Lila Hobbs was a 20-year-old sophomore in 2007 when she reported having been sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Gonzaga University in Spokane Stunned, and feeling overwhelmed, Hobbs kept silent for a month. Finally, she sought counseling and decided to pursue justice through the school’s internal judiciary committee.
Like Hobbs, Stephanie S., who asked that her last name not be used, was just embarking on her college career in 2001 when she, too, reported a sexual assault, this one in a dorm room at the hands of a University of Washington athlete she had casually dated for a few months. Like Hobbs, Stephanie also kept quiet at first, scared and unsure where to turn for help. After confiding to a coach about six months later, she sought recourse through the school.
Although their cases happened on separate campuses, separated by half a dozen years, the outcomes were similar, reflecting what often happens on college campuses across the country when students claim sexual assaults by other students.
Both women say the schools’ handling of their cases compounded their trauma. Both point to insensitive handling that ranged from inappropriate questioning to, in Stephanie’s case, being required to go through mediation and sitting next to the man she’d accused. Discipline for the alleged perpetrators was light or nonexistent. The experience left both of them angered that students who suffer sexual assaults by other students are often left to bear the emotional, physical and financial consequences, while those responsible for their anguish walk away.
These two cases illustrate the enormous difficulties women face when they attempt to have alleged attackers held accountable through a school disciplinary process. The student conduct committees that handle such hearings continue to be ill-informed of basic issues surrounding sexual assault, say advocates who work with college-age victims.
“Many schools are not equipped to handle these complaints,” said Janet Chung, staff attorney for Legal Voice, a nonprofit organization that does legal advocacy for women. There’s a lot of victim blaming in the hearing process itself, she said. “They ask, ‘Why didn’t you kick him? Push him?’”
If someone is robbed at an ATM machine, we don’t ask why they were there, or why it was late at night, said Kelly O’Connell, executive director of the nonprofit Sexual Violence Law Center in Seattle. There’s a double standard for sexual assault.
Trinka Porrata, president of Arizona-based Project GHB, is a former cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, who now consults for both police and college campuses about drugs and rape. She has sat through many hearings where it was clear that the hearing officials were confused about the boundaries between consensual and non-consensual sexual activity. It doesn’t matter whether someone has voluntarily consumed alcohol, she said. “The issue with consent is, ‘Are you able to give or withhold consent?’ We forget that.” Such hearings also tend to reflect a widely held cultural attitude that somehow a woman can’t have been raped if she “opened the door,” or knew the perpetrator. And that it couldn’t be rape if the victim didn’t call the police.
“But 75 to 80 percent of sexual assaults of college-age women are perpetrated by people they know,” said Adam Shipman, director of advocacy and education for the Sexual Assault and Family Trauma Response Center in Spokane, which does outreach and training at several area colleges, including Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, and Gonzaga University.
When ‘No’ Isn’t Enough
Hobbs, who grew up in Anchorage, had been casually dating a senior and student leader at Gonzaga, a Catholic university, during the spring semester when things went wrong.
“I went to his house,” she said. “I knew we were going to have sex, but then he began being very aggressive. He was pursuing things that were not OK in my book.” She asked him to stop, but he refused, she said. “I distinctly remember walking out of his house, going how did this happen? I knew exactly what it was. But I feel like I went into shock for a month … it overwhelmed me. I had to sort it out.”
It is extremely common for women not to report an assault, Shipman said. Self-blame and confusion contribute to the delay.
“I didn’t understand at the time I was the legal definition of rape,” said Stephanie S., who met the athlete when she started school at the UW and began working in the athletic department. The two dated for a few months, but Stephanie grew uncomfortable with what she says was increasingly demeaning and “disrespectful behavior,” including physically raising his hand to her “in a threatening manner” during sex, and using her clothing to clean up after sex, she said. So she broke it off. Despite that, according to court filings, the player forced his way into her dorm room, and had sex with her against her will.
Stephanie kept quiet about what happened, in part out of fear of physical repercussions. “He said, ‘If you tell anyone, you’ll hate me for the rest of your life,’” she said. “I didn’t for a long time. I didn’t really know how to take it.”
Six months later, however, “after a build-up of a lot of things,” she spilled her story to a coach. The case went to mediation, where Stephanie says she asked that the athlete be suspended from playing, or that he undergo counseling related to sexual assault. He denied the assault, and received neither sanction. Instead, the mediator ordered community service, which included moving the mediator’s piano, according to later civil court filings.
Most schools have some language prohibiting “sexual misconduct” in their school conduct codes. Definitions of what constitutes misconduct vary, although many are similar to state statutes that cover sexual assault. A second woman also reported an assault by the same player to University Police. No criminal charges were filed in either case, and the University of Washington prevailed in a civil case brought against it regarding its handling of Stephanie’s case. The athlete settled a civil case for an undisclosed amount with Stephanie. He also settled with the other woman as well, according to published accounts.
For victims of sexual assaults who do come forward and decide to pursue a charge through a school judiciary committee, the process can be frustrating and traumatizing all over again.
“Basically, the questions they were asking were very inappropriate,” said Hobbs, the former Gonzaga student. “For example they asked ‘Why wouldn’t you just hit him?’” she said. “It was complete re-victimization.” Her alleged attacker was sitting a few feet away, behind a white sheet, she said. “There was no privacy, or safety.”
In an emailed statement to Investigate West, Assistant Dean of Student Life Jeff Hart said: “Relevant questions are allowed going to perception, truth and veracity. As you might imagine these can be emotionally charged proceedings and the person being asked a question may have a particular perception of that question.”
Hobbs also felt she wasn’t given adequate time to prepare for a hearing. She says the school went back and forth about hearing the case, then offered a time during her finals week. The hearing was eventually held right after her winter break. Her request that other students not be on the hearing board was ignored, she said. She was uncomfortable having students in the hearing since both she and the alleged assailant were themselves high-profile students.
Sima Thorpe, assistant dean of students at Gonzaga said the university encourages students to come forward if they feel they have experienced an assault. Without commenting on the specific experience of any one student, she said in general that she recognizes and can appreciate the frustrations inherent in the hearing process. “If you are a victim, what’s justice for you? Are you going to get justice through a school hearing?” she said. “When you’ve gone through a dehumanizing experience, a hearing process is not going to make you feel whole again.”
Thorpe is one of the faculty members of the Sexual Assault Response Team on campus. She said the group, which has specialized training, gives students information about their options, including pursuing a disciplinary hearing. Members of the hearing board have also received special training in sexual assault cases, she said. The school’s policy is that students may present their own stories, but aren’t allowed to have a lawyer represent them. She added that the hearing process takes steps to keep the accused and accuser from having to see each other during the process.
“We are always striving to improve our processes related to sexual and relationship misconduct response,” Hart said. “We often receive feedback from many parties, including the reporting party, the accused, witnesses and others. That feedback is given serious consideration and acted upon as appropriate.”
‘You Opened the Door’
Stephanie’s case, in contrast, didn’t even get to a hearing. Instead, the athletic department, where she helped manage equipment, urged her to do mediation, and to quit her job with the department, she said.
“The mediation (process) discounted everything,” she said. “They said, ‘You opened the door. You should have called the police.’” The mediator told her that she had already talked to the player, and he was “very sorry,” she recalled. Stephanie felt the mediator was biased by that, and ultimately that the mediation was unfair. “You tell your side of the story, and nothing happens,” she said. She says she was also told that because mediation is a confidential process, she shouldn’t talk to anyone else about it, which in essence amounted to what she calls a gag order. Stephanie said she was not informed at the time that she could pursue a school disciplinary hearing. Later, when she learned she had that option, she filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming it mishandled her case.
The UW has since stopped using mediation for sexual assault cases, said Rebecca Roe, the attorney who represented Stephanie in her case against the university.
There has also been increased emphasis in recent years on getting the word to students about where and how to report an assault and what their options are, said Melissa Tumas, director of the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Information Service (SARIS) on campus. The service provides information and referral to help students decide whether to make a police report, or to initiate a disciplinary hearing, as well as where to get counseling.
“If the student chooses to work with the ombudsman (for mediation), that is their choice, but it is made clear to the student that they have the option of working with SARIS and reporting to the university through SARIS and the UW Police Department,” said Eric Godfrey, vice president of student life at UW.
Accused Students Claim Damages
Hearings are difficult for those accused of rape, as well. And schools also have to fear repercussions if they discipline a student for assaulting another student when no criminal charges have been filed. Some students who have been accused of, or found responsible for, assaults have sued their universities for damages they say they suffered as a result of the allegations. A former law student, for example, sued Gonzaga University last year for negligence and breach of contract stemming from his suspension after a 2006 disciplinary hearing involving an allegation of sexual assault. The student filed suit in the United States District Court of Eastern Washington, claiming, among other things, that the hearing process was unfair. The case, which is pending, asks for unspecified damages. His attorney declined to comment on the case, citing her client’s wishes. In a response filed with the court, Gonzaga’s attorneys denied the allegations the student’s treatment had been unfair.
In court documents, the student said he invited a fellow student to his apartment, and that both drank alcohol. She initiated sexual activity, he said, but at some point, the woman felt sick, and they stopped. She then spent the night on his couch, according to the complaint. The next day, the woman could not remember what had happened, and still felt ill. The male student urged her to go to the emergency room, according to the complaint. When she did, she asked to be tested for GHB, commonly known as a “date-rape drug.” Her level came back slightly elevated, although within what the lawsuit says were normal ranges. She then filed a complaint against the student with the school, initiating a disciplinary hearing. Ultimately, after multiple hearings, the school found “a reasonable person would have known that (Jane Doe) was not competent to give consent to sexual activity because of the large amount of alcohol she consumed in a relatively short time,” according to the filing. He was suspended for 18 months, and left with $60,000 in student loans for an uncompleted law education. He was later turned down by four subsequent laws schools after disclosing the reason he left Gonzaga. The lawsuit asks for damages for “economic loss, humiliation and other emotional distress.” The female student, now an attorney, remembers the episode differently. She recalled going to his house, drinking some wine, then feeling sick. She suspected she had been drugged and assaulted, she said in an interview.
“It was as though I had entered the twilight zone,” she said. “All the normal behavior I was used to my entire life had flipped – it didn’t add up.” Worried, she had her urine tested the next day for the drug GHB, a common date-rape drug that induces amnesia. The test came back showing a slightly elevated level, but not conclusive for having been given the drug. Experts who deal with GHB said it disappears from the blood and urine within hours after exposure, so the timing of a test can affect the level.
The case was not the first time Gonzaga has been sued by someone who was the subject of a sexual assault complaint. In a 2002 lawsuit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court, another student sued Gonzaga after an investigation into rumors that he had assaulted another student prevented him from obtaining a teacher certificate. The student won a jury verdict and damages against the school, claiming the school had breached its duty to keep education records private. The Supreme Court, however, later reversed the finding saying the school did not act improperly.
Janet Chung, the women’s advocacy attorney, worries that fear of litigation will make schools reluctant to take disciplinary action. “It’s chilling,” she said.
Advocates for assault victims fear such a trend could discourage school judiciary committees from taking action, leaving victims with no recourse, and sending the message that sexual assault bears no consequences. But women have few alternatives to these committees. Police seldom pursue investigations of date-rape cases because of the difficulties of winning such cases in court. Often there is alcohol involved, so the victims’ recollections are hazy, and usually there are no other witnesses. And if the victim has waited to report, crucial evidence may be lost.
“Unfortunately, the sad reality is many, many victims of sexual violence don’t get any justice,” said Shipman. And that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Women don’t report because they don’t feel like it will make a difference, he said.
Title IX Prosecutions
In the last five years, another avenue for pursuing accountability has emerged as more women have made use of Title IX lawsuits. Among its other provisions, Title IX prohibits schools from educational discrimination. Women have sued alleging that if schools don’t properly address sexual assault – the most severe form of harassment – it violates their right to receive a fair education. To win a Title IX case requires the victim to prove not just that the school mishandled the case, but that the student was deprived of an education. So, for example, if a woman is raped, but pulls herself together, and gets on with her classes, she is prevented from collecting damages, even if the school agrees that it mishandled how it responded to assault allegations.
“The Supreme Court created a new test with Title IX –you have to show deliberate indifference (to a student’s charges) as well as harm to their education,” said Chung. “What do courts mean – some deprivation of education benefit? Are they saying to require students to drop out to preserve their claim? It seems not consistent with the purpose of the law.”
Stephanie did pursue a Title IX claim against the UW. But after winning the right to pursue her claim from a state appeals court, a King County Superior Court jury found for UW in November of 2009, finding that Stephanie did well in school despite her experience.
The bar is extremely high, said Roe, the attorney who represented her. “At trial, you have to prove deliberate indifference.… And you have to prove severe and substantial impact.” They lost, in part because Stephanie continued to do well in school, despite her ordeal. Stephanie was an only child. When she was 14, her mother died of cancer. She learned at an early age to compartmentalize her feelings. Studying became her refuge after the assault allegation as well.
“If I focused on school, I wouldn’t have to think about it,” she said. She also paid for her own weekly counseling, at $100 an hour, for three years, which helped her succeed as well, she said. She graduated and has gone on to graduate school.
“These are hard cases to make legally,” said Roe. “If the victim is strong enough and resilient enough to stay school – that’s great for her, but (in terms of a legal case) you’ve doomed yourself.”
Breaking the Silence
Regardless of the outcome of a hearing, the fallout of having been assaulted can have major life consequences.
Hobbs ended up transferring schools. “(The attack) completely changed everything,” she said. “I got very, very depressed. I had to go on antidepressants. “Literally, I would want to be in bed all day, go to a counselor and cry, then sleep. She felt paranoid, she said. “I avoided certain areas so I wouldn’t have to see him. Eventually, she left Gonzaga. “It became a very clear choice – I would not go back,” she said. “I felt betrayed by the university.”
Stephanie said for her, the hardest part was learning to trust someone in a relationship. It took years, she said. But she now is in a supportive relationship. Even so, she said she’s more guarded than she used to be.
Both women said they were speaking out now to reduce the cultural stigma that surrounds campus rape, and to break the denial that it continues to exist. Hobbs said women need to pursue their claims, even when it’s difficult.
“Every person deserves to be protected, to have their story heard and to have a fair hearing,” she said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to feel silenced and hopeless about their situation.”
InvestigateWest is a non-profit investigative news organization covering the environment, health and social justice.