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Investigation: 285 days of fear and waiting

April 23, 2014

She waited six-and-a-half months for the report.

Two hundred one days for four interviews. Her statement, her harasser’s and two witnesses. A 13-page, double-spaced summary.

And while she waited, her harasser lived in the same residence hall. They were in the same class.

It took more than nine months for MSU to sanction the student found in violation of its own sexual harassment policy.

Even after he was punished, a no-contact order didn’t keep him from allegedly intimidating her.

When she reported it to the university, MSU found “insufficient evidence” to prove it occurred.

Most of her allegations won’t be investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, or OCR. Only a small part of her case — one of three in a federal investigation into MSU’s handling of sexual assault and harassment claims — will be examined, because much of the complaint was not filed quickly enough.

MSU officials, citing student privacy laws, would not comment on specifics of the case, but defended university procedure.

Her story is one permeated by fear and marked by MSU’s alleged inaction, where the victim’s search for safety left her feeling “like no longer having hope in anything.”

She revealed details of university conduct that might have placed MSU in violation of federal law. The student asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

“This was like a double trauma for me,” she said. “They made it worse.”

Within sight

The female student was harassed twice during the fall of her freshman year. The State News agreed not to publish the specific details, but university reports characterized the conduct as nonconsensual groping.

On Jan. 30, 2012, MSU police learned of her allegations after she confided in her resident assistant. Prosecutors did not press charges, but the case was sent to MSU’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, or I3, which handles sexual harassment investigations.

MSU is required by the federal law Title IX to investigate all complaints of sexual harassment and provide a “prompt and equitable resolution” to them.

These investigations adhere to a lower standard of certainty than criminal cases. Courts require proof beyond reasonable doubt. MSU and other universities determine if it is more likely than not a violation occurred through a “preponderance of the evidence,” a federal standard.

On Feb. 2, 2012, an I3 investigator reached out to the student. They first met the next day.

The student said initial correspondence with the investigator lasted about a month.

But during the nine months the case was being investigated, she wasn’t free from fear. Her harasser was in her college, and the two had the same major.

They were in same class, a large lecture. Attendance meant encountering him, a former friend who she accused of attempted rape.

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“Having to face him every single day and just face everything that happened ... is pretty traumatizing,” she said.

The I3 investigation acknowledges they both attended the same lecture, but asserts the office worked with the college “regarding interim measures.”

The student disagrees. She said MSU did little other than offer lecture recordings.

“(I3) did not do anything,” she said. “They told me I could leave the class.”

In time, she stopped going.

“It just pushed me further into a depression, blaming myself for everything that had happened when it wasn’t my fault,” she said.

Dead silence

In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which introduced guidelines for Title IX compliance, OCR mandated MSU and other institutions give “reasonably prompt time frames” for investigations while preserving due process.

The letter stated a typical investigation takes about “60 calendar days following receipt of the complaint.”

Universities were also required to assign an employee to ensure compliance with the law. Paulette Granberry Russell, Director of I3, is MSU’s Title IX Coordinator in addition to serving as a senior advisor to MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon. She doesn’t view 60 days as a deadline.

“That’s a recommendation, it’s not a mandate,” Granberry Russell said in an interview.

MSU’s policy allots itself twice as much time—120 days—specifying that 90 are typically needed to complete an investigation, with 30 days to draft a formal report.

Brett Sokolow, president of National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a law consultancy contracted to achieve Title IX compliance, said “that timeline ... is not compliant with the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”

John Clune, a Title IX attorney representing the accuser of Florida State Quarterback Jameis Winston, said “there’s not a specific time frame that violates Title IX,” but thinks “the Department of Education would have a problem with a policy that basically gives them 120 days on all cases.”

Title IX does not provide a clear definition for what is reasonably prompt. The letter stated OCR’s consideration of timeliness “will vary depending on the complexity of the investigation and the severity and extent of the harassment.”

Emails provided by the student of her exchanges with I3 indicate by March 21, 2012, all the interviews that appeared in the final report had been conducted.

But as the semester ended, she left campus without a resolution. In an email to the university investigator and the director of the Department of Student Life on Fed. 4, 2013, she described waiting without an answer.

“All summer, I suffered anxiety about coming back,” she wrote. “I love (MSU) ... I do not want to have to leave.”

Granberry Russell characterized the 120 days as a “goal.”

“There are times when even that may not be met, depending upon the circumstances of each individual case,” she said. “We’re transparent about that as a possibility in the policy when we say if the case goes beyond that, we’ll communicating with the parties.”

OCR’s letter also noted “both parties should be given periodic status updates.” The student alleges the university did neither.

“At the beginning, (the investigator) was corresponding with me for my story, but then she kind of stopped talking to me, and then I got no communication for a really long time,” she said. “After that, it was pretty much dead silence.”

As she prepared to return that fall, she said she had to reach out to the investigator for an update.

The I3 report, where he was found in violation of MSU’s sexual harassment policy, is dated Aug. 6, 2012. MSU’s procedures state a sexual assault complaint then should have been filed by I3 with the Department of Student Life to determine sanctions.

More than two months passed before he accepted responsibility, according to an email the student received Oct. 15, 2012.

Sokolow said after an investigation has concluded, “sanctions should go into place immediately.”

But it was not until Nov. 21, 2012 that the student received a formal notice from I3 that her alleged harasser was “found responsible for violating the Policy on Sexual Harassment,” and outlined his sanctions, including a no-contact order, which went into effect Nov. 13.

MSU’s I3 investigation into the incident exceeded both OCR and MSU’s time frames, taking more than four times longer than what the OCR considers typical and more than double the university’s.

It had been 285 days, 225 past typical OCR investigation. I3’s investigation went 65 days past their own “goal.”

Clune said no university investigation into sexual harassment should take that long to resolve.

“There’s really no scenario where that’s going to comply with Title IX,” Clune said. “There’s no justification on even the most complex cases in why there shouldn’t be some sort of resolution of the matter in a much, much shorter time frame.”

Feeling safe

Throughout the investigation, she alleged the harasser would go out of his way to get closer to her. She said he would sit next to her in the cafeteria and make sure she noticed.

After the sanctions and no-contact order, she says he didn’t stop.

“(The) no-contact order did not protect me whatsoever,” she said. “I felt like I had gone through hell for nothing.”

She contacted I3 officials on Feb. 4, 2013, asking for “safety and protection.”

“He intimidates me every time I see him with his sneering looks and mocking laughter,” she said in an email to Granberry Russell.

She then filed a complaint with I3 and asked police to grant a personal protection order against him, alleging retaliation.

She had two witnesses in the second report, both of whom said they were there for instances of alleged retaliation. He had one witness, who admitted in testimony he did not know who she was. I3 found there was “insufficient evidence regarding which version of events is more credible.”

Clune said the student should have never had to encounter the harasser in the first place.

“(This) is the fundamental problem that the school has created by not imposing a sanction that sufficiently protects the victim from suffering from a hostile educational environment,” Clune said. “There should be no scenario where the victim is not allowed to attend classes and feel comfortable and have to worry about running into this guy.”

In I3’s report, the same investigator said she “seems to be motivated by a desire to see the (the harasser) further punished.”

She said her desire is simple.

“All I was seeking was to feel safe on this campus,” she said.


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