Amid increasing scrutiny nationwide of college administrators’ response to sexual assault cases, a former Williams College student and her parents have accused leaders at that college of mishandling her assault case.
Lexie Brackenridge and her parents also oppose the expected return to campus this fall of the alleged assailant.
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Fred Thys of WBUR reports.
Note: NPR and WBUR’s policy is to not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission. In this case, both the woman and her parents agreed to be publicly identified. WBUR is not naming the alleged assailant because no criminal charges were filed.
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The U.S. Department of Education said this month that it is investigating dozens of institutions of higher learning for possible mishandling of sexual assault cases. It's an issue that's come to the front burner at schools around the country, including Williams College in Massachusetts where a former student is accusing the school of mishandling her case.
The young woman and her parents are now asking Williams to stop the man they accuse of rape from returning to campus as he is scheduled to do this fall. From the HERE AND NOW Contributor's Network, WBUR's Fred Thys reports.
FRED THYS, BYLINE: Alec and Heidi Brackenridge met in the 1980s at Williams College, a small school in Western Massachusetts of just 2,000 students. They felt good when their daughter decided she wanted to go there too.
HEIDI BRACKENRIDGE: It was a place that we felt safe, and it was a place that we trusted. And I can even remember talking about when Lexie was accepted how nice it was to drop her at a place where we thought, ah, it's familiar, we know it, we loved it.
THYS: Alec Brackenridge says he and his wife were naive. They believed the college disciplinary process could protect their daughter.
ALEC BRACKENRIDGE: Instead, I feel like the college was protecting themselves and was making it possible for the assailant, the guy who raped our daughter, to get back on campus.
THYS: He's talking about what happened at a campus party where alcohol was served during his daughter's first semester.
LEXIE BRACKENRIDGE: In October of 2012 I was sexually assault by a member of the men's hockey team on campus at Williams.
THYS: Lexie Brackenridge won't discuss details of what happened when she went to the student's room because she says she does not want to revictimize herself. The next day, her mother took Lexie home. She received medical attention. Her parents consulted an attorney. He advised against pressing charges, warning them that a trial could take two years and take their daughter out of college.
After a couple of weeks, Lexie returned to Williams. She met with two deans who she says persuaded her file a complaint in the college's disciplinary system.
BRACKENRIDGE: And they encouraged me that it would be very confidential. And the direct quote from the dean of the college, she said that, "we want him off campus by tomorrow."
THYS: Lexie filed a complaint. The dean of the college investigated. But Lexie was frustrated that she was not able to read what witnesses had said. She was also frustrated with the number of witnesses, 30 she says. Word got out that she was accusing a popular hockey player of raping her. And students, even some she had thought were her friends, started to turn against her.
Sarah Bolton, the dean who investigated the complaint, acknowledges maintaining confidentially during a thorough investigation is difficult.
SARAH BOLTON: Often, the students know one another really well. They're parts of the same social circles. And in a small community, the social pressures that build around that, and the ways that that pushes against reporting are things that we're really concerned with.
THYS: No one at Williams College will comment on this case with this exception. Last night, President Adam Falk posted a statement on the Williams website. In it, he says, we're confident that throughout our handling of the case in question, we adhered to all of our policies and to all applicable laws including our policies on the provision of housing for the survivor.
The school investigated. There was an appeal. Eventually, Lexie was told the hockey player would be suspended for three semesters. She asked why he wasn't being expelled.
BRACKENRIDGE: As they said, an expulsion would ruin their life and they weren't looking to do that, never mind the fact that my life had openly been ruined by this man.
BRACKENRIDGE: WBUR is not naming the alleged assailant because no criminal charges have been filed. I exchanged messages on Facebook with him. I told him I wanted to interview him about his return to Williams in the fall. He asked me to tell him more, and what I would like the interview to be.
THYS: I told him, the Brackenridges are opposing his return, that it was important to get his side of the story, and that I wanted to talk to him about what had happened in 2012 and how he felt the college treated him. I never heard back from him, and that day he deleted his Facebook page.
Lexie says it became clear to her that as long as she was at Williams, it would be hard for her to focus on studying because of the way, she says, some of the members of the hockey team kept harassing her.
BRACKENRIDGE: And one of the main occurrences when it really, I would say, hit its peak was when they surrounded me and started throwing beer cans at my head and screamed that I should have kept my mouth shut.
THYS: Lexie says even though she reported the harassment, no one was ever disciplined. And she knew it was time to leave Williams.
BRACKENRIDGE: The way in which the Williams administration handled it, it made it exceedingly clear that I was not welcome on that campus, and that I was essentially being used as an example of why people should not come forward on that campus.
THYS: In his statement on the college website, President Adam Falk says we investigated fully and promptly any allegation of retaliation or harassment. Williams' Dean Bolton explains that retaliation is a violation of Williams' code of conduct.
BOLTON: We have in place strong policies that forbid people to take revenge on folks who have reported. But you can have all of those things in place and still social backlash can happen.
THYS: Lexie says three Williams' women have told her that after seeing how she was treated, they decided not to report their sexual assaults. Williams estimates that 50 sexual assaults occur on campus every year, but Lexie was one of only six students to report an assault in the 2012-2013 academic year.
Lexie Brackenridge is now a student at Columbia University, but the hockey player she says raped her is scheduled to return to Williams in the fall. In his statement on the college website, President Adam Falk says we, of course, do not students to return to campus or to remain on campus if they present a clear safety risk.
Dean Sarah Bolton says the college knows that students it finds have violated its code of sexual conduct may come back.
BOLTON: Certainly students do return to campus following suspensions, for example, and reintegrate and succeed.
THYS: But the Brackenridges are fighting the student's return. Heidi Brackenridge says she's worried he may assault another student.
BRACKENRIDGE: My best friend's daughter will begin as a freshman in the fall and it appalls me to think that they would be willing to take that risk. And I don't understand why they would.
THYS: Williams College has recently changed the way it investigates and adjudicates accusations of sexual assault. Professionals come in from off-campus to conduct the investigations, and a panel from the student affairs staff now decides the cases. Dean Bolton says the changes are meant to instill confidence in victims of sexual assault so that they will file complaints.
BOLTON: If students don't believe that we will take these matters seriously, that we will listen to them carefully and support them through the process, then they simply won't come forward and we won't have an opportunity to support them or to address the issues that may be happening.
THYS: The Brackenridges have written to alumni, professors, a former president of the college, and to trustees. Correspondence between those various groups and conversations with professors suggest that out of fairness to the accused, the college is unlikely to reverse one of its own judicial decisions.
For HERE AND NOW, I'm Fred Thys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.