Op-ed: A system where you can’t win
Content warning: This article contains sensitive language regarding physical and sexual violence.
The recent attention Student Life has given to victims of sexual assault as well as the Title Mine rally has inspired me to come forward and share my own experiences with the Title IX process. I understand first-hand how difficult it can be to write and to talk about the events that follow rape and sexual assault, let alone advocate for change. The focus of many of these op-eds and articles has been the processes before catching the perpetrator of the assault and reporting. These processes are both extremely difficult and I am inspired by the courage of those who have chosen to speak out about them.
In all these narratives, however, what is often getting left out is the deficiencies in the school’s support following the reporting process. Even when the report and investigation are ruled in your favor, getting justice is still painful. A sentiment I have heard expressed by many victims of sexual assault is that “although the rape was bad, the way I was treated by the University was worse.” The statement is unfathomable until one experiences it.
I have made it through the entirety of the reporting process. My rapist has been expelled from Washington University’s campus. Yet, I still feel awful about the entire process of reporting.
When Title IX Director Jessica Kennedy sat me down in a room in the Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center and told me that my rapist was officially expelled from campus, I was hit with a flood of emotions ranging from grief, despair and guilt to elation and a sense of relief. Any positive emotions I experienced during that time did not last long.
Immediately after sharing that the University concluded expulsion would be a suitable and necessary punishment, Kennedy then explained that my rapist had two weeks to request an appeal. This meant that he could send the case back to Provost Holden Thorp for further review, which could lead to a change in sentencing. Hearing this made me wonder why were there so many checks and balances for him and his well-being, but not for mine? I already had to explain my story half a dozen times, reveal excruciating detail about the rape and have those details corroborated by half a dozen witnesses. I was unsure what else could possibly have been done to prove the rape occurred.
Kennedy then stated that because the University issued him the highest penalty they could give, an expulsion, during this appeal period they could not punish him any further for actions he may commit against me or any of my witnesses. I heard her say not only could they not punish him further, but they also could not (or would not) protect me. I was told that if he did decide to come after me, either legally or physically, I should call the Washington University Police Department. This was presented to me as the only action the University would be able to take, even though calling the police is the normal response to being in danger in any situation and even though the University concluded he posed too much of a risk to remain on campus and nonetheless allowed him to stay.
I was told that for the the two-week period while he could file an appeal, I could not walk alone. I needed constant chaperoning, but they did not offer me protection of any kind, let alone offer to monitor my rapist in any way. I was ushered to and from class by helpful friends but felt claustrophobic both in my room, a constant reminder of the rape, and on campus. My one outlet during this whole experience had been my ability to escape reality by going on runs. I couldn’t even do that. Campus began to feel like a prison and I was on high alert, looking over my shoulder constantly, gasping and freezing every time I saw an individual that looked even remotely like him.
After two weeks of fear and imprisonment, I was told by Kennedy that he had decided to file an appeal at the last possible moment he could. The appeal allowed him to stay on campus for two more weeks while Provost Thorp decided if the punishment given to him by the University was just or not. This meant that my rapist was allowed to be on Wash. U.’s campus without constraint a month after a panel of non-biased individuals ruled that he had orally, anally and vaginally raped me while I was unconscious, and that he should be expelled as a result.
While Thorp eventually chose to uphold the panel’s unanimous decision that an expulsion was justified, I left the situation feeling not empowered nor relieved but infuriated about how it took over five months after reporting for my rapist to be removed from campus.
A couple days after the provost’s decision, I received an email from Kennedy stating that she confirmed with the Office of Residential Life that my rapist had left the campus a couple days after the panel’s initial decision.
For four weeks I walked around in complete terror and agony, fearing not only for my life but for the lives of my friends who acted as witnesses. I did not know if every time I turned the corner I would be faced with a man who brutally raped me, who was now angered and whose actions could not be held accountable by the University. Yet during this time, when the administration knew that my rapist had left the campus, no one thought to tell me. This is a standard of the entire reporting process.
I tell my story now to ensure that in the critical conversation about Title IX there is demand for a complete upheaval of the system. It cannot just simply be a change in the amount of sanctions given to rapists, or the replacement of Kennedy. It has to go deeper than that. Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s list of commitments is a good start, but the conversation cannot end there. More funding is needed to support the RSVP Center and people like Kim Webb, its director, who are committed to supporting survivors, but are constantly constrained by the limits of the current system. The system is broken every step of the way, and a complete rethinking of the Title IX process and how the school supports survivors—even beyond reporting—is needed.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to better reflect the concerns of the author related to protection for her and witnesses during the appeal period.