Update: The interim president of the University of Maine at Farmington responded Tuesday to this story, which details how the school failed two female students who reported being raped. Read his response here.
Chloe Woodward was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing.
It was late on Jan. 2, 2018, and she needed someone to help calm her down. She walked into a friend’s dorm room at the University of Maine at Farmington, where they were both students. Something bad had just happened, she told her friend without giving him details.
Her friend hugged her until she could take deeper breaths, and Woodward left to call her boyfriend from her room, she said. He had just gotten out of work in Portland and picked up the phone to the sound of her weeping.
“I was raped,” she said.
It would take her boyfriend nearly two hours to drive to the school. Alone, Woodward felt like she was losing her mind. She began to blame herself, and said she thought of the horror she could have avoided if she hadn’t gone to drink with the man who grabbed her throat, held her down and raped her that night. Afraid of what she might do to herself, she called another friend who didn’t pick up.
It was the beginning of having to deal with an experience that destroyed her, said Woodward, now 21 and a junior at the school. Today, she is more cautious and self conscious. Wherever she goes on the small campus, she looks for him.
What made it worse, though, was the university’s response as part of a campus judicial process set out under the federal gender anti-discrimination law Title IX. The issue of sexual assault on college campuses has drawn considerable national attention, but it’s rare to see how individual schools handle cases because the process is confidential.
For both Woodward and another female student who reported being raped in 2017, they faced committees that decided they had been sexually assaulted. But then both students experienced errors in the handling of their cases and saw their findings overturned in bizarre fashion — and their feelings of safety evaporate.
In Woodward’s case, the school allowed her alleged attacker to remain on campus even after a committee found him responsible for sexual assaulting her and issued a two-year suspension, according to interviews and emails obtained by the Bangor Daily News.
Then, the president of the university at the time stepped into the proceedings to entirely overturn the finding that the man sexually assaulted Woodward. The president’s closing rebuke was to “strongly urge” her to seek alcohol counseling, making Woodward feel like she was being blamed for the worst experience of her life.
When the BDN asked how then-President Kathryn Foster had the authority to reverse the decision, the University of Maine System cited part of the student conduct code that, it then realized, contained an error.
The code was supposed to contain language granting Foster the power to intervene. But the wording available to Woodward, her attorney and the general public did not mention a president being able to overturn a decision in those circumstances.
If Woodward, of Augusta, was the only alleged victim to go through a baffling campus judicial process at the University of Maine at Farmington, it’s possible she wouldn’t be sharing her experience publicly. But her attorney, Nicole Bissonnette with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which offers free legal aid, happened to represent another alleged sexual assault victim at the 1,600-student university.
When the school’s response to both alleged victims was described to three national Title IX experts, they said there were clearly problems with due process and possibly violations of the federal law. The university system said it would “respond in the appropriate legal forum” if someone made a legal complaint.
The second alleged victim, who will go by the name Sierra, described a number of absurdities, including when an appeals board overturned a previous finding that she had been assaulted — because her alleged rapist voluntarily mentioned an additional woman’s pending no-contact order against him at one point during an hours-long hearing.
In addition, the school allowed the male student to submit old messages from Sierra as evidence, even though a judge had ordered him to destroy them.
The BDN is not naming the men because they were not charged with a crime. Both declined to comment for this article. The BDN also does not typically name alleged sexual assault victims, but Woodward wanted to use her name so her story would be told.
Jim Thelen, general counsel for the University of Maine System, said privacy law prohibits the system from commenting publicly about specific reports of sexual misconduct.
“These are difficult, deeply personal cases,” he said. “Despite the University of Maine System’s best efforts to handle these matters in a way that complies with all applicable laws and our policies and is both sensitive and fair to all parties, sometimes one party feels dissatisfied with the outcome.”
In May, Woodward and Sierra sent written complaints to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees and the Board of Visitors at the University of Maine at Farmington. Woodward also filed a complaint in June with the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education, which can investigate and punish universities by taking away their federal funding. Neither woman has heard back.
Campus disciplinary proceedings set out by policies under Title IX are different from criminal proceedings that can send people to jail. Instead, they look at whether students have broken school rules and should remain on campus. They often hear about reports of sexual assault. Aside from alcohol and drug-related offenses, rape is the most reported crime at the University of Maine at Farmington — a telling statistic for a widely underreported offense and one that mirrors trends at other colleges.
Title IX exists to make sure both men and women have equal access to education, said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, which provides free legal services to sexual assault victims in Massachusetts and Oregon. How schools respond to reports of sexual assault, in many ways, matters more than their final decision. It’s called procedural justice.
“If you are heard, and people listen to you,” Bruno said, “then, even if the outcome doesn’t go your way, you still feel like you were treated in a way that was fair.”
Woodward, who came to Farmington because she one day wants to teach high school special education, and Sierra, who would like to help people with disabilities participate in the outdoors, said the school’s process was anything but fair.
Now, Sierra said, “I don’t view Farmington as my school. I’m just sticking around to get my degree and get out.”
Attorney Walter “Woody” Hanstein, who teaches law-related classes and coaches rugby at the university, represented both male students. They had “unblemished records” and “gave completely consistent accounts every time they were questioned,” he said.
It’s not in anyone’s interest “to relitigate these cases in the newspaper,” Hanstein said, especially since the district attorney’s office never brought criminal charges, and the Title IX process cleared his clients of responsibility.
‘A mother’s worst nightmare’
The night of her alleged assault, Woodward tried reaching another friend who, to her relief, answered the phone and let her come over. Woodward was still distraught and crying when her boyfriend, Nate Red, picked her up there around 2 a.m.
“It wasn’t the Chloe that I know,” Red said.
In the morning, after several hours of sleep, Woodward knew she had to tell the authorities. At the time she was driven by a desire to not let the man assault someone else, she said, and had no preconception of what was ahead.
People who work with victims of sexual violence know their bodies may hold clues to the crime. That’s why it’s important for victims to not shower before going to police, so any available DNA evidence, on the body or clothing, can be collected through a sexual assault forensic examination, often called a rape kit.
Woodward didn’t know about rape kits at the time, but she had not taken a shower. Still, the campus police officer she and Red spoke to didn’t ask her to go to a hospital to get the exam done.
“We’ll never know if there was still evidence on me,” Woodward said.
Instead, Officer Ryan Wagner, who has since left the department, took her oral and written statement, and asked if she would be willing to try to get the suspect to incriminate himself in a recorded phone call. Wagner didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Woodward was nervous but agreed. But before she could arrange a call a few days later, Wagner contacted the alleged rapist to say he needed to speak to him, according to Bissonnette and Woodward, who later questioned him about it in a hearing. The officer’s actions appeared to tip off the suspect. When Woodward called the man on a recorded line, he answered “no” to all the questions she asked.
The officer’s actions prevented the collection of evidence that could have supported a criminal case, said Sara Grant, Woodward’s mother.
“It was devastating. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare,” she said. “To learn that she wasn’t getting the help she needed when she attempted to go report it just made things worse.”
Woodward had more luck protecting herself through civil court.
On Feb. 14, 2018, after a contested hearing where she and her alleged rapist took the stand, with him pleading the fifth, a Farmington district court judge granted Woodward a protection from abuse order, deciding she was “a victim of the defendant’s sexual assault.” The man presented “a credible threat” to Woodward’s safety and could potentially be arrested if he contacted her, the judge ruled.
She had to prove her case for a no-contact order by a “preponderance of the evidence.” Some describe the standard as “50 percent plus a feather” — meaning, is the plaintiff’s version of events more likely than not? It’s a lesser bar than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for criminal cases.
Outside the court system, universities also use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in deciding sexual assault cases under Title IX.
Woodward believes it was campus police who told school officials about her report, and they began a Title IX investigation. She felt respected during her interviews, she said, and got to look over all the investigation documents. But the process dragged on. Normally the school aims to conclude cases in 60 days, but it was three months before Woodward even got a hearing.
At one point, the hearing was scheduled for March 22, 2018, and Grant, Woodward’s mother, called that day to confirm where it would be held, she said. That’s when she learned the hearing had been rescheduled, and no one had told her, Woodward or Bissonnette.
Furious, Grant said she called Foster, the president, to share her disgust with the school’s disorganization, the faulty police response, and the fact that the alleged perpetrator’s attorney had ties to the school. (A university attorney later said in writing that there was no bias. Hanstein also said bias played no role in the Title IX process.)
During their conversation, Foster told Grant that, as president, she would have to stay out of Woodward’s case. Now that she’d spoken to the alleged victim’s mother, Grant recalled the president saying, she wouldn’t be considered an unbiased arbiter.
Foster, who left about a month later to become president of The College of New Jersey, said in a statement that she couldn’t comment on specific cases, but “I always took these cases very seriously, acted within the scope of my authority as President, and took great care in fulfilling my role in the process.”
‘When it got really crazy’
Woodward sat at a table in a window-filled room in the alumni center at the university, her fate in the hands of several strangers before her. It was April 2, 2018, and her alleged rapist sat a few feet away to her left, behind a white screen.
To the three committee members charged with hearing and deciding her case, Woodward described the night in the man’s dorm room, exactly three months prior, when she said he encouraged her to drink more alcohol and pushed her for sex. She said no again and again, she said, and he didn’t listen as she struggled to get away.
Because of Title IX rules, Woodward was responsible for questioning her alleged attacker. But to prevent direct confrontation she had to ask her questions to the conduct committee chairperson, Eric Brown, who then repeated them to the man. Brown is now interim president of the university.
The echoed inquiry left Woodward feeling more unsettled, she said. But she steeled herself. When she felt the urge to stare at the table, she made herself look out the window, to a crow sitting on a branch.
At 5:52 p.m. the following day, Woodward received an email from F. Celeste Branham, then-vice president for student and community services. The conduct committee had found the man responsible for sexual assault and decided to suspend him for two years, or until Woodward graduated, “in order that your time on campus does not overlap,” according to the email shared with the BDN.
She felt vindicated and relieved. Then, three days later, Woodward saw the man at the snack bar on campus. She froze.
If he had been suspended, why was he still around? she asked Branham, who has since retired. Bissonnette, her attorney, inquired, too, with legal concerns. Title IX requires colleges to take “prompt and effective steps” to eliminate a hostile environment once they know one has been created, she said.
The man would be allowed to remain through the appeals process — even though he hadn’t yet appealed the decision, Branham told the two women in an April 10, 2018, email.
What’s more, Branham wasn’t counting her earlier email as notification of the committee’s findings, which would have started the clock on his time to appeal. A “formal disposition letter” was forthcoming, Branham said, and once they got it the man would have seven days from that date to appeal.
Stunned, Bissonnette wrote back to say the university system’s own conduct code required sanctions to be imposed immediately. The school was essentially giving the man twice the allotted time to appeal.
“[E]ach day that [the man] is allowed to remain on campus after this decision was made is another day that UMF has failed to protect Chloe,” Bissonnette wrote.
She didn’t hear back.
When the BDN attempted to speak with Branham and others involved in the women’s cases, Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for the university system, stepped in to say that all university officials, past and present, could not comment publicly on individual students’ claims.
But Merrick Rossein, a professor at the City University of New York Law School who specializes in employment law and sexual harassment law, said it doesn’t make sense to wait days to alert the parties in a Title IX case to a committee finding.
Plus, “Once action is taken, they should move quickly to remove that person from campus,” Rossein said. When students appeal a suspension, schools will sometimes let them continue their education remotely until the case concludes, he said, but they can be banned from campus where they could see the alleged victim.
Woodward was infuriated that not just she, but other girls, could continue to be at risk, she said. She avoided going outside when she could but continued to run into him.
The man did appeal the committee’s decision, triggering a review by a different panel. After reviewing the evidence, the review panel decided it needed more information and ordered the case to be sent back to the original committee.
It wanted clarification on the first committee’s reasoning for finding that Woodward had been assaulted. That’s because the original committee said Woodward was incapacitated by alcohol and couldn’t give consent. But, the appeals board pointed out, since she still remembered the rape she didn’t meet the definition of incapacitation, which requires one to essentially be unconscious.
While Woodward didn’t want to recount her story in detail again for the first committee, it had found in her favor before, and she believed that it would again, she said.
Importantly, the new hearing would even be before the same people, as Branham explained in an email to Woodward.
That’s why what happened next confused both Woodward and her attorney. Bissonnette asked Branham to clarify what the new hearing would entail but was told to wait. The alleged perpetrator’s attorney, Hanstein, had appealed the decision to have the case reheard, and the university was going to do something new, Branham wrote.
Bissonnette clarified that her client didn’t oppose a new hearing.
“I ask that you await the letter charting a different path,” Branham replied in a one-sentence email.
“That’s when it got really crazy,” Woodward said.
‘Defies rational belief’
Neither Woodward nor Bissonnette understood what was happening. They were both shocked when, about a week later, Woodward received a letter from an unexpected person: the president of the college at the time, Foster, who had told Woodward’s mother two months earlier that she would recuse herself.
Unknown to the women, she had taken up the case and done three things: reversed the decision of the review panel to have the case reheard by the original committee, found the man not responsible for sexually assaulting Woodward, and overturned the decision to suspend him.
Not only had she reversed everything, she urged Woodward and the alleged assailant to “take advantage of alcohol awareness education and counseling,” which, to Woodward, felt like a slap in the face.
“I was feeling every negative feeling you could think of,” she said.
A process like that is “as much as any individual can withstand,” said Bruno, with the Victim Rights Law Center, and represents “a pretty egregious violation of Title IX and certainly a violation of what people think of as due process.”
In her decision, Foster cited part of the student conduct code as giving her the authority to intervene, but it contained a “typo,” Demeritt, the system spokesman, said Dec. 28, 2018. Instead of subsection V.E.1, the code at the time should have referred readers to V.F.1, said Demeritt, who had system counsel review answers he provided to the BDN.
That is the subsection that allows for presidential review. A one-letter difference, essentially, changes the scope of what Bissonnette and others understood to be permitted.
Bissonnette, who was first told about the error Jan. 2, said that allowing the president to intervene based on rules that were unknown or undisclosed to the people in the case likely violates Title IX.
“To raise this claim now, months after my client received the final decision in this matter and a full year after UMF became aware of the allegations, perpetuates the injustice of the process in this case and defies rational belief,” she said.
Foster wrote in her decision that she had “reviewed all materials in the case file,” but didn’t state a specific reason for overturning the case. Bissonnette was confused as to how a judge and committee thought Woodward had been raped, but Foster did not.
A decision like that should be explained thoroughly and backed up, said Rossein, with the City University of New York Law School.
“It sounds to me like this is a pretty shoddy application of a questionable process,” he said.
A new student conduct code took effect July 1 and is currently in place. The BDN read it and found two more errors. As a result, the university system will be “conducting a careful review” to make sure the rules are accurate, Demeritt said Jan. 14.
Unlike Woodward, Sierra, now 22, had been in a relationship with the man who she said raped her. In the summer of 2017, the relationship turned manipulative, she said. He got angry when he couldn’t see her, even if she was working or spending time with her family, and threatened suicide when she didn’t respond to him.
In just two months that summer, he called her more than 500 times and texted more than 700 times — 20 attempts to reach her per day, nearly one per hour. Even though she broke up with him that August, he didn’t stop trying to contact her, she said.
On Sept. 27, 2017, he told her he was done with life. When she found him, she said she could tell by his eyes he was angry and spent time trying to calm him down. She thought she was making sure he got home to his off-campus apartment, but that’s when he pulled her inside. She tried to fight away, she said, but he was much bigger than her.
Unable to move during the assault, and in tears, she said her brain shut down. But she managed to focus on one dot on the wall — maybe where there was once a thumbtack.
“If I could see that one dot, I was still there,” she said.
She isn’t sure he knew what he did. Afterward, she went to her place, took an hour-and-a-half long shower, and cried. The next day she woke up at 8 a.m. and went to class. She was numb, she said. She felt as if she weren’t alive.
She went home that weekend and tried to tell her father but couldn’t. On Monday, back in Farmington, she said, “I just broke.”
Realizing she needed help, Sierra called her dad, who said, “I’m calling your mom, and we’re going to come get you,” she said.
That night, five days after the alleged assault, she reported her attack to the Farmington Police Department and had a different experience than Woodward did with campus police. The officers told Sierra to avoid all contact with the alleged rapist and to block him from her phone. They sent her to the hospital that night to have a rape kit done. Knowing she liked dogs, they even let her see the department’s canines.
The police made her feel respected, safe and comfortable, she said.
The Franklin County District Attorney’s Office, which would have been required to meet the high bar of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” declined to prosecute. But Sierra did obtain a protection from abuse order through the court.
Then, the Title IX process at the university began. It was the first time she’d heard of it, she said, and, with police and the court already involved, she was confused about what would happen. Like Woodward, she didn’t initiate the process. She believes someone who knew the alleged perpetrator alerted the Title IX office.
It’s a “huge red flag” that the women didn’t know about Title IX, said Rossein, with the City University of New York Law School. “Universities have an obligation to really educate the student body about what their federal rights are.”
There was no confusion about how Sierra felt, however, when she walked out of class — after obtaining the no-contact order — and saw her alleged rapist standing in front of her. He was with Laura Rodas, a coordinator of community standards and mediation, who had been interviewing him as part of the school’s investigation.
“I’m pretty sure I had the very first panic attack of my entire life,” said Sierra, who rushed to get away.
The school apparently hadn’t checked her class schedule to make sure Sierra and her alleged assailant wouldn’t run into one another. On top of that, because Sierra hadn’t been available, it had decided to interview the alleged attacker first. How would the investigator know what questions to ask if she hadn’t gotten Sierra’s report? asked Bissonnette.
When it came time for her interviews, Sierra said she barely got through them, even though she had Bissonnette, a sexual assault advocate and her mother with her.
In the Title IX process, hearings to reach a decision can be held before a full committee of impartial people or before the school conduct officer. Unlike in Woodward’s case, Sierra would have a conduct officer hearing.
Sierra and Bissonnette said the investigators, Rodas and Director of Student Life Brian Ufford, were leaning in Sierra’s favor, and were recommending that the man be found responsible for all of the alleged violations — causing fear of physical harm, dating violence, sexual harassment, stalking and violating the student conduct code — except for sexual assault. On that matter they were undecided, Sierra and Bissonnette said, and would use the hearing to make a decision.
Before the hearing, Sierra and Bissonnette had a chance to review summaries of the investigator’s interviews and the draft investigation report. That’s when they learned there was another female student, who Sierra hadn’t known, with a similar story alleging that the man threatened suicide and touched her inappropriately.
Sierra and Bissonnette said they got the impression the school was on their side. Rodas, the investigator, even said Sierra didn’t have to attend the Dec. 6, 2017, conduct officer hearing and that it was common for alleged victims to be absent, according to both Sierra and Bissonnette.
Since Sierra didn’t want to be in a small room with her alleged rapist, she didn’t go. But he went, and so did his attorney, Hanstein.
Afterward, Rodas and Ufford decided to change course and found the man not responsible for all of the charges but stalking, harassment and violating the student code, and decided he could stay on campus.
Sierra was stunned by what she called the insensitivity and ignorance of the final report. To back up the decision, it said Sierra did not leave him when she had the chance and must not have been worried about her safety because she didn’t immediately ask for help.
The code is clear that what happens in the hours leading up to or after an assault doesn’t matter, Bissonnette said.
“Consent is active, not passive. Consent may be withdrawn at any time. Silence, in and of itself, cannot be interpreted as consent,” reads the code. “There is no consent when the exchange involves unwanted physical force, coercion, intimidation and/or threats.”
Sierra had to appeal the decision before she and Bissonnette could hear an audio recording of the hearing.
“That’s when everything really, truly exploded,” Sierra said.
The school’s rules prohibit attorneys from speaking, but the alleged perpetrator’s attorney had been allowed to speak extensively, at one point saying, “We don’t do this at our school,” Sierra and Bissonnette said. He brought up Sierra’s prior relationships, while no one questioned the alleged assailant about his history. (Hanstein didn’t respond to a question about whether he knew he wasn’t supposed to talk.)
The school allowed the alleged perpetrator to submit old messages as evidence to use against Sierra, even though, under the protection from abuse order, he was supposed to destroy them, Bissonnette said. What’s more, Sierra didn’t have the chance to object because no one made sure she saw all the evidence ahead of time, as required.
The BDN sent a number of questions to Demeritt, but he could not speak about the individual case due to privacy law. Rosa Redonnett, chief student affairs officer with the University of Maine System, said the universities “are committed to protecting our students from sexual violence and to the campus engagement and education it will take to one day remove sexual discrimination and assault from our community entirely.”
‘It didn’t matter’
The committee hearing, which would decide Sierra’s appeal, was held in a small conference room, with one table, on Jan. 29, 2018. There was barely enough room for Sierra’s sexual assault advocate and father to sit behind her. Whenever the male student said something hurtful, they put their hands on Sierra’s arm and told her to take a breath.
If it had been a courtroom, Bissonnette said, she would have been objecting “all over the place.”
At one point, Sierra heard Hanstein’s voice. Knowing he wasn’t supposed to speak, she summoned her courage and interrupted the attorney to ask that he be required to follow the rules. From that point on, he did, she said.
Two days later, the committee found the man responsible for raping Sierra. It issued a year-and-a-half suspension, so Sierra could finish school.
But Sierra’s alleged rapist appealed again and succeeded in overturning the finding against him.
“Everything I had fought for was taken away,” Sierra said. “They took away every level of justice.”
In the final appeals board’s three-page decision letter March 27, 2018, it said there had been a “deficiency.” During the committee hearing, the alleged perpetrator had brought up another woman’s pending protection from abuse order against him, and “[a]t no point during the recording was the Committee requested to disregard the additional information,” the appeals board wrote.
“In addition, there was no statement in the evidence from [the other woman] yet the inclusion suggested a pattern to [the alleged perpetrator’s] behavior,” it continued.
Sierra and Bissonnette were baffled. The school’s investigators had discovered this other woman, and the alleged perpetrator had brought her up. No one in the prior two rounds of hearings had objected. Why was the appeals board punishing Sierra?
What’s more, if the review panel didn’t have the woman’s interview, it means it made a decision without the full body of evidence as required by the code, Bissonnette said, since she had specifically asked in writing two months before that the woman’s statement be added to the case file.
“Honestly, that sounds like a pretty severe example of an extremely problematic process,” said Terri Poore, policy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, who is familiar with how other schools handle Title IX proceedings.
Bissonnette felt the toll of seeing not just one but two women heartbroken by the decisions of their school.
“I cannot imagine anything more these girls could have done. They were so prepared,” Bissonnette said. “They put themselves out there. They were incredibly honest, talked about things that were embarrassing to them because it was the truth, and it didn’t matter.”
Sierra and Woodward didn’t know each other before their alleged assaults, but Bissonnette introduced them, and they’ve since become close. They get together when they can, and boost one another’s spirits when they’re feeling low.
Sierra had her mom drive her to class for a while. Her escape is her homework, she said, but she walks out of a classroom if the issue of abuse comes up. Woodward, meanwhile, said she lost a number of friends through the Title IX process who also knew her alleged perpetrator; one told her she could have ruined the man’s life, she said. With Sierra, at least, she knows she’s not alone.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. The editor, Erin Rhoda, will answer your questions about this story from noon to 1 p.m. today. Leave your questions in the comments section below or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you gone through the Title IX process? We’re interested in learning more. Get in touch at email@example.com.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.