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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

Reexamining Our Sexual Assault Investigative Process

This student has requested to remain anonymous, and given the highly personal and sensitive nature of the piece, the Campus has honored this request.

Though the John Doe case was settled months ago and he is no longer enrolled at Middlebury, I nonetheless feel compelled to weigh in. I empathized with Doe. I’m not saying he is innocent, but I’m not calling him guilty either. I, too, was accused of sexual assault (and cleared after an extensive investigation, more on that later). There is a myriad of ways a rape investigation can go wrong. There are several factors that can adversely affect alleged perpetrators, alleged victims and the integrity of the investigation.

We have evolved as a society. Student activists have fought for the rights of silenced voices. Now, previously marginalized voices are heard, and this has changed how we view some of the most painful experiences these individuals go through. Nowhere is this clearer than in conversations regarding sexual violence. I would like to believe that we are slowly moving away from victim-blaming and that we take any allegation of sexual violence with the seriousness it deserves. On this campus, I feel that it is unthinkable to stand in front of someone who claims to be a victim of sexual violence and dare ask: “are you sure?” Anyone who questions a victim publicly would be shamed and ostracized.

Yet in academics, skepticism is the defining trait of a good learner. We are taught to inquire and doubt everything that surrounds us. And so it is striking when we are prevented from doing so in cases involving sexual violence. This “always believe the victim” mentality implies that the person at the other end of the accusation must be guilty. He’s being accused ergo, he must have done it. The presumption of innocence goes out the window, along with due process. How does this affect someone? People might be reluctant to be seen with or talk to the accused. Who wants to be associated with someone who has been called a rapist? As a consequence, the person who has been accused is left isolated and confused, all because of one person’s testimony.

And the effects don’t end there. After a student has reported an incident, a No Contact Order (NCO) will be put in place. This prevents the alleged victim and perpetrator from having any type of contact. While this is a good measure, it poses a different set of challenges. If two individuals happen to have a common group of friends, or live in the same house/dorm, it will reinforce the state of isolation, pushing the accused to move out of his or her room and creating a divide among friends. This also gives the alleged victim an outlet to push his/her own version and interpretation of events. If someone approaches you and asks “did you do it?” it feels an awful lot like the “are you sure?” question we choose not to ask alleged victims.

If someone is (unofficially) accusing another person of rape and causing significant harm, could you initiate an investigation to clear your name? The answer is, surprisingly, no. You are powerless, trapped between bureaucracy and one person’s account of how things happened. At this point, I started questioning the “judicial system” we have at the College. I put it between quotation marks because it is a farce. It claims to be fair, but it lacks transparency and allows for situations like the one I described above to happen. It can make promises, but there is no guarantee they will be fulfilled. Title IX states that students will be protected and not discriminated against in such a way that prevents them from learning or creates a hostile environment for learning, yet I was subjected to a hostile environment where my social life, academic career and mental health were all in jeopardy. All this happened before an official investigation had been launched.

According to Middlebury’s handbook, complaints of this nature need to be resolved within 60 days. My case took over 150 days. This investigation extended from the second week of J-term until two weeks after classes were over. I was forced to balance the emotional burden of my investigation and my academic career for half a year. I thought it would only take 60 days, but as I got deeper and deeper into the process, the further away the conclusion to this awful ordeal seemed. For those unfamiliar with the process, it goes something like this:

1. A report is made to either Public Safety or the Judicial Affairs Officer (JAO).

2. A No Contact Order (NCO) is requested, preventing both parties from having any form of contact.

3. A formal request for an investigation is put forth by the alleged victim.

4. A private investigator is appointed to collect materials relevant to the case. The investigator collects official reports, statements and conducts interviews regarding the alleged incident.

5. The accuser and accused receive all the materials collected by the private investigator and have a chance to review them. They then have the opportunity to hand in a written response regarding the evidentiary materials.

6. Responses are reviewed and those in charge of the investigation decide if the written responses contain any additional leads that should trigger another investigation or further interviews. If the people in charge decide there is a need for further examination, the process goes back to step 4.

7. If the evidence is conclusive, it will be passed on to the Human Relation Officer (HRO) for examination and deliberation.

8. An interview between the HRO and the accused is conducted (merely a formality at this point since no more evidence can be introduced).

9. A decision and rationale for said decision is usually made within a week of the interview.

The first two steps are fairly straight-forward: the alleged victim contacts Public Safety or the JAO. The alleged perpetrator is notified and served with the NCO. The issue with this is that only the alleged victim has access to this “judicial system” and it completely excludes the alleged perpetrator, preventing him/her from ever filing a complaint against someone who unfairly accuses them of a despicable crime. Reputations can suffer on both ends. I also take issue with point five. I was promised the evidence acquired by the private investigator on two separate occasions, but these promises were nothing but lies. When the administration finally delivered the first round of evidence, it was the first week of midterms, on a day I had a test in one of my hardest classes from that term. All of my inquires before this date about the availability of the evidence was met with a firm “by the end of week” and every disappointment generated by the failure to deliver the evidence was met with a vague “next week.” At this point, I was angry and no longer trusted the people presiding over the case. It felt that they were trying to get rid of me. Midterms are difficult enough as is, but I now also had to grapple with reading approximately 15 accounts of the night I allegedly raped someone. Reading the same story from 15 different people’s perspectives, one after the other, is an incredibly tough experience. It requires mental preparation. I was advised to have someone I trust go through this process with me. After two weeks of being dismissed with a “sorry, next week,” the school finally released the first round of evidence. The presentation of evidence was incredibly disorganized and additional evidence, not included in the initial email to me, was added multiple times, creating a long, incoherent record. But I thought that this was the only way I will ever get to clear my name. There was nowhere else to go, so despite the fact that I did not trust the College officials overseeing the process, I needed to gather the courage to finish. So I followed the procedure. I wrote a response defending my account and pointing at evidence that supported it. Unfortunately for me, my alleged victim lied again and told the investigator that my group of friends had covered up sexual assault in the past. This led to yet another investigation. I had to go through points four and five again. New evidence was released “coincidentally” during the second week of midterms (this was, of course, after requesting the evidence twice again). Now the school was making learning impossible. I felt that I was being harassed using bureaucratic means with an end goal of having me fail, so that I would be kicked out. From the very beginning I cooperated with the school. I provided a detailed and consistent account of the events that transpired. Yet I felt that this was not good enough and the school wanted to get rid of me.

The College’s system for dealing with sexual assault does not give you what you deserve, regardless of whether you are an alleged victim or alleged perpetrator of violence. The “preponderance of evidence” standard employed by colleges, in which you are guilty even when you are only 51 percent likely to have committed a crime, is much weaker than the “beyond any reasonable doubt” standard used in courts. There is no reason to prove that you actually committed a crime and this leads to a weak due process. In case the school does find you guilty, you could face a suspension, expulsion or a nasty comment on your record. I have witnessed people do reckless things at parties like illegal drugs, destruction of school property and underage drinking that could land them the same punishment as sexual assault. As a victim, you could end up facing your attacker a semester or year after the incident. You want justice? Don’t go to the administration, go to the police. The college system is not a safe one. The system is very prone to make mistakes, mistakes that weigh heavily on people’s mental health. From a student perspective, next time you hear someone has been accused of sexual assault, take a moment and look at this process critically. Not everyone who is accused is guilty and not all those who report sexual assault are victims. If you think I’m wrong, go ahead, challenge my words. I would love for activists to disagree with me. There is a much needed debate regarding the standards to which we should hold ourselves accountable.