Updated May 1, 4:45pm
By DAVID BORAKS
An online article by a Davidson College student about her rape on campus last fall has stirred debate about both sexual violence and how the college responds to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Students and faculty are talking about Susanna Vogel’s article “The Gap Between Being Found Responsible and Being Held Responsible for Sexual Assault,” posted Monday, April 28, 2014, at HerCampus.com, a nationwide website aimed at college women.
The article, and the debate at Davidson, come amid a national discussion about the problem of sexual assaults on campus. Women at other colleges and universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill, have helped raise the issue by speaking out about their rapes as well. And only Monday, the federal government issued new guidelines aimed at pressuring colleges to do more to address the problem.
In her article Monday Vogel, a junior, recounts both her rape by a student acquaintance and its aftermath, including the on-campus misconduct hearing. She focuses on the college’s policies and handling of her sexual assault case.
You can read the lengthy, sometimes graphic article for the details. But Vogel’s argument comes down to a couple of simple points: first, the shortcomings she sees in the sexual misconduct hearing process at Davidson; and second, her unhappiness at the relatively light penalty her attacker received, despite the fact that a campus review board found him “responsible.”
The college wouldn’t answer questions about the case, but Vogel writes in the article that the student who assaulted her remains on campus, and was sentenced only to 20 hours of counseling and banned from attending events at college fraternities, eating houses or Martin Court (housing for upperclass students).
She said it was impossible not to run into him.
“When I came back in the spring, I tried to make myself a ghost and move around campus under the radar. I had to walk the same paths my attacker walks. I had to see him in the Union, in Chambers, and drunk at parties and at F [a dormitory]. I tried to avoid him, but you know what they say about Davidson: you always see whomever you’re trying to avoid. I started to feel helpless.”
In response to questions, Davidson College officials released a statement Monday declining to discuss the case.
“We are aware that yesterday a sexual misconduct case was made public through the website, Her Campus Davidson. This case is in process and pending appeal, and we cannot comment on the case at this time,” the college said.
Vogel’s appeal hearing was Tuesday, though no decision has been issued yet. Since the case remains “active,” a Davidson College spokeswoman said Wednesday the college still would not comment.
Asked about the college’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures, the spokeswoman referred us to the Davidson College Student Handbook.
The handbook clearly defines sexual misconduct and affirms that an attacker is responsible whenever a victim does not consent or is unable to consent to a sexual act. “Non-communication constitutes a lack of consent. As well, a verbal ‘no,’ even if it may sound indecisive or insincere, constitutes a lack of consent,” the policy says.
The policy also spells out a variety of possible sanctions, from warnings to written or verbal apologies to counseling to suspension.
POLICY AND PRACTICE OF SECRECY
Even after a decision in the appeal comes out, which could come Friday, little information is likely to be made public, as the college policy protects the attacker’s and victim’s privacy and enforces confidentiality about the proceedings.
Usually in sexual assault cases – at least those in the “real,” off-campus world – it is victims who remain anonymous while perpetrators’ names are public records. In this case, Vogel has voluntarily surrendered her anonymity in writing about her experience. But as she notes in her article, only she, a few friends and a handful of campus administrators know his name.
Vogel declined to discuss her case with DavidsonNews.net on Wednesday, saying she was awaiting the outcome of her appeal.
It’s unusual for a sexual assault case on the Davidson campus – or any campus – to become public, and the problem of sexual violence at Davidson is largely invisible. Few if any assaults wind up in the state court system, as victims like Vogel opt to pursue cases only through the school’s private sexual misconduct hearing process.
Vogel’s article does raise the question of why she chose not to purse the case in the courts. She suggests it’s because she feared it would be hard to win. Citing state Department of Justice statistics, she notes that in 2012, 1,950 rapes were reported in North Carolina, but only 29 percent of defendants were arrested.
Meanwhile, although some students, such as Vogel’s attacker, have been found guilty in campus proceedings, their cases have been outside the court system. Consequently, there are no registered sex offenders on the Davidson campus – as there would be in the case of an off-campus assault and conviction.
As a recipient of federal aid, Davidson and other colleges are required to file annual campus crime reports – known as Clery Reports. Those show only a handful of sex crimes on campus every year. Davidson reported just 2 forcible sexual assaults in 2009, 4 in 2010 and 6 each in 2011 and 2012, the most recent year available.
The figures might lead one to conclude the Davidson campus is a relatively safe place – at least when it comes to sexual assault.
But Vogel disagrees. In the article, she talks about going through counseling and the fear of running into her assailant on campus.
“Finding him responsible and giving him these sanctions diminishes the severity of my rape. He raped me, and his punishment is that he can’t go to parties? The system had failed me. When I pass members of the panel now on campus, they don’t make eye contact with me. They look down and just keep walking. This case is out of their lives, and I wish more than anything that it could just be out of my life too, but it isn’t going away. “
Vogel proposes several changes to Davidson’s sexual misconduct policy:
- Adding more precise language about offenses (the policy does not use the word “rape,” she notes).
- She suggests that students found responsible in sexual misconduct cases be suspended for a minimum of a semester.
- She calls for improvements in the hearing process that can help victims challenge the way college officials redact information presented in sexual misconduct hearings.
- Vogel also says victims need more help in preparing their cases for the hearings.
Vogel’s article has prompted widespread discussion among students, and some discussion among faculty and staff.
Some students are organizing a community march to support sexual assault victims on campus, on Thursday, May 8, at 10:30am, beginning and ending in the Alvarez College Union amphitheater. “Our goals are simply to express our recognition that hurtful things are happening to our peers, and to commit ourselves to listening and learning during future conversations,” the organizers told DavidsonNews.net.
Members of the Student Government Association proposed adding a discussion about sexual misconduct and Vogel’s article to their agenda for Thursday, May 1. But after SGA leaders met with Dean of Students Tom Shandley, they ditched the idea. SGA president Zi Yang said he doesn’t think an SGA discussion would lead to a productive conversation, because many SGA senators aren’t familiar with details of the sexual misconduct policy.
“Right now we’re still thinking about how to make this into an actually constructive conversation. If we were to put it on the agenda and make it an official item, we’d need to make sure we had something that could be presented so we could actually reach somewhere after discussion,” Yang said.
“If and when we talk about it, [a policy recommendation] is definitely going to be our focus,” Yang added.
The debate over Vogel’s article and the college policy on rapes could be short-lived this semester. The campus will clear out within a couple of weeks as students finish exams and seniors leave after their graduation on Sunday, May 18.
Additional reporting by Lincoln Davidson and Jon Cox.
Update May 1, 4:45pm: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the SGA executive committee discussed Vogel’s article with Dean of Students Tom Shandley. The SGA executive committee was not consulted regarding the decision to add discussion of the article to the SGA agenda.
April 28, 2014, HerCampus.com, “The Gap Between Being Found Responsible and Being Held Responsible for Sexual Assault” – Susanna Vogel’s article on the HerCampus Davidson page.
See also Davidson College’s Student Handbook, which includes information about the sexual misconduct policy.
May 1, 2014, “U.S. Department of Education Releases List of Higher Education Institutions with Open Title IX Sexual Violence Investigations” – The Education Department released the names of 55 colleges and universities that are under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. Davidson is not on the list, but two other NC schools are- the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Guilford College.
April 30, 2014, NPR.org, “Training Men And Women On Campus To ‘Speak Up’ To Prevent Rape”
April 28, 2014, New York Times, “White House to Press Colleges to Do More to Combat Rape”
April 2014, Whitehouse.gov, “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to
Protect Students From Sexual Assault”
March 1, 2013, DavidsonNews.net Health & Fitness, “Outside reading: Rape is real, even at beloved Carolina” – UNC Chapel Hill student Andrea Pino wrote about her rape in the Huffington Post, sparking a debate there.