A Semester In Review: One College’s Response to A Federal Investigation

In light of a New York Times article condemning the school's sexual assault handling and an investigation into their process, HWS vowed to review and update its policies

GENEVA, NY – A picture perfect campus with an esteemed academic reputation, Hobart & William Smith Colleges (HWS) appears at first to be a typical liberal arts university. And typical it is, right down to its mishandling of sexual assault cases.

Colleges Are Federally Investigated

The story begins in May of 2014 when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 colleges – including HWS – that were under investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases.

The total number of schools being investigated reportedly rose to 76, according to a Huffington Post article in August. A similar article in October claimed an increased total of 85 colleges were under investigation.

Students walk around campus as snow continues to fall during the day.

Students walk through campus during a snow storm as classes draw to a close for the semester.

“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a press release for the Department of Education.

“We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue. I also want to make it clear that a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”

Enforcement of Title IX means that discrimination in education programs on the basis of sex is prohibited at any schools that receive federal funding. The investigation meant to probe for any violations of the law with regards to sexual violence.

The list was released in conjunction with the Obama administration’s commitment to end instances of sexual assault on college campuses. President Obama’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault aims to increase transparency for responses to sexual assault cases by the federal government.

HWS Comes Under Fire

News of the federal investigation of the Colleges spread throughout the college community when the list was released, but was quickly forgotten after classes let out for the summer.

On July 12, HWS community members awoke to an article on the front page of The New York Times denouncing the school’s handling of a specific sexual assault case. The article “Reporting Rape and Wishing She Hadn’t” detailed the experiences of a William Smith first-year student named Anna after she was allegedly sexually assaulted on campus and tried to report the incident to the school administration.

The students Anna named as her accusers were cleared of any wrongdoing by the school twelve days after she reported the alleged assault, despite witnesses to the attack and the changing stories of the accused. These witnesses declined to testify during the Colleges’ hearing.

HWS did not have the power to call these students to testify in the resulting university hearing. Only a court of law could have issued a subpoena for their testimony.

Following the article’s publication, the school’s administration, specifically President Mark Gearan, promised to review the school’s implementation of Title IX policies, as well as its overall handling of reported sexual assault cases.

A Promise for Change
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The Office of Title IX Programs and Compliance staff have a conversation.

A physical office has since been established for Title IX that includes Interim Title IX Coordinator and Associate Dean of Students Stacey Pierce, Assistant Director of the Center for Counseling and Student Wellness Maria Saavedra Finger, Staff Psychologist Elizabeth J. Carroll and Legal Advisor Theresa A. Conroy.

The Colleges’ Culture of Respect webpage details some of the promises for change.

“As we acknowledge that we have systems, policies and caring professionals that exceed the standards at many other institutions, we are called to do more. We are called to be better,” the page states.

Part of this promise for change has included the creation of a steering committee headed by former William Smith Admissions Head Mara O’Laughlin ’66 and Professor Emeritus Pat McGuire of the Economics Department. Committee members include faculty, alumni, students and parents.

The mission of the committee is to “examine, research and offer recommendations designed to elicit important positive change at Hobart and William Smith Colleges,” according to its website. “Specifically, the committee will offer recommendations designed to cultivate a culture of respect within five focus areas that include 1) safety and wellness, 2) campus facilities, 3) history and heritage, 4) dialogue across differences and 5) the curriculum review.”

Zap Ed News conducted an email interview with Pierce about changes being made to the school’s policies.

Since the start of the semester and the establishment of the Title IX office on campus, a new adjudication process has been implemented.

The procedures for no contact orders between students involved in a sexual assault case have not changed and no additional enforcement of them is in place at this time.

The work being completed by the Title IX office is reflected in “Title IX Know Your Options” brochures and posters; resource magnets, bookmarks, and posters; and the Nine from IX weekly e-newsletter.

When asked about what she considered to be the main accomplishments of the Title IX office this semester, Pierce responded with the following:

  • Increased dialogue and outreach through a variety of platforms:
    • The Sexual Violence Response Evaluation Team (SVRET) which includes a representatives from students, faculty, staff, Geneva Police Department, District Attorney’s office, Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, and F. F. Thompson Hospital.
    • Dine with IX lunches and Community Conversation events to hear from students regarding their concerns, ideas, and suggestions which could provide a safe environment and one where students can comfortably access on and off campus resources and supports.
    • Various trainings with students, faculty, and staff, including Bringing in the Bystander training, have provided an opportunity to increase knowledge and awareness on campus.
    • The distribution of revised and new resources across campus and electronically has increased awareness of options, resources, and supports.
    • The weekly Nine from IX e-newsletter provides regular updates on the work in the Title IX office and other relevant programming and interest pieces.

Prior to The New York Times article, there were already plans in place to update the school’s policies. “The Colleges were planning to update and revise the policy based upon the April 2014 guidance issued by the White House and the Office for Civil Rights,” said Pierce.

The office has taken no action in reviewing the school’s handling of past cases of sexual assault.

Students Take Action

Following The New York Times article, students began to take matters into their own hands. The Coalition for Concerned Students (COCS) was established as a means for students to join the conversation surrounding the school’s handling of sexual assault cases, as well as provide a support system for victims.

William Smith Senior Carly Petroski spearheaded a campaign to start a sexual assault hotline for students. Student volunteers have been trained in coordination with Safe Harbors, a nonprofit organization that provides support for victims of sexual assault and their families.

Victims Speak Out

Students march to the Office of Students Affairs on December 12.

A group of close to 20 William Smith students staged a protest on December 12 in support of a senior woman who was being kept in the dark about details surrounding her sexual assault case, particularly with regards to whether the perpetrator would be allowed to return to campus as a full-time student.

These women chanted their grievances with the process and carried signs, some of which read “Change the System” and “I’m tired. Come on Robb.”

After 3 meetings this student and her faculty advocate had scheduled with Dean of Students Robb Flowers were cancelled, the protesting students accompanied her to the Office of Student Affairs.

She spoke about her experience of reporting a sexual assault to the school and how her assaulter was allowed to re-enroll at HWS this fall without her or Flower’s knowledge due to lacking communication between the administration, Title IX, and Student Affairs offices.

“Overall, this process has just drained me and has pushed me so close to just giving up and not fighting for a better system anymore, which I find to be a HUGE problem,” this student told Zap Ed News in an interview.

Another female student described how despite previous support from Flowers with regards to her own sexual assault case, no amount of push back against his office made any difference when her attacker was allowed into the same class with her this semester.


Students rally in support of sexual assault victims on campus.

“The office of Student Affairs has systematically left survivors to fend for themselves throughout the processes of sexual assault cases, made survivors and witnesses feel alienated and alone, and disregarded the voices of women on this campus to serve the status quo,” said a student organizer involved with the recent protest against the Office.

What Now?

After the release of The New York Times article, many HWS community members were outraged at the lack of justice for Anna. Others disagreed, feeling the school had done its duty. The campus remains divided on the current status of the school’s handling of sexual assault cases.

“The heightened awareness of the impact of sexual misconduct has led to increased dialogue and a shared commitment that our policy reflects our institutional values and provides the necessary resources and supports for students,” said Pierce about the overall campus atmosphere following the release of The New York Times article.

However, despite the efforts of the administration, Student Affairs, and Office of Title IX Programs and Compliance to improve the school’s handling of sexual assault cases, William Smith students feel silenced as the rights of perpetrators are still being prioritized over those of victims. Until victims feel enfranchised by the school to take action against their attackers, they will demand further action against perpetrators in service of the culture of respect that the Title IX office promises.

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Annabelle is the Editor-In-Chief of Zap Ed News and their primary hard news reporter, contributing weekly to the political and general news beats with local, national, and international coverage. She was born in Providence, RI and is a senior at Hobart & William Smith Colleges where she will graduate in the spring with a degree in Writing & Rhetoric. She is not sure what she wants to do after graduation, but hopes to continue writing.