‘I felt like my safety didn’t matter’: One resident advisor’s story of how Residential Life failed her
This story is by Orli Sheffey, who died in February at the age of 19. Orli felt strongly that the Washington University community should read this story, so she spent many hours finishing her reporting over Winter Break and the start of the spring semester. Student Life editors Matthew Friedman and Ted Moskal contributed reporting after Orli’s death.
On the first day of classes in the fall of 2020, Sept. 14, Alyssa Ashford, then a resident advisor in Lopata House on the north side of the Washington University campus, got a text from her supervisor, Residential College Director Melanie Cassidy: loud music was blasting from a room on the first floor.
Ashford, a senior at the time, located the music to a suite on the floor and gave a warning about noise complaints to the two male residents who answered the door. It was a frustrating way to start the semester, she thought, but nothing too far out of the ordinary.
Three hours later, a resident complained in the floor GroupMe chat about “loud moaning” coming from the same suite that had earlier blasted the music. The resident later told Ashford that the moaning sounded like pornography. A resident from the suite responded in the floor GroupMe that “We [are] just having a special time.”
For Ashford, the pornography audio was especially problematic because a faculty fellow with a young daughter lived close to the suite. At Cassidy’s advice, Ashford addressed the comments in the GroupMe and wrote an incident report.
The first night of school did not end there. Just after 1 a.m., Ashford’s co-RA texted her about a COVID violation in the same suite. Ashford wrote another incident report and contacted Cassidy, who told her that Student Conduct would handle the violation.
Nights like these, in which Ashford had to deal with disturbances from the suite, turned out to be common throughout the fall 2020 semester. Yet little changed as the suite residents’ behavior escalated from nuisance to more persistent harassment and Ashford filed incident report after incident report.
By January 2021, the Office of Residential Life’s handling of the situation had driven Ashford to resign from her position, the lack of mechanisms for accountability and RA support forming an indelible stain on her college experience.
While Ashford’s story is simply that of one individual RA’s experience, it shines light on the recent tensions in the relationship between RAs and the university that relies upon them to house and support its students. Since the spring of 2020, many RAs have expressed frustration with Residential Life’s treatment of RAs, citing inadequate compensation, poor communication and insufficient safety protections, among other concerns. Twenty students who had been offered positions chose not to serve as RAs in Fall 2020, for example, and in Fall 2021, Residential Life engaged in a mid-year hiring process for the first time ever .
Residential Life administrators declined to comment on any specifics of Ashford’s experience.
*** A “community issue” ***
Cassidy, the residential college director, texted Ashford on Sept. 15 that Kyle Williams, assistant director of student conduct and community standards, would “def handle it!” On Sept. 20, after more noise complaints from multiple residents, Cassidy texted Ashford that the two residents had been unresponsive to her emails to schedule a meeting and that she would ask Williams to meet with them.
After dealing with disturbances from the suite for over a week and no disciplinary action taken yet, Ashford said she met with Cassidy on Sept. 22 and told her that she wanted the two residents kicked out of the dorm.
Ashford continued to face issues with these residents, including dealing with comments the residents made in the floor GroupMe chat that Ashford perceived as mocking her. The residents’ actions began to escalate to the point of harassment, Ashford said.
On Sept. 28, Ashford was awoken at 2:30 a.m. by a “piercing scream” outside her room that was “so loud it sounded like he was in the room with me.” After “jumping out of bed,” concerned that someone was in pain, she checked the hallway and found it to be quiet. She then heard the same scream coming from the suite. Ashford said she barely slept that night.
A few days later, a housekeeper knocked on Ashford’s door to tell her about toilet paper streamed from her dorm room to the suite. Ashford texted Cassidy and got what had become a typical response: write an incident report and that Cassidy would follow up with the suite.
Ashford said that Cassidy told her in an Oct. 2 meeting that Williams said Conduct would not see the case because it was a “community issue.” In addition to specific questions about Ashford’s case, Student Life asked Residential Life more broad questions, such as what generally constitutes a “community issue.” In an email statement, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Kawanna Leggett and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Anna Gonzalez wrote that the Office of Residential Life was not able to comment on matters related to specific students, including residential advisors, or on individual allegations of student conduct for students living in Residential Life housing. They did not address the question about what generally constitutes a “community issue.”
With the screaming outside her door and draped toilet paper being the latest physical disturbances to Ashford’s life, she became concerned that the two residents could “attack her in a violent manner,” especially since “these are two males; I am one female.”
In addition, the two residents had Blue Lives Matter and Trump flags in their windows, which everyone in the Village could see. Ashford said she could not say anything about it, since it was their First Amendment right to post the flags, but that the Blue Lives Matter flag still made her uncomfortable. “The Blue Lives Matter flag, I take personally because I’m a Black woman and because of what Blue Lives Matter stands for — it was a retaliation against Black Lives Matter and complete disregard to the Black experience in America.”
When Ashford met with Cassidy on Oct. 6, she told her that she did not feel comfortable in her own space and that she began to take measures to avoid the residents for her safety.
“[The two residents] like to stay up late at night — I tried to do stuff early in the morning,” Ashford told Student Life. “If I had to walk past their room, I would automatically mentally armor myself up where I’m just like ‘okay, well if I have this interaction with them, I’m gonna do this,’ [and] I’m already thinking about all the different ways I need to protect myself.”
Ashford said that the suite residents “completely disrupted” her life. She preferred to study in her dorm, but she could not do so comfortably with screaming both during the day and at night, along with the music the suite residents blasted. All the time Ashford spent writing incident reports and dealing with the suite’s issues took significant time away from studying for classes and the MCAT, she said.
Ashford grew frustrated from writing incident reports because “no accountability came from them.” Cassidy told Ashford to continue writing them, so there would be more evidence against the residents for Conduct to evaluate, Ashford said.
“They’re basically telling me to keep writing [incident reports] and to continue to allow them to do what they’re doing so that I can write [incident reports], so that that’s more evidence against them…rather than helping me and getting me out of that environment,” Ashford told Student Life. “That’s just like telling somebody who is in a domestic violent relationship, ‘Oh, well stay with that person, allow them to beat you so that you have more evidence against that person.’”
*** “We’re concerned that there is not enough accountability” ***
On Oct. 12, Cassidy texted Ashford that she had an incident with the two residents over the weekend and that their case had been sent to Conduct. “I think it took several other residents’ complaints for it to rise,” Cassidy texted Ashford.
Ashford described the disparities between how RAs and residents are treated when facing instances of harassment. “If I would have said, ‘Oh, I have a resident being mocked and harassed…it would have been like ‘write an [incident report], check on the student, make sure that they are okay, ask them what they [need], give them resources, etc.’” Ashford said. “But that was not the response I got…I felt like my safety didn’t matter because I was an RA.”
It was around this time, Ashford said, that she consulted her linguistics professor, John Baugh, for emotional support and advice. “He was one of the biggest supporters I had,” Ashford said.
Baugh told Student Life that his “heart went out to [Ashford] for trying to handle the situation for so long on her own.”
“It’s the combination of racial harassment and sexual harassment that I found particularly troubling,” Baugh said. “I know that she was really trying her best as an RA to create an inclusive environment where everybody felt comfortable…so there was a part of that that made it even harder, given what she was trying to accomplish, for the harassment that she experienced to take place.”
Baugh said that he directed Ashford to some people who he thought might be able to help in an official capacity. In addition, Ashford said that Baugh checked in on her to make sure that she was okay.
With more noise violations from the suite and no changes seen throughout October, Ashford said she grew increasingly concerned about the lack of support from Residential Life. Although she had received an email from then Associate Director of Residential Life Molly Pierson on Oct. 4 saying that “Someone will be in touch tomorrow about next steps,” Ashford never got more information.
On Oct. 19, Ashford’s co-RA emailed Pierson on behalf of the Village staff. “We’re concerned that there is not enough accountability for residents who are continuously breaking ResLife policies. A specific suite of students has been particularly troublesome to one of our RAs (Alyssa Ashford),” the email read. “Multiple [incident reports] have been written for a variety of concerning situations involving this group of students, and while Alyssa has heard back from both our RCD and other ResLife representatives, we’re all concerned that there isn’t enough done to properly respond to the situation.”
“Yes, I have been keeping a close eye on this evolving situation,” Pierson responded three days later. “I have asked my colleagues in the Office of Student Conduct and Community standards to address the situation and know that follow-up is happening. I also know there is one student in the suite who has asked to move.”
Ashford told Cassidy on Nov. 6 that she did not feel supported by Residential Life, and Cassidy said she would connect her with Pierson, so Ashford could tell her. Pierson reached out to Ashford to set up a time to meet on Nov. 18. “Her emails are almost always delayed, which conveyed to me that she didn’t think my situation was important,” Ashford said.
In the email exchanges to set up the meeting, it took Pierson four to six days to respond to Ashford.
*** “Disrespected and ignored” ***
Ashford met with Pierson over Zoom on Nov. 30, and Ashford said she expressed her frustration with why the two residents were not referred to Student Conduct sooner. Ashford said Pierson told her in the meeting that Conduct did not have enough evidence to see the case sooner, which Ashford “did not understand,” given the many incident reports she had written.
During the meeting with Pierson, Ashford said she proposed Residential Life policy changes, which included more explicit protections for RAs. At a minimum, RAs should be provided the same resources as residents, such as housing accommodations, conflict resolution and restorative justice, Ashford said.
Ashford said that she asked Pierson why she was not offered housing accommodations, and she said Pierson told her that Residential Life has the power to remove RAs from a situation, but rarely uses it.
Ashford said she pushed back with an example, asking Pierson what would happen if she was sexually assaulted by a resident on her floor. Ashford said that Pierson told her that in that case, Residential Life would grant housing accommodations, but that they would try to get her back in the dorm as soon as possible, so she could continue being an RA.
“I just felt so disrespected and ignored,” Ashford said about the meeting. “[Pierson] just said she would follow up.”
On Jan. 2, Ashford emailed Pierson after not receiving any follow up from the Nov. 30 meeting. Pierson responded in a Jan. 19 email, writing that she “drafted a message and never hit send” and that connecting with a Residential Life assistant director would be a “great next step.”
Finding Pierson’s email “insufficient,” Ashford emailed Cassidy, Pierson and other administrators on the same day to officially inform them of her resignation for the spring 2021 semester.
“The reasons for my resignation are based on the lack of support I received from Residential Life and Student Conduct while I was being harassed by two of my male residents for the first 7 weeks of the Fall semester,” Ashford wrote. “I do hope this letter of resignation can be a vehicle to look into methods to improve the well-being [of] RAs.”
*** “Where is our protocol for when a resident does that to us?” ***
One of the administrators Ashford copied on her resignation email, Associate Dean for Student Success Harvey Fields, responded the same day. “I will contact several persons whose names I did not see on the distribution of your message, as well as several whose names did appear, to follow-up with them about their next steps regarding your complaint,” Fields wrote. “I am sorry that the circumstances motivated you to resign, but I applaud your taking action to maintain your well-being.”
Ashford met with Fields on Jan. 21, and they met again every week until the end of February. Ashford said he provided emotional support.
Ashford said that Fields helped her get connected with Sheryl Mauricio, interim executive director of Residential Life and associate dean in the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, so she could push for policy change to protect future RAs.
Over two meetings in early February, Mauricio gave her space to share her experience and asked if there was anything she could do to help, Ashford said.
“I just told the story and I was just like, ‘What you can do to support me is to put these policies in place,’” Ashford said. “That’s all I want…because I can’t get anything out of this situation; it already happened…none of what I went through should have happened.”
Ashford’s proposed policy changes included protections for RAs that ensured that they had the same resources as residents and more explicit accountability for residents’ actions.
“Even though they say that my case was very extreme, I don’t think it is,” Ashford said. “I really don’t think it’s outlandish to think that somebody would harass an RA. People get harassed all the time, and we have a protocol in the duty manual on how to [handle those situations]. Where is our protocol for when a resident does that to us?”
*** “ResLife in general thinks that RAs are disposable” ***
Ashford said she did not hear from Mauricio again after the February meeting. In a March 5 email to Ashford, Fields said that he would follow up with Mauricio. On May 14, Ashford sent a follow-up email to Mauricio asking “if there has been any progress regarding the support and resources Residential Advisors need and the additional policy changes we discussed” and did not receive a response.
Ashford learned that the two residents continued to be a problem throughout the spring semester. In screenshots of a GroupMe with Ashford’s former co-RAs in March 2021, the RAs described dealing with “weekly” noise violations from the suite. “To my knowledge, Conduct did nothing to hold them accountable,” Ashford said.
On July 19, 2021, Ashford filed a complaint to Washington University Human Resources.
On July 23, Kevin Pelzel, a Human Resources consultant, emailed Ashford, saying that Human Resources was not the appropriate department to investigate her complaint and said he referred the complaint to Residential Life and Student Conduct. Ashford responded that she had concerns about that referral, given how those departments had handled the situation at the time. Pelzel responded on July 26 that he referred the complaint to Student Affairs Leadership for their review.
Pelzel told Student Life in an email that “Human Resources is unable to comment on the issues that it handles as to do so may impact our impartiality.”
On July 26, Ashford also filed a Title IX complaint. She wrote in a summary of her experience that she had done so to ensure that “there is a record of there being a complaint against the boys if anyone has any sexual harassment complaints against them in the future.”
Cynthia Copeland, assistant director of the Gender Equity and Title IX Complaint Office and associate Title IX coordinator, told Ashford in an Aug. 2 email that “the concerns you raised were addressed by the Office for Student Conduct and Community Standards during the 2020-2021 academic year.” Ashford responded, asking what Conduct did to address the issue, and Copeland referred her to Mauricio.
Copeland told Student Life that she could not comment on any specific report.
On Aug. 2, Ashford then emailed Rob Wild, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students. “I had a very traumatic experience as an RA this past school year and I have tried instilling policies in ResLife that would protect and support RAs since November. I haven’t been very successful, so I wanted to reach out to you for help,” Ashford wrote. “Dr. Baugh recommended that I speak with you in the Fall of 2020, but I don’t want to bother someone in your high position, so I tried talking to other individuals first…I did enjoy my first year as an RA and it helped shape who I am today. I just want RAs to continue to be successful so that they can continue making their communities better.”
Wild responded shortly after on Aug. 2, saying that Associate Vice Chancellor Kawanna Leggett would set up a follow-up meeting. Leggett emailed Ashford Aug. 4 to set up a meeting, which Ashford declined.
“I wanted action, not another conversation that probably wouldn’t get anything done. I did not want to hear another apology; I wanted to see what was being done to prevent RAs from going through an experience like mine,” Ashford told Student Life. “I had spoken with people who could have taken action already: Melanie Cassidy, Molly Pierson and Sheryl Mauricio. I was tired of talking and being referred to someone else.”
Cassidy, Pierson and Mauricio all did not respond to Student Life’s requests for comment. Williams declined to comment. Wild deferred to the email statement from Leggett and Gonzalez.
“We rely on a team of dedicated and talented resident advisors to provide leadership and help facilitate community in our residential properties on and off campus,” Leggett and Gonzalez wrote. “This is a very important leadership role, and one that requires significant training and supervision. Our goal is always to provide our team of resident advisors with the tools, training, and support they need to be successful. Our training and supervision is directly informed by ongoing resident advisor feedback.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone,” the administrators continued. “Our team has worked tirelessly during the past two years to provide support and guidance to our resident advisors, to respond to their feedback, and to support them in the important role they hold at the University. It’s very important to us that our resident advisors feel supported and valued and we’re committed to working with our students to resolve issues as they arise.”
Ashford had not felt that way. “ResLife in general thinks that RAs are disposable,” she said. “That’s how they treated us.”
If you are a current or former resident advisor who would like to share your experience with Student Life for follow-up stories, email [email protected]. Community members can also fill out our anonymous tip form.