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Letter to the Editor: My Experience Reporting Sexual Assault at Tulane University

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In the wake of Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey and many others facing accusations of sexual misconduct, there has been an outpouring of support across the country for survivors and whistleblowers who have spoken their personal, difficult truths.  As a recent victim of sexual assault, these headlines were difficult to read — but also empowering. I watched both celebrities and friends post “#MeToo,” and I saw Time Magazine make their 2017 Person of the Year the “Silence Breakers” who had bravely stood up to powerful men in their own attempts to break the cycle and hold those people accountable for their actions.  Although it was too soon for me to speak publicly on my own experiences, I began my own journey in seeking justice for my assault.

Immediately after I was assaulted early Thursday morning during the first week of October, I felt overwhelmed. I knew what happened to me was wrong, but I didn’t know where to turn with all the internalized guilt and sadness I felt. I was raped in my own bed in a sophomore dorm, so the only place on campus that was truly mine no longer felt safe to me. The several days after were a blur: I tried to distract myself with parties and friends, all the while feeling lost and empty. It took until Sunday afternoon for me to feel brave enough to call the Student Affairs office to talk with someone in the school.  I didn’t even really know what I wanted to do yet; I knew that reporting was a difficult process, and I didn’t know if I had the strength to do it. I wanted to learn what steps I could take and what resources were available to me so I could start working towards feeling more like myself again.  After pacing in my room for several minutes, searching for the words to explain how I felt and what had happened to me, I made the call and the on-duty Student Affairs coordinator answered. I explained what had happened to me and asked her if she could be my case manager while I was dealing with the aftermath of this experience.  She offered to meet with me right away, but I assured her it could wait until she was back on campus the following morning.

During our meeting on Monday morning, my case manager laid out the possible routes I could take.  She connected me with various resources around Tulane’s campus, such as CAPS for Counseling Services. She made it clear that it was my decision to report, because although it is an important process at Tulane, it can also be incredibly difficult for survivors to endure repeated questioning about their experience.  She also let me know that reporting may not lead to a favorable result for me, and I should be prepared to find out that the perpetrator wouldn’t receive any consequences for his actions. After much thought and discussion, I tentatively agreed to pursue a student conduct case, solely for the reason that I feared that if I did not do something about what happened to me, it could happen again to another unlucky girl.  I knew that I could not be content knowing that other girls on Tulane’s campus could face the same horrible experience at the hands of the same boy, who is also a student at Tulane. I provided my case manager with the student’s name, and within the same day, she not only got me an appointment at Tulane Medical Center’s downtown campus, but also provided me with a No-Contact Order to give me some peace of mind.

After a meeting with another member of Student Affairs who explained to me the different routes I could take (e.g. a student conduct case at Tulane or a criminal case with NOPD), I finalized my decision to begin a conduct investigation on Oct. 16th.  I learned that this academic year was the first year with a new investigative process for cases like mine. In the past, cases like this were heard by a hearing board, composed of one student member, one faculty member, and one staff member selected from a pool by the Vice President of Student Affairs, with the Student Conduct Administrator as a non-voting chair.  There would be witnesses and testimonies provided in front of the board by all involved parties, and then the impartial board would make a final majority decision and would recommend necessary sanctions, if any.

This year, however, there is a new system in which all involved parties meet with a third party Conduct Investigator for an interview. The investigator then compiles the evidence, and makes a determination on the case.  According to Tulane’s Code of Conduct, the investigator “may consult with the Office of Institutional Equity, the Title IX coordinator, and any designated administrator who has information relevant to the case. The investigator may also seek information from the Office of Student Conduct regarding prior disciplinary history and Tulane University Police Department regarding prior criminal history” (VI.E.).  I was assured that this new process was created to be easier for students going through the process because the investigative process did not require that students face the student they are accusing face-to-face when providing their testimony. At first, I was extremely open to the new process because I was very grateful that I would not have to be in the same room as the boy in question, as I was honestly terrified of seeing him.  Looking back, however, I question the motivation of Tulane to change the investigation process, and my feelings have changed drastically over the course of the investigation.

My first meeting with the Conduct Investigator was grueling.  For over an hour, I laid out every minute detail of what had happened that night.  It was long and difficult, but the investigator was extremely kind and allowed me to take as much time as I needed.  Nearly a month later, my follow-up questioning was almost worse. I was asked about the fact that my ex-boyfriend and I had broken up the day of the incident, and if that would have made me eager to look for someone new.  I was taken aback, but I was assured kindly that this was just to get more background on my case. I told the investigator that no, I had not been trying to rebound, and in fact, had decided to stay home that night and not attend happy hour with my friends to take some time for myself.  I was asked about whether or not the fact that the boy lied about his name — yes, he lied to me about his name — influenced my feelings on the case. I told her I didn’t know what she was asking, and I tried to wrap my mind around the motivations for that line of questioning. I was questioned in depth about exactly when his pants came off, even though I repeatedly stated I honestly did not know.  I couldn’t understand how either of these questions were pertinent. A boy entered my room without consent, climbed into my bed without my consent and initiated sexual contact without my consent.  To me, the case was cut-and-dry, straightforward, and these questions set off red flags in my head. I think that was the day I knew my case would not have a favorable outcome for me in the end.

The rest of the process was not fun.  I watched my eight of my roommates and other friends called in for questioning with the investigator.  Many would come back deeply upset, and I felt a wave of guilt each time I heard them talk about how difficult it was.  I, too, was struggling. School was becoming increasingly difficult, compounded by the fact that I couldn’t sleep, and if I did, I was plagued by nightmares.  After giving my statements, it felt like I was in limbo, just waiting until the day I would receive the statements of the accused and the witnesses.

A month after my follow-up meeting, I finally received all of the statements and evidence that the investigator had gathered.  This was the hardest part of the entire process. The first line of my statement provided that tidbit of information that I had been assured was just for background: I had gone through a breakup the same day I was assaulted.  Additionally, I had to read my rapist describe how everything that happened was consensual and how much I enjoyed it. There was a sexual play-by-play of all the events that had unfolded that night, despite the fact that this boy was admittedly very drunk.  I had to read my friends talking about how concerned they are about me, and how they saw immediate changes in my behavior and state of mind after the incident. I had five days to write a response, which unfortunately coincided with the beginning of finals, and I took until the very last day for me to be brave enough to write my thoughts.  I was open, honest, and I tried my best to speak my truth, like so many others around the country were doing.

And I was unsuccessful.  I opened the final letter just days before Christmas that reads, “Sexual Assault/Sexual Intercourse — Not Responsible.”  

My first thoughts were ones of sadness.  I already knew that nationally, fewer than one third of campus sexual assault cases at universities result in expulsion, but my deep love for Tulane had given me the hope that my school would protect me.  Their findings raised so many questions for me. Do they expect me to believe I have diagnosed PTSD from an event that never happened? Do I really have to attend school with my rapist for several more years?  What is Tulane’s real definition of consent? I then started to look at the bigger picture of how sexual violence is treated on Tulane’s campus and by this administration, and my feelings changed to anger. For a school that likes to tout how they are actively dismantling rape culture, it took until January to release the Climate Survey, the results of which had been available for months.  The process, which according to the Code of Conduct, should take about 30 days, took 11 weeks. Residence halls like Irby and Phelps that, apart from being incredibly unsanitary, have little to no security for student still exist on our campus. Our own president, Mike Fitts, did not make time to attend the Sexual Violence Town Hall meeting held by USG this fall semester, but seemed to have plenty of time to work on an email about the alcohol problem at Tulane and his new “audacious” plan for a capital campaign.  Finally, this year, Tulane decided to change the Code of Conduct and revamp the investigative process to be one that occurs behind closed doors, with a very limited amount of people privy to the proceedings. There was no vote on my case, and there was no hearing. There was only one person who possessed all the evidence and heard the statements of the parties involved. There was only the final opinion of a single “third party” investigator, who is a paid employee of Tulane University.

I decided to appeal the case and, with the help of a family member who practices law, wrote a scathing, methodical breakdown of why I felt I deserved a retrial.  In my eyes, my rapist should have gotten at least some form of punishment, since he admittedly entered my dorm room without invitation, a violation of the Code of Conduct.  I asked the appeal board how I could be suffering from diagnosed PTSD from an event that never happened. I asked why the case took so long, why I wasn’t given the opportunity to submit an impact statement, and why there were elements of victim blaming in my questioning and final statement.  I sent in the appeal about a week later, and waited another month.

I was unsuccessful again.  I received a letter that reads: “I am writing to inform you that the appeal was reviewed and deemed to be without merit.”

And that was it.  It was over. Once an appeal is deemed without merit, the case is over and cannot be reopened.  That was the hardest day of the entire process; I felt let down, like I had gone through all this emotional strife for nothing.  The truth is, I had. This, for me, is what I struggle with most now, months later: knowing that I tried my best. I wanted to believe the system, which I knew deep down was broken, could maybe work this time.  Maybe times were finally changing, and maybe my case would be successful. I told the full story, had two witnesses of the crime, provided text messages from that night of me sending “please help me” to my roommate at the time of the incident.  I went to the hospital several days after it happened, had countless needles poked in my arm, underwent several tests. I was evaluated by a psychiatrist, diagnosed with PTSD. I spoke my truth, and it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done.  But at the end of it all, he was deemed “Not Responsible.” I couldn’t help but ask myself if that means I am responsible.

I still see my rapist.  I bet he had a fun Mardi Gras.  Sometimes I see him buying pizza at the Boot.  I’m sure he’ll have a great time sharing a graduation day with me.  I wonder how I’ll feel when I see him receiving his diploma. I think I’ll probably feel let down by the school that I love, by the system I wanted to trust and by the society that continues to produce rapists and then let them walk free.  

Tulane needs to do better.  We cannot stay silent on these issues any longer, and if the news has shown us anything, the time to act is now.  I do not mean to discourage people from reporting in this article; in fact, I hope for quite the opposite. If we want Tulane to be a safer campus for all, we need to make it so that we can’t be ignored.  We need to be loud and obnoxious; we need our voices to be heard. Releasing the Climate Survey was a good first step to understanding the depth of the problem, but we need to start changing the outcomes. If this has happened to you, speak up.  The process is trying and difficult, but I know personally that I have come out of it resilient and stronger than before. If you aren’t ready to report, there are other resources on-campus that can help you – call SAPHE, visit CAPS, write an anonymous report at Tulane.edu/concerns, or meet with a case manager about them having a meeting with the perpetrator.  Know that Case Management can connect you with a hospital where they give STD treatment, pregnancy tests and exams to survivors of assault, and the sooner you go, the better. Support your friends who may be struggling. Demand for transparency from our school on how we plan to combat sexual violence. Intervene when you see something that doesn’t seem right, even if it feels awkward in the moment.  This is a problem that in some way touches all of us, and it’s a hard problem to fix without an unified effort. Tulane needs to do better, and we need to use our power as students to encourage Tulane to move in the right direction. We have the ability to be the Silence Breakers of the future, to be the whistleblowers that finally change the culture for the good. Let’s not take that responsibility lightly.  

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5 Comments

5 Responses to “Letter to the Editor: My Experience Reporting Sexual Assault at Tulane University”

  1. Mary on May 19th, 2018 7:56 am

    If Tulane University is serious about changing the rape culture on its campus, they should expel the rapists. It’s that simple. Stop all the
    talk and do something.

  2. R on May 21st, 2018 3:17 pm

    Thank you so much for standing up and speaking out. There is so much power in your words. Your persistence and dedication is so admirable. Please know that others are fighting alongside you, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

  3. Veronica on May 21st, 2018 9:53 pm

    My rapist was found responsible for rape but not to the abuse that led to the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. I had a trial with a board of students, teachers, etc. Tulane found him responsible and they only suspended him for a semester, which he was allowed to use as a mental health leave in his record. They only found him responsible because he had confessed via text and facebook. His dad works for Tulane. He wasn’t even an undergraduate student. As an RA I had a student BRAG TO ME, IN PERSON AND OVER TEXT, ABOUT RAPING THEIR EX and yet wasn’t called to testify for the ex. The rapist was found not responsible despite written text confessions I supplied via screenshot to the case manager. Tulane is a disgusting cesspool socially. The academics are amazing but the administration doesn’t give a shit about the sexual violence or racism or hazing. It’s all lip service.

  4. Ella Swimmer on May 25th, 2018 5:55 pm

    You are so strong. Your words are filled with courage and power. Thank you for using your voice today and for the rest of your life. It means so much.

  5. l on June 3rd, 2018 7:46 pm

    To whomever wrote this, you are strong and you are change. Thank you for sticking up for countless voices on campus about this issue and your experience, it means so much to me and many others. Just know that no matter how much pain your abuser has caused you, your strength is tenfold and it has now reached an audience that needs to hear this; whether they are victims or not. I wish you the best, and just wanted to let you know that you are heard and you are not alone.

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Letter to the Editor: My Experience Reporting Sexual Assault at Tulane University