Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t

How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint



Anna, outside the Barn, a campus dance hall, said she was sexually assaulted there weeks into her freshman year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. CreditLeslye Davis/The New York Times

GENEVA, N.Y. — She was 18 years old, a freshman, and had been on campus for just two weeks when one Saturday night last September her friends grew worried because she had been drinking and suddenly disappeared.

Around midnight, the missing girl texted a friend, saying she was frightened by a student she had met that evening. “Idk what to do,” she wrote. “I’m scared.” When she did not answer a call, the friend began searching for her.

In the early-morning hours on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York, the friend said, he found her — bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing. Some had their cellphones out, apparently taking pictures, he said.

Later, records show, a sexual-assault nurse offered this preliminary assessment: blunt force trauma within the last 24 hours indicating “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful.” The student said she could not recall the pool table encounter, but did remember being raped earlier in a fraternity-house bedroom.

The football player at the pool table had also been at the fraternity house — in both places with his pants down — but denied raping her, saying he was too tired after a football game to get an erection. Two other players, also accused of sexually assaulting the woman, denied the charge as well. Even so, tests later found sperm or semen in her vagina, in her rectum and on her underwear.

It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.


At Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York, men attend Hobart and women attend William Smith. The 2,300 students share the same campus, classes, dorms and overall administration. CreditLeslye Davis/The New York Times

A New York Times examination of the case, based in part on hundreds of pages of disciplinary proceedings — usually confidential under federal privacy laws — offers a rare look inside one school’s adjudication of a rape complaint amid a roiling national debate over how best to stop sexual assaults on campuses.

Whatever precisely happened that September night, the internal records, along with interviews with students, sexual-assault experts and college officials, depict a school ill prepared to evaluate an allegation so serious that, if proved in a court of law, would be a felony, with a likely prison sentence. As the case illustrates, school disciplinary panels are a world unto themselves, operating in secret with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.

At a time of great emotional turmoil, students who say they were assaulted must make a choice: Seek help from their school, turn to the criminal justice system or simply remain silent. The great majority — including the student in this case — choose their school, because of the expectation of anonymity and the belief that administrators will offer the sort of support that the police will not.

Yet many students come to regret that decision, wishing they had never reported the assault in the first place.

The woman at Hobart and William Smith is no exception. With no advocate to speak up for her at the disciplinary hearing, panelists interrupted her answers, at times misrepresented evidence and asked about a campus-police report she had not seen. The hearing proceeded before her rape-kit results were known, and the medical records indicating trauma were not shown to two of the three panel members.

One panelist did not appear to know what a rape exam entails or why it might be unpleasant. Another asked whether the football player’s penis had been “inside of you” or had he been “having sex with you.” And when the football player violated an order not to contact the accuser, administrators took five months to find him responsible, then declined to tell her if he had been punished.

Hobart and William Smith officials said they have “no tolerance for sexual assault” and treat all complaints seriously, offering emotional support, counseling and, when necessary, extra security and no-contact orders. They said the school’s procedures offer students a fair hearing and were followed in this case. But they cited privacy laws in declining to answer specific questions.

“Campuses are really frustrated by knowing so much about a given case and how reasonable they were and they can’t tell this story,” said Brett A. Sokolow, a legal adviser to the school. “It’s easy to paint them as the bad guy because they are in a position where they can’t defend themselves.”

Yet privacy laws did not stop Hobart and William Smith from disclosing the name of the woman — a possible rape victim — in letters to dozens of students. “I’m surprised they didn’t attach my picture,” she said.

After that disclosure, the woman spoke with her parents and agreed to have The Times use her first name, Anna, as well as her photograph.

The school said it was legally obligated to identify Anna to students who might have been called to testify in a possible criminal proceeding. The district attorney who was assessing the case disagreed, calling the identification “unnecessarily specific and, in my mind, a poor exercise of judgment.”

A second female student at Hobart and William Smith, who was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party in October 2012, told The Times that one of her two assailants had had his punishment reduced on appeal because of poor questioning by the school’s disciplinary panel. Like Anna, the student said friends of the accused had retaliated against her for reporting the assault.

Colleges nationwide are navigating the treacherous legal and emotional terrain of sexual assault. In May, the federal Department of Education disclosed for the first time the names of colleges — 55 in all, including Hobart and William Smith — under investigation for possibly violating federal rules aimed at stopping sexual harassment.

Afterward, Hobart and William Smith’s president, Mark D. Gearan, sent letters to the college community, saying the school was confident it had not violated federal law. The school’s policies and procedures “reflect our commitment to creating and maintaining an academic environment that is free from sexual harassment and misconduct,” wrote Mr. Gearan, a former Peace Corps director and White House aide to Bill Clinton. This summer, a committee of faculty, staff and students is studying whether the school can deal more effectively with sexual misconduct.

Turning to the police may not offer a more equitable alternative. For example, as The Times reported in April, the Tallahassee police conducted virtually no investigation of a Florida State University student’s rape complaint against the star quarterback Jameis Winston.

College administrators have their own incentive to deal with such cases on campus, since a public prosecution could frighten parents, prospective students and donors. Until last year, Hobart and William Smith’s chief fund-raiser also helped oversee the school’s handling of sexual assaults. The two functions are now separate.

While the school explained to Anna that talking to the police was an important option, she said, she decided against it after a school administrator said it would be a longer, drawn-out process. When she changed her mind six months later, the district attorney, R. Michael Tantillo, said he had “virtually nothing to work with” and quickly closed the case.

Although federal officials estimate that up to 20 percent of college students will be sexually assaulted in school, Mr. Tantillo said he rarely heard of such reports at Hobart and William Smith. “I guess that’s your job to find out why,” he told a reporter.

The Red Zone

Hobart and William Smith, on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake, deep in Finger Lakes wine country, is technically two small liberal-arts colleges — Hobart for men, William Smith for women. Its 2,300 students share the same campus, classes, dorms and overall administration, but receive degrees from their respective schools.

It took one visit for Anna to know this was where she wanted to be. “You could see out on the lake — literally, felt like this is what heaven looks like,” she said.

Saying goodbye at the beginning of school, Anna’s mother was comforted by a professor who had been in touch with her daughter. ” ‘She really sounds like something,’ ” she recalled him saying. “He said: ‘This is a very preppy place. I’m going to look out for her.’ ”

Anna, who considers herself anything but preppy, quickly grasped the challenge. “It was really a culture shock for me,” she said. “A lot of the girls, they look alike, and I’m not small and have blonde hair and $500 sunglasses.” So she searched for students “who didn’t fit into that stereotypical William Smith girl.”

There was something else: She had entered what is commonly known as the Red Zone, a period of vulnerability for sexual assaults, beginning when freshmen first walk onto campus until Thanksgiving break.

“Students arrive and you have a new environment, new social circle and the fear that goes with new expectations,” said Robert S. Flowers, vice president for student affairs. That can lead to experimentation, including excessive drinking and attendant problems.

For that reason, the school held what students call rape seminars, the first in a program that, Mr. Flowers said, has made Hobart and William Smith a leader in preventing sexual violence.

Anna and her girlfriends often joked about how the national rape estimates might affect them. “They kept repeating the statistics,” she said, and “every night we would go out we would be like, ‘Oh, who’s going to be the one?’ ”

It took just 14 days to find out, Anna said.

Whether one believes the accuser or the accused, it would be hard to dispute that what happened was a life-altering experience that ruptured Anna’s nascent friendships, damaged her health, traumatized her family and derailed her college plans.

Emotionally battered, Anna later took a leave and returned home. “I do not recognize myself — I have become someone that I hate,” she said. “It was such a toxic environment that I needed to be home and try and find myself again.”

The fraternity houses, where so many parties occur, sit high above the lake. And it was at one fraternity, Kappa Sigma, where sometime between 9:30 and 10 p.m. on Sept. 7, Anna attended one of the year’s first big social events — a “highlighter party,” where students write on one another’s clothes with a marker that glows under black light.


The Kappa Sigma fraternity house on campus was the site of one of the year’s first big social events. During the party, Anna said, three football players assaulted her in one of the student bedrooms there.CreditLeslye Davis/The New York Times

Later there was dancing. Anna and a senior football player she had just met were grinding to the music, rubbing their bodies together.

With so many students packed together in the basement, it became hot, and the football player escorted Anna upstairs, where smaller groups congregated in students’ bedrooms. A friend tried to stop her, but she went anyway.

Anna said she had begun the evening drinking shots of rum mixed into Gatorade. She drank one beer at the dance, she said, and then the rest of an opened beer her dance partner had given her.

Around midnight, a fraternity member tried to enter his room, but found it locked. He opened the door with his key and caught a glimpse of what would become a pivotal episode in Anna’s case: The senior football player was naked, and Anna was sitting on a bed with her top off, covering her breasts. The visitor quickly left.

About the same time, Anna texted the friend who had tried to intervene earlier; she had asked him to hold her keys because she had a hole in her pocket, and wanted them back. A subsequent message was darker, talking of hookups. “He got ten guys to try and hu with me,” Anna wrote and added, “I’m scared.” She would later tell the hearing panel that she had exaggerated the number to get her friend’s attention.

She texted again for her keys, and then wrote, “He won’t leave me.”

Her friend tried calling, but got no response. Around 1 a.m., he asked another student to check Anna’s room. She wasn’t there. “We need to find her ASAP,” he texted, adding, “She is so drunk.”

Eventually he tracked her to a building called the Barn, a dance hall favored by students who do not belong to fraternities. Inside the dimly lit room, a D.J. played music near a couple of pool tables.


A friend who had been looking for Anna found her, he said, inside the Barn during a late-night gathering.CreditLeslye Davis/The New York Times

Around 1:25 a.m., after 10 minutes of searching, the friend said, he found Anna “bent over the pool table face down with her back towards the wall.” She and the senior football player had their pants down, he said, “and it was clear they were having sex.”

Anna “had a scared look on her face,” he said, as six or seven people, perhaps five feet away, were “looking and laughing.”

Anna’s friend, a freshman who was also a football player, approached his teammate and told him that he was being disrespectful and had “crossed the line.”

“It wasn’t me, it was her,” the teammate replied.

The friend walked Anna back to her dorm. On the way, another student saw her crying.

To this day, Anna says she remembers nothing about the Barn, the pool table or what happened there.

The Aftermath

It wasn’t long before students in Anna’s dorm realized something wasn’t right. She was pale and disoriented. After she tried to vomit, classmates changed her clothes and put her to bed. Yet they continued to worry, fearing she had been drugged and raped.

One friend remembered that she had asked a football player earlier if he knew where Anna was. He smirked and made a crude allusion to a sexual act with Anna. “I felt very uncomfortable and got up and left,” she said. Anna later identified him as one of her assailants.

Soon word spread that something untoward had happened at the Barn.

“The girls and I decided we should call campus security,” one friend said. “We knew something was really wrong.”

At 2:10 a.m., Sgt. Anthony Pluretti arrived to find 10 to 15 students outside Anna’s room. After talking to her and realizing that she “could not remember how many drinks she had consumed and that she had no idea that she was at the Barn,” Sergeant Pluretti called campus paramedics, he wrote in a report.

They recommended that a hospital evaluate her. The closest one with a trained sexual-assault nurse was 20 to 30 minutes away in Canandaigua.

The friend who had walked Anna home from the Barn accompanied her to the hospital. As the hours passed, he later told school officials, she began to talk about what had happened at Kappa Sigma: She was in a room with several boys and girls who left her alone with the football player; three times she refused his request for sex; two other football players entered the room, and she was sexually assaulted.


To this day, Anna says she remembers nothing about what happened at the Barn.CreditLeslye Davis/The New York Times

She did not go into great detail, the friend said, because she was “just beginning to remember what happened.”

Around 7:30 in the morning, the nurse told Sergeant Pluretti that she had found “internal abrasions and heavy inflammation” and believed that Anna had suffered a forceful sexual assault.

No date-rape drugs were found, but based on tests at the hospital, her blood-alcohol level at the time of the first sexual encounter would have been about twice what is considered legally drunk. While driving Anna back to her dorm, Sergeant Pluretti reported, he pulled over four times so she could vomit.

He tried to comfort her, explaining that the school “would respond in whatever manner that would support her,” and that she should not feel rushed or pressured into deciding what to do, including whether to file a police report. She did express a desire to see a counselor after she had slept.

Back at Anna’s home, around 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, her mother was entertaining guests when the phone rang. “The caller ID said Geneva, and I knew that was bad,” she recalled. The caller identified herself as Maria Finger, a psychologist at the school.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked.

Behind Closed Doors

After a few hours of sleep, Anna gave a statement to the Office of Campus Safety. Other students provided their own statements, including the three accused football players. (They are not being identified in this article because the school cleared them.)

The first football player — who had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in 2012 after being arrested for fighting and resisting arrest — was given a no-contact order, with a warning: “You should not involve your friends in any manner to breach this order.” Yet he twice asked one of the other two players to talk to Anna and check on her. He also texted one of Anna’s friends, who then texted her: “He wants me to explain something to you. I don’t necessarily believe him, but I wanna tell you his side to see if anything clicks considering that you don’t remember some of it.”

Now it was the school’s responsibility under federal law to evaluate the allegations and, if necessary, hold a hearing.

At 3:14 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 17, a three-member panel convened behind closed doors to begin adjudicating Anna’s complaint.

Such hearings are usually confidential. But The Times obtained a transcript of the proceedings.

The hearing, not dissimilar to what happens at many colleges, bore little resemblance to a court proceeding. Neither the accuser nor the accused were allowed to have lawyers or family members present. They could bring “advisers,” but they would be voiceless advisers, prohibited from speaking.

The panelists could act pretty much as they wished, including questioning Anna about internal college reports and witness statements that she was not shown. Also absent were the usual courtroom checks and balances. The panel acted as prosecutor, judge and jury, questioning students and rendering judgment. All members were supposed to be trained for this delicate assignment.

The chairwoman, Sandra E. Bissell, vice president of human resources, was joined by Brien Ashdown, an assistant professor of psychology, and Lucille Smart, director of the campus bookstore, who the school said had expressed an interest in serving.

Boiled down, the complaint alleged that the senior football player had sexually assaulted Anna at the fraternity house while a second player inserted his penis into her mouth. At some point, a third player was alleged to have held her down. The senior was also accused of raping her later in the Barn.

The panel’s initial questioning was based mostly on the investigative work of campus officers who aggressively sought out witnesses, followed leads and conducted interviews. According to the federal Education Department, a sexual-assault investigation typically takes around 60 calendar days. Hobart and William Smith did it in a little more than a week.

The hearing followed almost immediately. While a speedy adjudication can help all parties move on with their lives, in this case it left little time for the panel to study witness statements and prepare a cogent line of questioning. It also left Anna with little time to process events of that night, much less familiarize herself with the statements of others, some of which she had received the day before the hearing.

Anna was questioned first. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through,” she said later, adding, “I felt like I was talking to someone who knew nothing of any sort of social interaction; what happens at parties; what happens in sex.”

She had to relive that evening through questions that jumped around in time, interrupted her answers and misrepresented witness statements. One question incorrectly quoted one of her friends asserting that at the dance Anna had told her that she wanted to go upstairs and have sex; in fact, the friend had said, Anna told her that the football player wanted to have sex.

At a critical point, Anna was about to describe what happened when she was alone upstairs with the first two football players — only to have the panel abruptly change the subject.

Q. O.K., just the three of you?

A. Yeah.

Q. And then what happened?

Q: Can I just ask a question? O.K., in your statement you do say that you were trying to text.

This is followed by a lengthy exchange about texting.

Later she was asked how the senior football player had tried to undress her, but the panelists cut her off.

Q. It helps us to understand what took place. You know, I’m going to apologize now because we have to ask difficult questions and I really apologize for that.

Q. And for all of us, as hard as it is, if you could be specific, if you are going to talk about a hand holding you, was his left or his right? And if there’s a penis involved, is it flaccid, is it erect?

Q. Because the most detail you give us when you tell us the story, the less questions we have to ask for details. And if you want to break just let us know, we can give a couple of minutes.

Q. And as you start your story about this line of events, I just want to — you know what, can we just back up a little bit before that, because before this line of events starts to happen, there has or has not been any coke brought into the room?

This was followed by a discussion of Anna’s allegation that some students in the room were using cocaine.

Two of the three panel members did not examine the medical records showing blunt force trauma — it was the chairwoman’s prerogative not to share them. Instead, the panel asked what Anna had drunk, who she may have kissed and how she had danced. It was, Anna said, as if admitting you were grinding — a common way of dancing — “means you therefore consent to sex or should be raped.”

The panel asked about the Barn — even though Anna stated that she did not remember being there — and whether the friend who found her there might have misconstrued her dancing as sex. Anna responded that the pool-table witness had said she and the football player had their pants down. “I don’t know who dances like that in public,” she added.

It was during this discussion that one panelist asked if the witness had seen the player’s penis in Anna’s vagina or if he had just seen them having sex. “The questioning is absolutely stunning in its absurdity,” Anna’s lawyer, Inga L. Parsons, said later.

Anna’s panelists were supposed to have “adequate training or knowledge” of sexual violence, according to federal guidelines. Even so, they pressed Anna on why she initially had not wanted a rape exam at the hospital.

“Does anyone really believe that it is pleasant to have rectal, vaginal, vulva and cervical swabs taken?” Ms. Parsons said. “Not to mention photographs of your private parts and dye injected into your vagina?”

A Locker-Room Meeting

The three football players then took their turns before the panel. Their accounts were quite different from their accuser’s.

The senior player said Anna had given him a lap dance behind the fraternity bar. Upstairs, he said, she kissed him and then performed oral sex on him for two to three minutes. However, he said, he could not get an erection because he was tired from playing football and “a super long bus ride.”

At the Barn, he said, she again pulled his pants down. “My flaccid penis was rubbing up against her vagina,” he had told the campus police, adding that he had then realized their conduct “was inappropriate” and pulled up his pants.

The second football player said that while his teammate was in the room, Anna pulled down his pants and gave him oral sex. “I didn’t consent,” he said. “She’s doing it all by herself. My hands are not touching her.” After a brief period, he said, he told her to stop. “I zippered my pants up, put my belt on, and I walked out the door.”

The third player, who faced the weakest case, acknowledged being in the fraternity room but said he left before the sexual encounter.

Anna’s friend who recounted the pool-table scene chose not to testify, but, according to Anna, stands by his account.

Records show that the first two players had lied to campus officers when initially asked about Anna’s allegations. The panel, though, chose not to ask about it.

The day after the episode, the senior football player told two campus officers that he could not recall Anna’s name, even though he had spent much of the evening with her. The player denied having sexual contact with her during or after the fraternity party.

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