University of Maine at Farmington students expressed distrust and frustration Wednesday night during a panel discussion as they spoke to administrators about the school’s handling of reported sexual assaults. The school would need to earn their trust by making concrete changes, the interim president responded.
“My question is: Why should I believe you’ll look out for me and my peers?” Kevin Goodoak, a sophomore, asked administrators toward the end of the two-hour event in the university’s student center.
“I don’t think we’re at a point in time where we can depend on your faith,” said Eric Brown, the interim president. “I don’t think this tonight is about being convincing in that way. What I would say is, I think we have to be action oriented. We have to take steps that you can verify.”
About 100 people gathered to ask questions of Brown and several others who interact with sexual assault victims on campus about a week after the Bangor Daily News reported how the university made errors in the cases of two female students who reported being raped — one in 2017 and the other in 2018.
“A community that’s willing to have conversations like this is going to be OK as long as they’re willing to continue to engage in conversations,” said Jordan Shaw, graduate activities coordinator and chair of the UMF Campus Violence Prevention Coalition.
In the cases of the two female students, administrative hearings found their different alleged attackers responsible for sexual assault. But then both saw their cases overturned in what they described as bizarre fashion. The alleged attackers remain on campus.
In one case, the president of the college at the time, Kathryn Foster, stepped in, without forewarning to the alleged victim, Chloe Woodward, or her attorney, to overturn a finding that the student had been assaulted. In her decision letter, Foster recommended that Woodward and her alleged assailant seek alcohol counseling, seeming to place the blame on the fact they had been drinking.
Later, the university system realized the student conduct code contained a typo referring readers to the wrong section of the rules — meaning neither Woodward, her attorney nor the public could have known that a president was allowed to intervene in those circumstances.
It does not seem ethical to allow one person to overturn an entire case, said Darby Murnane, a junior, who wanted to know what would prevent the school from doing it again.
Hope Shore, assistant director of student life, said the student conduct code for the University of Maine System allows for the president’s designee or a review panel to decide an appeal.
“It’s still power in one person’s hand,” Murnane said.
“All I can tell you is that is the code,” Shore said.
When students asked how they could have more say in the rules, Shore said the code is updated every few years, with input from students, and was new as of July. “I don’t know what exactly could be done now,” she said.
Students expressed frustration about not understanding the campus judicial process laid out by the federal gender anti-discrimination law Title IX. Unlike criminal proceedings that can send someone to jail, this is an administrative process — put in place to protect students’ right to an education, since few sexual assault cases will result in a conviction in court. The Title IX process uses a lower standard of evidence than a criminal case and can result in a student being expelled or suspended.
“I do have a lot of goals of getting the information out in more places on campus,” said Shore, who is also the deputy Title IX coordinator. “It’s online, but it’s something you have to look for.” She added that she is working on a flow chart to explain how the process works.
After reading the BDN story, senior Amy Fortier-Brown started the Facebook group Look Us In The Eyes to allow students to share their stories and organize for changes. On Wednesday she asked the panelists to describe the most pressing issue relating to sexual assault on campus and how they would solve it.
“I think it’s information,” Brown said. For example, education about sexual health and healthy relationships could be better woven into the curriculum and emphasized more at orientation, he said.
It’s important to keep “the momentum alive and up,” Shore said, adding that she would like to see more participation from faculty, staff and students in the conduct boards that adjudicate cases.
Shaw, with the UMF Campus Violence Prevention Coalition, said men have a responsibility to change a culture that permits toxic masculinity. He asked how many men in the room had volunteered to take notes in a meeting. About two hands went up. When he asked the women, about half the people in the audience raised their hands.
“That’s the difference. We subjugate women,” Shaw said. “Women, I would say you have a responsibility to remind us to shut our mouths in as many different ways as you possibly can, up to and including talking over us.”
Given that campus police didn’t tell Woodward, whose case was highlighted in the BDN article, to get a rape kit done to look for evidence, a woman in the audience asked whether the campus police department had since changed its procedures.
Brock Caton, director of public safety and chief of campus police, said the district attorney’s office may not need a rape kit, and an officer would explain that to the person reporting an alleged sexual assault. “The rape kit’s very invasive,” he said. “We’re very cautious if we have to do it.”
“But will victims at least be informed of the option?” an audience member said, asking him to say yes or no.
“Yes,” Caton said.
Nicole Kellett, a professor of anthropology, said she sensed frustration and anger in the room. “I hear you guys want action steps,” she said. “You want to hold us accountable. … This is a moment … for you all to hold us accountable. Keep us accountable.”
Additional students expressed concern about the school allowing students who have been found responsible for raping someone to remain on campus where they can run into their alleged victims, which happened with Woodward, and they asked if there was a way to share more information about known offenders.
“It’s the hardest thing for people to understand. The respondent also has rights,” said Amie Parker, director of human resources. “I know that’s a very inflammatory statement.”
Ciera Miller, a sophomore, said the problem is that women don’t feel safe. “What are you doing now to help us feel safe?” she said. “Do we have to file a protective order … so we can protect ourselves while you figure out what you’re doing?”
In addition to potentially getting no-contact orders through the court, the school can issue them administratively, Caton said. There is also an escort service to help students get from place to place.
Both women in the BDN story had protection from abuse orders but described how they still saw their alleged perpetrators on the small campus.
“I think the best question is not how we can make you feel safe. I think the best thing is to hear from you how we can make you feel safe,” Parker said. “I don’t presume to know what you need to make you feel safe.”
After the panel, students said they remained frustrated, particularly at the idea of putting the responsibility on students to come up with changes. “I do believe we are all responsible for keeping a safe campus, but I am not an expert. I want to be part of the conversation, but I need help,” sophomore Eliza Robinson said.
“There was a bit of volatility in the room that, while justified, I’m not entirely sure was productive,” said Murnane, one of the students.
Students in the Look Us In The Eyes Facebook group are meeting with officials to try to make what they call systemic changes. Several women in the group said they would like to create a class on sexual and mental health, have a kinder response to victims who come forward, reform sexual harassment training for students, institute greater police oversight, produce clearer information about Title IX, draw more male voices into the conversation, and remove the ability of one person to overturn a case.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.