“Their systems are not enough”: A student seeks safety after sexual assault

interview title ix
Illustration by Shiyue Zhang for CU Independent

Editor’s note: The student’s name has been changed to A.B. to protect the student’s anonymity, as she feels she could be in danger if she publicly shared her name.

This story references sexual assault and related topics. The content is not explicit; however, it may be triggering for some readers.

A.B. first saw her name associated with the label of “victim” in an email from CU’s Office of Victim Assistance, also known as OVA. The email came just days after a party at a fraternity house on the Hill during which A.B. had been sexually assaulted and raped.

It was the second semester of her freshman year. She hadn’t reported the assault herself; though she had known something wasn’t right when it happened, she said her traditional concept of rape had been different from her assault. It had been another fraternity member, overhearing her distress afterwards, who had reported the assault to CU. The perpetrator was kicked out of the fraternity within a few days of the assault.

Talking with the counselors at OVA was one of the few parts of the aftermath that A.B. said actually felt helpful, though she noted a lack of available resources. Students are limited to six sessions for trauma-oriented therapy (these are separate from the six free sessions provided to every student by OVA’s partner office, Counseling and Psychiatric Services), though they’re allowed an unlimited number of advocacy-oriented sessions.

With some help from OVA, A.B. decided on continuing the reporting process through Title IX and the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, also known as OIEC. She considered reporting the incident to the police, but it seemed that a police report process would involve retelling the details of her assault many more times than would be needed for OIEC.

“To tell anybody was hard, especially people taking notes and asking questions,” A.B. said.

During the OIEC reporting session, A.B. had her therapist in the room as support. She said that the meeting was mostly respectful, though OIEC staffers asked her what she had been wearing and if she had been flirting, among other questions that A.B. said felt probing.

Within a few days, OIEC followed up with A.B. to inform her that they had enough reason to proceed with a formal investigation. This involved interviewing both A.B. and the perpetrator, taking testimony from seven people anonymously referred to as “witnesses” in the OIEC report, and considering disciplinary actions. In the meantime, OIEC instituted a no-contact order between the two students and only allowed the perpetrator to be on campus for classes.

The proposed changes to Title IX, spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, offer the option for colleges to raise the burden of proof for Title IX investigations. Currently, most colleges including CU use the “preponderance of evidence” standard, meaning it’s more likely than not that the accused student is responsible for the violation. However, colleges could be allowed to raise that standard by one notch to “clear and convincing.” A.B. said that given that situations like hers often come down to a “he said, she said” narrative, a higher burden of proof could make it more difficult for perpetrators to be held accountable.

OIEC initially told A.B. the investigation process would take about six weeks. In the end, it took over three months.

She finally found out the results right after finals week, on her birthday, after explicitly asking OIEC to not tell her during either those times. OIEC found the perpetrator responsible for rape, assault and harassment. He was given a one year suspension, which A.B. didn’t feel like was nearly enough of a punishment.

“I didn’t feel safe, but I wanted it to be done,” A.B. said.

It was far from over. In November of that year, the perpetrator broke the no-contact order by attempting to message her through Facebook and request her account on Instagram. He threatened to find her after his suspension was over. A.B. had no idea where he was, if he was still in Boulder or not, and the messages made her question her physical safety.

She immediately reported his attempts to contact her to OIEC. In response, they asked her how she would feel if she saw him on campus, which A.B. felt was insensitive and invalidating of how traumatic the whole experience had already been. As a result of his contact, OIEC extended his suspension until A.B. graduated. A.B. felt frustrated that the school wasn’t doing more.

“It showed they cared more about a tuition payment than my safety,” A.B. said. “They valued him more than me and my community.”

Survivors of sexual assault frequently experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Throughout the aftermath, A.B. said she was experiencing extreme back pain, which is common for individuals with PTSD. She also said that she had anxiety before the assault, but afterwards, the frequency of panic attacks increased dramatically.

“It had lasting effects that I’m forced to deal with down the line,” A.B. said. “He should have to answer to that.”

The one point of respite A.B. said she found was when she became a resident advisor. For the first time, she met other students, also RAs, who had been assaulted. She had been the only one to report her assault and go through the investigation process.

After the perpetrator violated the no-contact order, A.B. felt like she needed to get a restraining order from Boulder County in order to secure her safety. However, she ran into a roadblock: it’s the responsibility of the person requesting a restraining order to know the address of the person they’re getting it against, and she didn’t know his address.

This led A.B. to begin the police investigation process, which took almost two years in total. One of the main things she noticed initially was that her case officers and detectives immediately told her they believed and trusted her. This was something that she hadn’t heard from her Title IX process through OIEC, as Title IX investigators serve as neutral third parties.

Her case was picked up by the Boulder County District Attorney’s office in the end of her sophomore year. Meanwhile, the perpetrator had hired a private investigator, who contacted her family members and friends asking questions about the incident. Before this, A.B. had been relatively quiet about what had happened, only telling a select few close friends and family members. As people reached out to her to ask why they were being contacted by a private investigator for an incident they didn’t know had happened, she said they were kind, but it wasn’t what she wanted to happen.

“You don’t hire a private investigator if you’re innocent and not worried,” A.B. said. “It was used as a scare tactic.”

In the summer before her senior year, her case went to trial, which A.B. said was “incredibly retraumatizing.” She only attended the parts of the trial that were absolutely necessary for her to be there, as she “didn’t want his words about me floating in my head.”(Requests to both CU and the court that she not be given the perpetrator’s testimony were not honored.) The perpetrator’s lawyer attempted to make the argument that A.B. had initially consented to hooking up with the perpetrator, then regretted it later. A.B. found that idea almost laughable. The lawyer also taped out the dimensions of the room in which the assault occurred, then had A.B. stand in them and asked if the dimensions “felt right.”

“Why would anyone put themselves through years of mental hula hoops just because they changed their mind?” A.B. said. “I told [the perpetrator] no multiple times, and he can’t own up to it.”

In the end, the perpetrator was found not guilty of any of the charges at the district attorney level. In addition to sexual assault, because he had held her in a confined space during the assault, he had also been charged with kidnapping. A.B. said that the district attorney’s office felt the system had failed for her.

“The jury had an easier time thinking about not ruining his life than saving mine,” A.B. said.

Title IX investigation processes and lawsuits in criminal court are notably different procedures. Criminal court has the highest burden of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” much higher than the Title IX process. Civil court has “preponderance of evidence,” the same burden of proof as the current Title IX process.

Additionally, once a report is made to the police, if they choose to prosecute either in a criminal or civil lawsuit, the person reporting doesn’t have a choice to say if they want to go through with a lawsuit or not. With a Title IX investigation, the survivor has the option to not go through with an investigation, if they just wanted the incident on record.

Currently, Title IX does not allow schools to offer cross-examination as a part of their investigation process. That’s on the table in the changes proposed by the Department of Education. It wouldn’t be direct cross-examination, as occurs in court. Rather, representatives for the two students would be able to cross-examine each other. A.B. said that this policy change needs a lot more structure in order to ensure that it’s a fair system. She felt that the court process understands the effects of retraumatization, especially through processes like cross-examination, though they can’t do much to mitigate it. Therefore, schools have a responsibility to keep the process as minimally traumatic as possible.

Between Title IX and court, A.B. said there’s merit to both options if the systems work the way they’re supposed to. She felt the police investigation was more thorough than the Title IX process.

“It felt like the school gave him lots of opportunities to lie, but the police didn’t,” A.B. said, even though the perpetrator had lied about the assault during his court testimony. Due to FERPA and other procedural barriers, information or witnesses from the Title IX process that could have proven he was lying couldn’t be used in the trial.

A.B. felt that a system for schools to help deal with situations like hers can be helpful, but only if they act accordingly on their findings. Part of the reason OIEC found the perpetrator responsible was because he told one story to OIEC investigators and a different story to the private investigator. These discrepancies, which also didn’t match up with corroborating accounts from witnesses, were noted in OIEC’s final report on their investigation. She didn’t feel like the perpetrator’s suspension was severe enough of a punishment to adequately protect her or the rest of the CU community.

“OIEC had damning information and evidence and they chose not to keep me safe,” A.B. said.

She also noted that the language used in the Title IX process was difficult. As the one making a report, she was referred to as the “complainant,” while the perpetrator is referred to as the “respondent.” She said it makes victims “sound like little kids.”

“I’m reporting to you that something traumatic and terrible happened, and you’re making me sound like a complainer,” she said.

A.B. prefers to consider herself a survivor. She graduated from CU with summa cum laude honors in the spring of 2018 and now lives out of the state. The #metoo movement has been empowering for her, though she wishes it had come sooner, as she didn’t feel believed beforehand. Though the assault still has a residual impact on her life, she said she’s sharing her story in hopes of seeing change in the system.

“If I stay quiet, the poor behavior gets to continue,” A.B. said. “CU can do a lot better, and it needs to, because their systems are not enough.”

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Lucy Haggard at lucy.haggard@colorado.edu.

Lucy Haggard

Lucy Haggard is in her third year at CU Boulder, born and raised in Colorado. She was the Editor-In-Chief during Fall 2018, working primarily on coverage of Title IX at CU. She helps the CUI cover campus and the local community in the most aesthetically and audibly pleasing ways possible. When not on assignment, she's probably dancing way too early in the morning.

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