Survivors Feel Unsupported by Title IX Investigations

Ellen Ivens-Duran and Lachlan Johnson


Illustration by Lya Hernandez.

Is Whitman College doing all that it can to prevent and respond to sexual assault? Or is the administration more focused on maintaining an appearance of fairness rather than protecting survivors?

Whitman College presents its Title IX system as a means of assessing cases of sexual misconduct, but according to several survivors of sexual assault, the system often fails to protect them.

Whitman College has been continuously revising its Title IX system in recent years in an attempt to keep up with changes in federal law. The college is currently under investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights for alleged failures to follow its own standards for investigation procedures.

Amidst these changes, survivors of sexual assault have still found serious flaws in the college’s Title IX system. According to survivors, the college is unable or unwilling to take serious action against assailants who have graduated, and investigators are inconsistent in applying the college’s policies. Even in cases where an assailant is found responsible for sexual assault and expelled from campus, Whitman quietly chooses not to disclose the reason for their expulsion, allowing students to transfer to other schools where their records of misconduct are unknown.

Can the college investigate?

Senior Lauren* was a first-year when the Sigma Chi fraternity invited her on a retreat in rural Oregon.

“People are absolutely encouraged to drink alcohol until they black out and way beyond that. It’s a weird environment that takes this kind of drinking culture we have to the extreme,” said Lauren.

Lauren says she was assaulted while at the retreat by a senior member of Sigma Chi, who graduated a few weeks later. After struggling with the fallout of her assault for over a year, she approached Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell the fall of her junior year.

“She kind of told me what [a Title IX investigation] would entail, and pretty much she told me, ‘You can do it but he graduated, he’s gone and it wouldn’t really change anything. We could ask him to participate in an investigation and he could say no,’” said Lauren.

Though it is technically possible for the college to carry out an investigation without the alleged assailant’s cooperation, and upon finding responsibility revoke their diploma, Whitman has never seriously contemplated this option in sexual assault cases.

“We don’t have any hold on them any longer [after graduation]. The college to my knowledge has never revoked a diploma, so that currently would be unprecedented,” said Associate Dean of Students and Title IX Administrator Juli Dunn.

The only result likely to come from an investigation of a graduated student is a trespass order barring them from campus.

After learning that there was a small chance of the college enforcing consequences for her graduated assailant, Lauren contacted the Walla Walla Police about her assault. However, because of the jurisdiction issues involved with the assault taking place in Oregon, the police warned investigating would be difficult. Though they talked to several people Lauren named as also attending the party, she says the investigation was closed without any actions taken.

Neither the school nor the law was able to provide any sort of remedy for Lauren’s situation. Without an authority figure condemning the situation, Lauren felt unable to convince her assailant of his wrongdoing. During a conversation that took place her junior year, Lauren tried to explain the situation to her rapist. According to her account, he admitted to having sex with her when she was clearly unable to consent, and that she had said no during the assault.

“He was like, ‘What do you want from me? Money? What’s your angle?’ and I [said], ‘No, I really think you have a dangerous attitude towards sex.’ It wasn’t important for me that he went to jail,” said Lauren, “He just didn’t understand that he had done something wrong and I needed to make him understand that.”

For other survivors, the problem is not the inability to have an investigation into their assault, but having the choice to report taken away from them. Junior Sasha* says she was pressured into reporting her sexual assault as a result of a conversation with a friend who had recently gone through Resident Assistant (RA) training.

All RAs, SAs and faculty members are mandatory reporters, also known as responsible employees. Most staff members fall under that category as well, though exceptions are made for counselors employed by the Counseling Center and Barbara Maxwell in her capacity as Victim’s Advocate. Mandatory reporters are required to report all incidents of sexual assault involving Whitman students to Dunn.

However, making a claim to a mandatory reporter does not necessarily mean opening an investigation; notifying the College of an assault is not the same as demanding a remedy.

“I’d disclosed to [my friend] previously, before she’d had the responsibility to report me, that I’d been sexually assaulted, but…Juli Dunn specifically told her ‘You should report your friend. Or get your friend to report,’” said Sasha. “I was thinking about reporting, but there was one point at which my friend was like ‘Hey, is this the day? Do you want to do it?’ And we sat down at my computer and I tried to report it. I did report it. And I felt like I lost all sense of agency.”

Are investigations consistent?

According to Sasha, the investigators for her case repeatedly failed to meet the college’s written guidelines and standards for investigations. Due to a lack of hard evidence, investigators relied on interviews with witnesses.

“My roommate said they asked her if I’m the sort of person who’s likely to have partners over in my room, and I’m like “What does that fucking have to do with anything?” They literally asked her, more or less, how likely I am to sleep with people. And it’s like, that’s not relevant, I can sleep with every person on this campus and that doesn’t stop the fact that this person abused the fact that I was vulnerable and decided to rape me.”

Administrators maintain that prior sexual relations, with the respondent or with others, should have no bearing on complaints. Throughout the Title IX process, Sasha felt that investigators were searching for ways to frame her case to make it align with traditional narratives of sexual assault.

“I just confused what [Dunn’s] understanding of sexual assault was, and she did not see me as a victim the way I saw myself as a victim. Because I was really cold. I was cold, and I was bitter, and I wasn’t crying, and I wasn’t weak, and it wasn’t some frat boy, it was a person that theoretically should have been more understanding in the paradigm of what people think sexual assault is,” said Sasha. “For them…to assume I didn’t have a trauma response because I didn’t react in the fight or flight way was so upsetting.”

Does the college punish assailants?

Survivors’ experiences with the Title IX process have been inconsistent. Senior Alexa* was the first student to go through the process in the 2013-14 school year, after it had undergone serious revisions from previous years.

“I hesitate to say that I was lucky, but I think in terms of survivors that go through the process, I was lucky in that I had screenshots, I had saved text messages,” said Alexa.

Alexa’s assailant was found responsible, and became the first person to be expelled from Whitman for violating sexual misconduct policy in 27 years. Despite the severity of his actions, Whitman did not note the reason for his expulsion on his transcript, and Alexa’s assailant was able to find a place at Oregon State University as a student. He is now a teacher’s assistant there—the same position he held at Whitman when he assaulted Alexa.

“I don’t think it’s a liability issue for Whitman…we keep conduct records. If someone [from another college] were to follow up and ask does this person have a conduct record at Whitman we’d be obligated to say ‘yes,’” said Dunn. “Most state schools don’t ask, and most community colleges don’t ask.”

Whitman College could note assailants’ history of sexual assaults on their transcripts. Colleges in New York and Virginia are legally required to do so. However, because Washington does not mandate it, Whitman chooses not to disclose Title IX convictions unless asked by other educational institutions.

“At that point you’re saying you can’t pursue your education, it’s different from saying you can’t pursue education here,” said Dunn. “I think it’s unlikely that a campus, particularly in this culture, is going to let a student into their campus with a history of sexual assault.”

Although designed to prevent overstepping administrative bounds, this lack of communication between institutions can facilitate easy transfers for convicted perpetrators of sexual assault. Whitman does require that incoming students, first-years and transfers, submit paperwork from their previous schools which would indicate whether they have violated conduct policies in the past.

Expectations of Survivors

Alexa says that after the result of her investigation was delivered, she was expected to act as an advocate for the reporting system.

“After I went through the system I was encouraged to help other folks to go through Title IX. I also have some feelings about that, just because I think there was a lot of false hope that was created and I think that…[Maxwell was] really encouraging me to tell other people to come forward and it felt a little bit cheap because it was like, ‘Oh, we got you through the system, clearly the system works, and like you’re doing great now and you should go tell all your friends to trust the system’ or whatever. And so I did,” said Alexa.

Alexa has encouraged other students to report, though she says that none of them had their assailant found responsible or expelled.

“I would continue to encourage people to go through Title IX on the off chance that they could have the level of success that I did with it. But also I’m super jaded now having seen people go through it and having still to deal with it three and a half years later,” said Alexa.

Alexa, Sasha and Lauren all believe that the administration has a lot of work to do to make the Title IX process a less problematic mechanism for addressing sexual assault and rape on campus.

“There’s this discrepancy between my case being someone’s job and my case being my life and my sanity. The fact that they didn’t recognize that was heartbreaking,” said Sasha. “You put so much trust into the administration, you expect them to see you as a person and they don’t. Not always.”

*Names have been changed to respect the identity of the survivors.