Students at the University of Maine at Farmington are continuing to push the school to improve its response to victims of sexual violence, and the school recently announced additional plans to enhance student safety.
On Friday, about 40 students held a protest on campus, and women have spoken to the Bangor Daily News about the school’s handling of their cases in hopes administrators will learn from their experiences. In addition, nearly 130 faculty and staff members signed a Feb. 12 letter with ideas for improvements and a proposed student bill of rights.
The reactions follow a BDN story Jan. 28 about two female students who described in detail how the university failed them after they were raped.
In the weeks since, the school has opened up avenues to listen to students.
It’s held three forums, with more to come, according to a mass email sent by Eric Brown, the university’s interim president, on Thursday. Student leaders are meeting with the president’s council, an internal advisory group, to discuss changes, and Brown is gathering with the university’s board of visitors, an outside advisory group. Students are taking an anonymous climate survey to provide feedback.
In addition, Brown said, the school will soon discuss integrating more health and wellness components into the academic curriculum; school leaders will be evaluating safety concerns on the physical campus; and there will be one or more free self-defense classes offered this spring.
What’s more, Brown said he will draft a campus policy to forbid one person from overturning a sexual assault case on its final appeal during the campus judicial process. Instead, three people will be responsible for that decision.
This move comes in reaction to a case in which the university’s former president, with little explanation, overturned a committee’s finding that a student had been raped last year, allowing her alleged attacker to remain on campus.
Several women who spoke to the BDN said they were confused about the campus judicial process before, during and even after they reported being assaulted. They shared their stories in hopes that they could spark changes on the 1,600-student campus.
One former student, who agreed to use her first name, Mariah, said the lack of communication and clarity made her feel “more powerless dealing with the system meant to protect students than I did in the assault itself.”
The rules for the campus judicial process are set out under the federal gender anti-discrimination law Title IX and aim to protect students’ right to an education. Just as workplaces can fire employees to protect their business, so, too, can schools, through the Title IX process, suspend or expel students found responsible for breaking school rules.
In 2016, after a male student forced himself on her to kiss her, Mariah said she spoke to F. Celeste Branham, the administrator who handled Title IX complaints. Mariah said she didn’t want to go through the formal adjudication process that could result in her alleged attacker being punished unless more women came forward about him. She didn’t think her case was severe enough to warrant it, she said.
At the same time, Mariah said she was never entirely clear what the campus judicial process would have entailed. She remembers leaving Branham’s office feeling confused and overwhelmed, not understanding the various ways the administrative discipline process could play out.
“I never truly felt I understood what that ‘investigation’ meant or would have looked like,” she said.
The male student, someone she considered a friend, physically held her down in her single dorm room on Feb. 3, 2016, to kiss her, she said, even though she had repeatedly told him no. She used her self-defense training to fight back, she said, but he still managed to force a kiss.
She didn’t want to make a big deal out of what had happened, but he had pinned her down, and she had heard that the man had also acted inappropriately toward others, she said. She was conflicted about how to respond, but what she really wanted was for the man to get help that would change his behavior, she said, so he wouldn’t hurt someone else.
Meanwhile, she had a positive experience with Brock Caton, who runs the campus police. Her criminal recourse was clear, she said, and Caton took the time to answer her questions and make her feel respected. But she still didn’t want police to arrest the man for a kiss.
She continued to feel stalled. The school put two orders in place to prohibit the man from going into any residence hall and from contacting Mariah, according to an email she kept. But they made her feel like she couldn’t move forward.
And communication issues persisted. Later on, Branham requested that one of the orders be revised, so the man could enter any residence hall except Mariah’s — but she didn’t tell Mariah, who found out when friends started telling her they’d seen the man in a dorm.
Caton offered an explanation in an email: “We’ve been monitoring [the alleged perpetrator’s] behavior and we have not received any reports regarding issues.”
Maybe the school was working with the alleged offender behind the scenes, she said, and maybe he got counseling, but for three years she never knew how the case resolved. She graduated last year.
Finally, this past week, she decided to ask the school. It “did not have evidence that a formal investigation took place through Celeste’s office,” according to an email from human resources.
She also learned that, per the university’s policies, the school has discretion in how it proceeds with a case. If an alleged victim wants to remain confidential, as Mariah did, it’s possible the school will honor that request or simply won’t be able to continue without the victim. There are also times when the university can’t maintain confidentiality because it would pose a safety risk, according to the system’s sexual harassment policy manual.
It’s also possible for the school to determine what occurred without a formal investigation and hearing, and take action to prevent harassment from happening again, said Dan Demeritt, a University of Maine System spokesman.
“While we cannot speak to specifics of a Title IX case without a student’s consent, the former UMF Title IX Coordinator confirmed it was always her practice to conduct a review of an incident and an engagement with the students involved in a way that was supportive, responsive, and appropriate,” Demeritt said in a statement.
Today, Mariah said she feels more at peace, and is glad the school is making changes. She’d like to see more. As one of the first work-study students with the school’s Campus Violence Prevention Coalition, she understands well the dynamics of interpersonal violence and believes that the school should hire someone to run the coalition — instead of relying on faculty to split their roles — who can lead long-term efforts to spread helpful information and promote a safe campus.
Other students said they are confused about Title IX proceedings because they seem subjective. It also hasn’t always been clear they’re an option.
Until recent campus discussions, “I didn’t know Title IX was an office,” said Amanda Whitten, a junior studying visual arts. “I thought it was just a law.”
“If you’re on fire, you stop, drop and roll,” said Claudia Intama, a senior majoring in political science. “When you’re raped, you have no idea what to do.”
Changing the culture
It’s up to universities to make sure their students are informed of their rights under Title IX, and there are a number of ways to do it that can also help change campus culture, said Merrick Rossein, a professor at the City University of New York Law School who specializes in employment and sexual harassment law.
Universities often choose online or large-group sexual harassment prevention trainings, but they are “pretty close to worthless,” Rossein said. However small-group interactive training led by a skilled facilitator can help students not just understand the rules but respect one another.
When Rossein facilitates these discussions for employers, he shares actual scenarios and asks participants to decide on their own whether they represent sexual harassment. Then they gather in small groups to discuss their thoughts.
In one scenario, a male manager tells a female employee she’s not being friendly to clients and suggests they talk it over at a bar. Rossein has put the situation to thousands of people and tracked the results.
“About 80 percent of the women say, ‘I know, he’s trying to hit on her.’ About 20 percent of the men agree,” he said.
The point of the exercises is to get people to listen to each other and understand that men and women have accumulated different experiences over their lives because of their gender and, therefore, have different perspectives.
In addition to training, another way to improve people’s knowledge of Title IX and the dynamics of sexual assault is to integrate the information into classrooms, Rossein said. For instance, one Title IX conduct officer he knows is co-teaching a philosophy class and using various texts to build conversations about respect and gender differences.
“To change the culture you really have to spend a lot of effort in terms of educating,” Rossein said.
A small number of University of Maine at Farmington students, faculty and staff will meet Feb. 21 to discuss ways to better incorporate health education into the curriculum, said Kathy Yardley, provost and acting vice president of academic affairs. She said she expects there to be many more conversations on the subject in the future.
An idea raised by students is to have a health class where students can learn about Title IX, plus sexual, mental and physical health, said senior Amy Fortier-Brown, who started the Facebook group Look Us In The Eyes, now with 268 members, to allow students to share their stories and organize for changes.
It was this group that organized Friday’s demonstration, where students shared their thoughts about domestic and sexual violence.
Katerina Burns, a junior and a political science major, said she loves the university. She also wants students to feel protected, and that’s what Look Us In The Eyes wants to achieve.
“Know that it’s never your fault, ever,” she said. “You shouldn’t feel guilty for these things, ever. It’s OK if you stay silent. No one’s forcing you to come forward, but we want you to know you have people here who will back you.”
‘A really systemic effort’
One student on campus who identifies as non-binary, meaning neither male nor female, and uses the pronouns “they, them and their,” said they consented to sex with a male student four years ago, but then he became aggressive. The student told him he was hurting them twice, but he didn’t stop, they said. The student froze and described feeling like stone.
The student understands why the Title IX process didn’t find the man responsible, they said, but they still suffered. They became depressed and started having anxiety attacks when they saw the man on campus.
“It literally felt like my heart was being lifted out of my chest and through my mouth. I would start shaking,” the student said. “I felt like I was just spiraling.”
The student declined to be named but provided emails showing arrangements for Title IX proceedings, including a hearing.
The student still has write-ups from the man’s friends — intended to support him in the Title IX process — that eerily capture the alleged victim’s frame of mind. The student was “extremely flustered and upset,” said one. Another said the student was “skittish and missing classes.”
Looking back today the student wishes the school had automatically assigned a victim advocate, rather than handing over a pamphlet or saying where to seek help independently.
Title IX requires the university to treat both sides equally, so if it provided advocates for students who report being assaulted, it would also have to provide them for alleged perpetrators, Demeritt said.
The school “works to make every participant in a Title IX proceeding aware of available resources, including advocates,” he said.
Other universities, however, manage to connect alleged victims with advocates, Rossein said. In some places, students or local residents get the training and volunteer to make themselves readily available.
“There are ways of doing it, and it’s very important,” he said.
And while individual ideas are good, “it’s going to take a really systemic effort [to reduce sexual violence],” he said. “Once you have a changing culture, then you can get ahead of it.”
Often, he said, students’ voices are the most powerful.
“It will show so much growth and integrity in our campus if we’re able to actually do something about this,” said Fortier-Brown. “If we just ignore this … we’re going to be the campus that allows sexual predators to exist.”
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.