultimately appreciated. But it came at the cost of significant time and effort on her part to follow the path of her own case.

Student 2 did not contest the decisions of OIE, and said she was even understanding of OIE staff determining her experience with misconduct did not fall under the scope of the policy. What she felt was unacceptable, however, was the lack of clarity, communication and comfort that she encountered along the way.  

“I do blame (the OIE staff member) who reduced my problem to a CAPS issue, and I do blame (OIE) for not doing (their) job quickly,” she said. “I do blame Thomas Lehker for not understanding the parts of the University it’s his job to understand.”

“From the get-go, I felt lost and confused,” she continued. “It was hard to find information… everything’s hidden and no one’s willing to tell you anything until they’ve perfected their typed up written email statement.”

When asked if her reporting process led to closure, Student 2 immediately answered that it was retraumatizing “every day.”

And would she make the decision to report again, knowing what she knows now?

“No,” she said. “It isn’t worth it.”

**

Student 3: The limited reach of the policy

One reason OIE may not investigate a case is if the involved respondent is not affiliated with the University. Such was the case for Student 3.

Seney explained OIE doesn’t have the capability to investigate students at other universities, but that they will help support the claimant and make the connection to the OIE-equivalent at the other university.

“We can’t really impose disciplinary action on someone who's not connected to the University in some way,” Seney said. “Again, that wouldn’t mean that we would do nothing. We would certainly make sure that our student is supported, make sure they know about supportive measures, like academic accommodations, resources on campus, connect them with the police. If the person — the respondent — is at another institution, we can help make a report to that institution.”

Student 3 alleged she was sexually assaulted by a boyfriend who attended another university in 2014 in the first semester of her freshman year. She decided not to report the incident because she was struggling to process what had happened to her, and she worried how reporting would impact her family.

This fall, four years after the alleged assault, she decided to come forward after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford went public with her accusation of sexual assault against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee and now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“I always knew that if I reported, I wanted it to be something that I felt good about,” she said. “I finally got (there), and I felt like it was important enough. I guess having the Kavanaugh hearing (in the news) validated (me) a lot.”

Student 3 reached out to OIE staff, who told her they could not conduct a formal investigation because the individual in question was not affiliated with the University. She then called the office to find out what other options she had and was directed to the equivalent of OIE at her accused perpetrator’s university.

Seney said in these cases, even if there’s a sufficient amount of evidence to investigate, there’s not much OIE can do if the issue doesn’t fit under the policy.

“Sometimes people will come forward with concerns and they’ll say, here’s what happened,” Seney said. “And it turns out that what they’ve described, even if we have all the evidence in the world to support it, and so there’s not a question of having enough evidence to conclude that it occurred… doesn’t fit into a definition under the policy.”

Student 3 contacted the other university’s office, and left with the impression they would be able to help after speaking with an investigator. She gave the office her initial report, but then was contacted by a different investigator who say there might be an issue regarding the university’s version of a statute of limitations on reporting. She learned this particular university has a limit of merely 120 days — just under four months — on reporting sexual assault.

Her case was shuffled to the director of the office, and another investigation was opened. Eventually, the office ruled that because the case was not within the 120-day limit, they could not investigate. The best they could offer Student 3 was an informal conversation with her accused perpetrator.

**

Student 4: A year of uncertainty

Student 4 reported incidents of sexual harassment, religious harassment, gender-based harassment and stalking to OIE in March 2018. Alleged actions included pornographic messages, unwarranted touching and the Respondent following her to her house. Student 4 also said he often used ultra-Christian fundamentalist rhetoric to shame her. After she related the events to a faculty mandatory reporter, Ferency contacted her.

OIE issued a no-contact order, but Student 4 said the Respondent continued to attempt to initiate contact on a variety of mediums, even waiting for her outside of class. When she brought complaints of this contact to OIE, she said she would be ignored or dismissed by Ferency.

Student 4 said Ferency and Seney’s communication throughout the process made her feel alone. As she waited for a response from OIE, she felt like the Respondent’s consistent pursuing of her could lead to further harm and that the office was not doing anything to prevent future incidents.

“I felt like if there was a chance that I was going to get raped, no one was going to help me,” she said. “And then the only thing (that would happen) if I did get raped, or if I did get killed because he went crazy and he was going to get a gun, and it’s only after I got harmed then they would start thinking about it and they would apologize, and it would be another whole deal of just procedural stuff. And nothing is going to actually change for me.”

Before this, in August, her no-contact order was revised to include more restrictions on the respondent’s behavior. But when a draft report was issued in September 2018, Student 4 said she noticed multiple inaccuracies. Ferency allegedly did not include a witness, locations of incidents were reported incorrectly and both the Claimant and the Respondent were even reported to be in the wrong school. Most importantly, Student 4 said, allegations of no-contact violations were not included in preliminary drafts.

Student 4 sent the report back with her changes. The Daily confirmed that these corrections were all included in the final report.  

An opportunity for feedback is built into the draft report process. But Student 4’s case is unique in that both the federal court ruling and the amount of feedback after the first draft report led to OIE issuing a second preliminary draft report.  

In an email to Student 4 dated Sept. 6, Ferency apologized for forgetting to include a witness statement because “his name was identical to that of another witness.”

Ferency informed Student 4 at the beginning of October that the case would be concluded by the end of the week pending review.

I wanted to send you a brief update regarding the pending OIE investigation,” the email reads. “The final report has been completed by OIE and is in the final stages of review with relevant University officials. At this point, it appears likely that it will be released Monday or early next week.”

That same week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision came down, mandating the University shift to a live hearing model where parties can hear and cross-examine each other. This effectively threw both Student 4 and the Respondent into a limbo of awaiting OIE’s adjudication while the very policy in question was undergoing massive changes.

In a separate interview with The Daily, senior director of OIE Jeffery Frumkin said for better or for worse, all cases that were open at the time of the policy had to be put on pause.

“We had to ramp up for the new policy,” Frumkin said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, cases that were in queue just had to be put on hold until the new policy was up and running.”

In mid-November 2018, Ferency left OIE. A new investigator was assigned to Student 4’s case. The new interim policy also meant Student 4 had to undergo another preliminary draft report process, resulting in her having to review a third draft of the preliminary report.

Student 4 claimed the draft report process impacted her well-being and her experience both socially and as a student at the University. She said she lost valuable time and energy she could have put towards her education — the reason she attends the University — and that requiring her to collect evidence and get her peers and friends to serve as witnesses against the Respondent is detrimental to her academic success. Claimants and respondents alike are asked to name witnesses that may support investigators’ efforts.

“Honestly the school is supposed to support the student, (and) that is the biggest problem that is the most heartbreaking,” she said. “I came here for an education and they’re not going to give it to me, they’re just going to make it worse and I have to walk out of school with a GPA that’s not mine because of this and the school’s the one that’s giving me the problems.”

At the end of March, after the draft report was agreed upon by both parties, Student 4 was notified the case would move to a live hearing, which occurred during the last days of the school year. Now, with her graduation looming in less than a week, she is preparing for cross-examination by a hearing officer. It has been 386 days since her initial report to OIE.

OIE’s ideal timeline is 120 days, and Seney said investigators strive for this in all cases. It used to be 60, but Seney said this wasn’t realistic. With the court order, she explained, cases had to be delayed. However, Seney said OIE tries to always make people aware that the length of the cases could go over the 120 days. Furthermore, she said OIE employees agree that cases often run too long, but sometimes the circumstances won’t allow a speedy investigation.

“We try to be really transparent about that,” Seney said. “I know it’s still frustrating. … It’s not for lack of trying to get them done as quickly as possible. It really frankly is, I would say, a combination of often circumstances within the case, availability of parties or witnesses. We sometimes are holding for some period of time for law enforcement. That amount of time varies depending on the situation.”

Student 4 said she was disappointed in the OIE response to her reports. She felt the University should have treated her with more consideration and respect. She said she felt the school did not provide her with a safe or secure environment for living her day-to-day life despite her many claims against the Respondent. She argued OIE’s failure to protect her in the way she wanted could make the Respondent think he can behave however he wants without consequences.

“The Respondent has no obligation towards me, as a person, he’s going to be a douchebag… but the school is not supposed to be, the school owed me that,” she said. “So if he was going to stalk me, the least that they could do would be protect me at all costs. Be very strict, give him repercussions based on the violations, so that he knows if I stand outside her classroom one more time, I’m going to get really punished. But the way that they treat it is they dismiss everything, then the message it sends across to him is ‘Oh, I can do whatever I want and I’ll never get in trouble because this is not a big deal to me, so I can continue to treat this as not a big deal.”’

Student 4 said she would not report again unless OIE commits to taking all claims seriously and acting on them in a timely manner, especially with the possibility of retaliation looming.

“An ideal process is one that is timely,” she said. “That time they work sitting in their office is time that like something else could happen to the victim. They should know that, they should be aware that something is happening.”

**

All four students agreed: If they had it to do over again, they would not disclose their experiences with misconduct and assault. They turned to the University for help, and were left re-traumatized, with nowhere else to turn.  

“I know nothing is ever going to happen for me,” Student 1 said. “That’s something I’ve accepted. I’m working through my own healing process, it’s a very long process, there is a lot that I still need to unpack and work on.”

The students worry that this process, in this current state, sends their accused perpetrators a message that their actions are OK.

“I didn’t really want there to be heavy sanctions,” Student 3 said. “That’s not what I was going for. I was just like, ‘I want to make sure that this doesn't happen to someone else. I want to make sure that he knows that he fucked up and how to not do that again.’”

Throughout Seney’s interview, she emphasized the goal is always to have a trauma-informed investigation process while maintaining due process. OIE can’t take action in reprimanding a respondent if they can’t confirm the claimant’s story.

“(There’s) always a focus on having both a trauma-informed process without sacrificing fairness as well, of course,” Seney said. “I don’t at all find those two things to be mutually exclusive.”

**

Administrators often articulate that no investigation, sanctioning or retributive system can avoid outright the issue of compounding trauma. Preliminary results from a 2014 study of survivors by National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder back this up, finding that a positive association between satisfaction with the reporting process, rather than just the outcome of the report itself, tracks most closely with well-being and improved post-harassment functioning.

Kaaren Williamsen has served as the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center for just over a year. SAPAC volunteer groups and advocacy are closely aligned with the push for survivors’ rights on campus. Still, Williamsen underscored the pain she said she finds almost inherent in reporting within the confines of a justice system.

“The healing process and accountability are two different things,” she said. “Accountability processes can be very damaging… this is a frustration with our traditional justice processes, that (they can be) retraumatizing.”

Williamsen commended the level of care and experience of OIE staff members, a point emphasized by University President Mark Schlissel in a December interview with The Daily following a series of articles exposing student and faculty grievances with sexual misconduct proceedings.

But Schlissel himself acknowledged the process could use work.

“OIE has a very difficult job to do across a very challenging landscape,” he said. “I think our investigations and adjudications often take too long. That’s a problem we have to work hard to correct.”

The sexual misconduct policy stipulates that OIE endeavor to complete every investigation from beginning to end within 120 days. The longest duration between a report and investigation resolution experienced by a student interviewed by The Daily was 386 days and counting through the entire process. And regardless of the investigation length, the policy mandates that both parties in an investigation be updated regularly, a direct contradiction to the institutional miscommunication all four students in this article recounted.

To that end, Student 2 pushed back against this notion of the institution’s hands being tied to a painful process.

This isn’t the justice system, and I’m not reporting to the police,” she said. “We’re just trying (to make) the campus environment is better. I think everyone has accountability for those processes: students, faculty, staff and administrators whose job it is to keep the University running properly. It’s always going to be painful to discuss trauma. But being belittled by the one ally I had in the room — a woman — that’s not necessary pain. That’s not necessary in any functional system.”

**

The University led other public universities around the country in 2016 by adopting a single-investigator model, referring to the way one staff member may take the lead on a report. This was mainly in the interest of resolving cases in a more personal, efficient manner: A single investigator could facilitate communication between the two parties, so as to avoid them having to interact with each other.

The interim policy that took effect this February in accordance with federal court guidelines, however, mandates an in-person hearing between parties to ensure due process instead. Many investigations currently hang in the balance with OIE as claimants and respondents alike must now figure out how to comply with the new requirement for a live hearing.

University administrators immediately made the changes due to legal pressure, but still attempted to provide multiple options for students who report. Under the interim policy, students wishing to resolve cases of sexual misconduct can either opt for a traditional investigative resolution — which involves now an in-person hearing — or choose to follow an adaptable resolution model. An adaptable resolution must be voluntary on part of both the claimant and the respondent and must be approved by the Title IX coordinator. If the case is successfully resolved, the respondent does not incur a disciplinary record. Measures taken could include a facilitated dialogue or restorative circle under the direction of a trained coordinator.

Adding yet another wrinkle to the confusion are the latest policy proposals released by Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education in November 2018. If instituted, they would require schools to follow procedures designed to protect the rights of accused students, and raise the requirements on evidence needed to prove sexual assault claims. The University took part in a public comment period earlier this semester, wherein campus community members voiced their concerns that new legal definitions will further limit the scope of Title IX offices.  

Seney emphasized one of OIE’s core values is making sure all people participating in the process feel respected.

“An institutional value, obviously, is we want to treat people with respect,” Seney said. “We want people to feel comfortable when they’re coming in to meet with us and to feel like they’re being heard and to be heard.”

Students who reported expressed that they were not naive to the realities of legal, institutional and logistical constraints of adjudicating misconduct, but still found gaps in their cases.  

“OIE is not to blame for what this guy first did to me,” Student 4 said. “But (for) all of the damage thereafter, they are to blame.”

Accountability in both communication and enforcement emerged as common gaps in survivors’ experiences. A more pervasive problem than mishandling cases, then, might be the perception of OIE as unresponsive.

“The longer I waited, the more dishonest I felt like the office was,” Student 4 continued.

“In my case, there was no investigation, they were just deciding whether a conversation was worth having,” Student 2 pointed out. “There’s no reason that communication should have taken that long.”

All told, students who report say it’s increasingly clear that the University’s reporting, investigation and adjudication process is damaging. And as indicated in these national conversations, exemplified in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case, students accused of misconduct decry a lack of fairness as well. As the student sexual misconduct policy remains in flux and the first set of live hearings rolls out this semester, the office has many grievances to level with. Legal constraints and campus climate may change over the years, yet the desire for resolution and support remains constant.

Many of these students feel the University could do better. Their efforts to seek justice have left them in the dark and waiting on closure that has been a long time coming.

Elizabeth Lawrence contributed to reporting.