This is the first of two stories. Read the second here.
Ireland Webb thought she was going to be raped. It was Aug. 12, 2016, and a male student from Thomas College in Waterville, where she was starting as a freshman, had asked her to wear a dress. It was their first date and first time meeting after talking online, and he had told her he wanted the date to be a surprise. But when he picked her up at the college, he didn’t have a plan, Webb said. After driving to a couple places, including Walmart, where he bought frosted animal crackers with sprinkles, he took her to his family’s home in a nearby town.
She was OK kissing him, but when he felt under and over her clothes, and tried to get her to do sexual things, she repeatedly told him no and moved his hands away, she said. She told him he was pressuring her and started to cry, and he got angry. He tried to take off her clothes, so she grabbed his wrists and attempted to push him off her, but he resorted to pulling at her dress with his teeth, she said.
He continued to try to have sex with her, asking what the difference was between having sex then or later, telling her to let him prove to her that she would like it, and guilting her by saying he had put his trust in her, she said. A couple times he bit and flicked her nipples over her clothes.
One time, when he physically put her hand on his genitals, she told him she didn’t want to touch him. “He said, ‘Wow, you have a lot of respect for yourself,’ as if I shouldn’t have a lot of respect for myself,’” Webb said. “I told him to stop so many times both physically with my hands and my words.” At the same time, she didn’t want to upset him. He was her ride home. All the while, “I thought I was going to get raped,” she said. After several hours, he let her go.
Rape on college campuses has drawn a considerable amount of attention in recent years, but there are many other forms of sexual misconduct, such as unwanted sexual touching and sexual harassment, that are even more prevalent. Many schools struggle with how to respond.
At Thomas College, four current female students, including Webb, described experiencing unwanted sexual contact and were surprised when administrators didn’t take initiative to investigate their complaints, instead leaving it up to the women to decide how to proceed.
Each of the women expected a swift, clear response that would include an investigation and possible consequences for the male students. Instead, they came away disenchanted, fearful and depressed after reporting the misconduct.
Webb, it turned out, would report a total of five male students’ unwanted sexual conduct to the school. But even though she pushed for an investigation in one of the cases, the outcome appeared to be the same.
The women’s experiences show how a range of sexual misconduct can make victims fear for their safety and interfere with their education. They also raise legal questions about one college’s normally confidential handling of cases.
When students do come forward, the U.S. Department of Education, under the federal gender anti-discrimination law Title IX, mandates that colleges “must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.” The department did not respond to questions.
The women who spoke to the Bangor Daily News, however, said Thomas College did not conduct investigations unless they specifically requested one. The school put the burden of its campus judicial response on their shoulders at a vulnerable time in their lives, they said, and they were unsure of what to do.
Laurie Lachance, the president of Thomas College, said that unless the reported offense is “so egregious” that school officials need to protect the campus as a whole or protect the reporting student from major harm, “we would allow the student to pick the course of action that they want to take in the time that they want to take it.”
That’s because “it can often retraumatize them if we try to force them in one direction or another with a speed that they might regret upon further inspection,” she said. Lachance does not personally get involved in Title IX cases. She said the college complies with all legal obligations to address and respond to sexual misconduct.
Asked if a report of rape would trigger an investigation, Lachance said, “The person would be given on-campus options for resolution, including no action, informal or formal review. There is no timeline for the person to decide on the course of action that is right for them, and the person can change their mind later.” A formal review results in an investigation and hearing.
It appears that few students choose the formal process, pursuing it in just 9 percent of sexual misconduct cases reported to the school over the last three years.
Outside of the disciplinary process, Thomas College offers alleged victims what they need to heal, Lachance said, such as counselors or academic support. Administrators also make sure students know of their right to go to police and will arrange that connection if students want, she said.
In addition to Webb, the BDN spoke to three other female students who all reported that the same male student had groped them and were outraged at the lack of repercussions for him.
One of the three women, who got a court-ordered protection from abuse order against the male student, questioned why obtaining it didn’t automatically trigger a school investigation.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to choose. All I know is I want him to stop, and I don’t want anyone else to be victimized,” said the woman, who agreed to go by her middle name, Alexis. The BDN is not naming her because she still attends school with the alleged offender. “If a rule is alleged to be violated you should do some investigating to see if it was, how it was and why. You don’t put this burden of evidence and burden of proof on the victim. I felt it was all pushed onto my plate.”
Outside attorneys familiar with Title IX said schools should look into reports of misconduct.
“The standards that govern whether something constitutes sexual harassment, you can only determine whether something meets that standard once you’ve investigated. Schools can’t just assume that harassment won’t meet that standard without launching any kind of investigation,” said Emma Roth, an attorney with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Schools shouldn’t force alleged victims to participate in an investigation, said Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, which provides free legal help to sexual assault victims in Massachusetts and Oregon. But, “the school does have to evaluate whether or not it’s still safe for other people on campus,” she said.
If she were the general counsel for Thomas College, she said she would “100 percent” tell the school to investigate. That’s because, if an alleged offender escalates his behavior, “the school is going to have been on notice that he’s a problem. Whoever brings a civil lawsuit who gets raped by the person is going to have a very good civil lawsuit,” she said.
A school’s internal investigation to determine if a student violated the student conduct code may take place at the same time as a police investigation, but the two are different. Under Title IX, if a school’s investigation reveals that sexual harassment created a hostile environment, the school is required to “take prompt and effective steps” to end the harassment, and prevent it from happening again.
Schools use a lower bar of evidence in adjudicating cases than a criminal court, which gives them greater leeway to punish offenders, such as through suspension or expulsion, to protect other students’ right to an education. Just as workplaces can fire someone for conduct that doesn’t rise to the level of a crime, schools can remove students for bad behavior.
The students who spoke to the BDN, most of whom are majoring in criminal justice, were familiar with the school’s definition of consent and Title IX before coming forward. That’s because Thomas College requires students to learn about the issues through an online training, a session during orientation and at a full campus meeting. It also weaves the issues of Title IX and sexual misconduct into a required first-year seminar.
But none of the women said they were told what the Title IX process specifically entailed or that they would have to decide whether the school should investigate. Instead, they all remembered conversations about consent — that a lack of a no doesn’t mean a yes — and being told who they should talk to in the Title IX office if they needed help.
Given all the attention on sexual misconduct on campus, the women said they expected the school to automatically take action on their reports, rather than leave the decision up to them.
‘I was scared’
A few days after the evening with the male student in 2016, Webb decided to message him on Facebook to say she didn’t want to get together with him again. She shared their exchange with the BDN, which is not naming the male student because he wasn’t charged with a crime. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“I told you to stop and you continued trying to do more sexual acts with me,” she wrote.
He wrote back, “That’s fair. I’m really messed up right now Ireland, and I’m sorry.”
That didn’t mean everything was OK, she said. “What you did the other night is a form of sexual assault,” she wrote. “Being messed up isn’t an excuse to hurt women, or anyone for that matter, in any form.”
He told her he was genuinely interested in her and was trying to “rebuild” himself after struggling with his mental health.
“I’m not and will not be a victim of your self destructive life,” she replied.
Even as she tried to take control of the situation, she felt different. She started to distrust people. She found it harder to concentrate. Always the “front-row center nerd,” she said, her grades began to slip.
Webb emailed a professor Sept. 11, 2016, to apologize for her academics, saying she had been sexually assaulted. He reported the incident to the school’s office responsible for handling sexual misconduct complaints under Title IX. Hannah Gladstone, the Title IX deputy coordinator, met with Webb on Sept. 16.
Gladstone handed Webb the school’s sexual misconduct policy and circled one of the page numbers, 11, where local resources were listed, said Webb, who still has the pages in a binder. Then she circled another page number, 16, where her three options began.
Webb’s first option was to take no action. Her second option was to pursue an “informal” route where a school official could meet with the male student to “discuss the concern.” Her third option was the “formal” route where there could be an investigation and hearing before a panel of trained faculty and staff.
If the school had investigated, it may have seen the messages between Webb and the male student or additional messages between Webb and one of her friends in which she described what had happened. It’s possible the panel would have determined that it was more likely than not that the male student had violated the student conduct code and punished him in some way, such as with a warning, probation or suspension.
“I wanted something to be done,” Webb said, but she got the impression that Gladstone didn’t. “She said, ‘So, this didn’t happen on campus,’ and things like that, making it sound like it wasn’t her problem,” Webb said. “I just figured an informal approach was the only way. I was afraid to hurt his reputation, and I was scared.”
Webb emailed Gladstone Sept. 20 to say she would take the informal approach. It took more than two months to reach a resolution. On Nov. 22, Vice President for Student Affairs Lisa Desautels-Poliquin followed up to say she’d met with the male student.
Lachance couldn’t comment on individual cases but said Gladstone had experienced a family emergency in the fall of 2016 and was unexpectedly called out of state for several weeks. Now, the school has revised its procedures to make sure cases get handed off to other staff members quickly when someone is away.
“We did learn from that. We’d never had that happen before,” Lachance said.
She also said that it’s not the role of Title IX staff members to push students to pursue a particular course of action. “We empower our students and work to provide them with the support they need to make the decision that is right for them,” Lachance said.
Webb wanted to know how the male student had responded, but Desautels-Poliquin told her she couldn’t elaborate. She could only say that, as part of the informal process, “we make sure that the person has our Sexual Misconduct Policy and understands the definitions outlined,” she told Webb in an email.
Webb didn’t understand how he was allowed to harm her, and then they were supposed to continue attending the same college together, with his only consequence being a reminder that sexual misconduct was prohibited, she said.
Looking back, Webb said she had been too afraid to push for an investigation that might get the male student in trouble, especially since she often saw him on the small campus. It’s unfair to put the responsibility on victims, who may blame themselves and not want to be a burden, she said.
She fell into despair. She found it difficult to concentrate in class and avoided the library in case the male student showed up there, she said. She altered the time she left for one of her classes because his schedule overlapped with hers. She avoided events she knew his friends would attend. For a while she couldn’t explain what had happened without crying. Now a third-year student, she plans to graduate early, in December, “so I don’t have to deal with any more trauma here,” she said.
She realized later she wanted to take action, in part for her own mental health, and in March 2017 reported the unwanted sexual touching to the Waterville Police Department, who gave her case to the Maine State Police. To her surprise, they made her feel reassured, she said.
A detective had her call the male student to see if she could elicit a confession, but the male student didn’t admit what happened. According to an email from the detective, there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.
It is difficult to judge from the outside how a school handles reports of sexual misconduct because the process is confidential. But experts say it’s a positive sign when the number of sexual misconduct reports increase because it usually means more students are OK coming forward, as opposed to actual rates of sexual violence increasing.
But at Thomas College, the number of reports has decreased over the last three school years.
Because the college is private, it did not have to release the total number of sexual misconduct cases it deals with, but it agreed to share those statistics for this story. The numbers were not broken out by type of incident, but they include any potential Title IX or sexual misconduct incident brought to the school’s attention, including reports by third parties who were not involved.
Of the 57 reports over those years, five cases resulted in the school taking formal action under Title IX, which involves an investigation and hearing. Of those five cases, three — or, 5 percent of the total reports — resulted in a student being found responsible for the violation.
The vast majority of reports, 41, resulted in no action. In 11 cases, students wanted to pursue the informal process, which involves an administrator speaking to the alleged offender but doesn’t result in an official finding of fault or exoneration.
Federal law requires schools to publish statistics on some specific reported sexual offenses. (They do not include sexual harassment.) Thomas College had one report of rape and one report of fondling in 2015, and zero reports of either offense in 2016 and 2017, according to its public campus safety report.
Zero is not necessarily a positive sign. “Any time you have a zero, I think you have a problem,” said Bruno, with the Victim Rights Law Center. “Because it’s not zero. It’s not.”
Misconduct is more likely to happen in places that are perceived to not hold offenders accountable, according to research. A meta-analysis that combined data from 41 studies found perception of organizational tolerance to be the strongest predictor of sexual harassment in workplaces.
One current female student at Thomas College didn’t report her alleged attack because she didn’t believe the school would take action.
The woman said a male student, whom she didn’t know well, grabbed her so hard it left bruises, pushed her against a closed door in a dorm hallway, and kissed her without her permission in September 2017. When she mentioned potentially going to Title IX officials, she said an upperclassman dissuaded her by telling her it was unlikely to make a difference.
‘They were so random’
Most students will never report sexual misconduct to their college’s Title IX officer once, let alone multiple times, but Webb did.
On Nov. 28, 2017, Webb sat in a classroom where someone had taped brown paper over the windows where there weren’t curtains. A secretary took people’s phones and backpacks, according to Webb and another student who was present. She was going to have to make her case to a panel that she had been sexually harassed, this time by her resident assistant.
Starting around July 25, 2017, and continuing into the school year, she estimated the resident assistant had sent her about 10 photos over Snapchat that showed him in his boxers with an erection. Resident assistants are live-in student staff members on residence hall floors who are compensated, and they are supposed to be role models for other students.
“I didn’t ask for them at all. They were so random,” she said of the photos.
The male student declined to comment.
Snapchat photos disappear, but she kept copies of his text messages, which consisted of eggplant and peach emojis, common sexual innuendo, and shared them with the BDN. She didn’t tell him to stop sending the messages, she said, and she continued to be courteous to him, but they made her uncomfortable. As a resident assistant, he had authority over her, and she lived near him, she said. She didn’t want a confrontation.
She described how he became more physical. Once, knowing she was coming over after he invited her, he opened the door in his boxer briefs. A couple times, she said he wanted to cuddle, something she described as awkward. After one time, he said, “‘Now I’m done [cuddling]. You ever get that feeling where you just need to hold someone?’” she recalled.
She was so uncomfortable that she stopped going to a club because he would be there, she said, and decided to move residence halls, which she did on Oct. 9, 2017. She told a different resident assistant what had happened, and that woman told the Title IX office, which reached out to Webb on Oct. 11, 2017. Webb dreaded returning to Title IX, she said, but she didn’t think she should let the male student’s behavior continue because he was technically a staff member.
Faced again with the decision of whether the school should investigate, she decided to go a different route and pursue the formal process.
She didn’t think he should be suspended or expelled, she said. She just thought he shouldn’t be a resident assistant any more. Resident assistants are instructed to conduct themselves “in a professional manner at all times” and to “avoid intimate relationships with students who live in the same hall,” according to a school description of the role.
The school’s sexual misconduct policy defines sexual harassment as “subjecting an individual to unwelcome sexual conduct/behavior,” which may occur electronically.
During the hearing on Nov. 28, 2017, the resident assistant admitted to all his behavior, according to the school’s decision letter.
But the school said it wasn’t clear that Webb didn’t want his apparent advances.
Based on a preponderance of the evidence, the incidents “did not appear to be unwanted by either party,” according to the decision letter.
Webb said she was dumbfounded because she understood that consent must be active. Many schools, including Thomas College, now only consider sexual acts consensual if students “freely and actively” indicate they want sexual contact. “Silence, in and of itself, cannot be interpreted as consent,” states Thomas College’s sexual misconduct policy.
While Lachance couldn’t comment on Webb’s specific case, citing privacy law, she said it’s possible for incidents to also be handled through human resources, which would be confidential.
“The RAs are employees of the college and thus are treated like every other employee through the HR office through appropriate processes,” Lachance said.
If the male student was punished in some way through separate proceedings, Webb never heard about it, she said. All she knew was that the Title IX process had failed her again. It’s particularly important for alleged victims to know the outcome of cases, she said, so they can regain feelings of safety.
That same fall she reported three other male students to Title IX. She did it because, at the very least, telling someone else would help her in her healing process.
“Oftentimes people ignore the fact that something happened to them, and it eats them inside. By speaking up and speaking out, it helps you realize what happened to you, and it’s just a way of closure,” she said.
One man she didn’t know summoned her over and asked if she was a virgin in front of his friends. “I was just wondering what you were looking for,” she recalled him saying. Another called her nearly 20 times in a two-week period, even though she told him to stop; she still has the phone records. A third felt her butt.
After the man touched her, Webb ran into a study room where her friends were. “She didn’t want to do anything but stand in a corner behind all of us, put the three of us between her and the door,” one of her friends recalled.
At the time she wanted the school to focus on the case involving the resident assistant and agreed to an informal resolution with the three men.
But even though none of her cases resulted in a finding of responsibility, she was determined to not let the matter end. In October 2018 she met with the Title IX staff to suggest ways they could improve.
Lachance said that the school has made improvements “when appropriate” in response to student recommendations on handling reports of sexual misconduct. She is “open to convening a broader conversation about how we deal with it,” she said, “and how we can get better at it.”
Staff should receive further training on how to speak to victims, Webb said, so they can ask questions that are not violating or blaming. They should stay up to date on technology, so students don’t have to explain to them how apps work, and so they know that blocking someone online can delete important information, such as photographic evidence, threats and confessions.
They should make themselves seen around campus, so students recognize them and feel more comfortable talking to them, she said, and she recommended putting a criminal justice professor on the sexual misconduct hearing panel. In addition, the school should have mandatory refresher meetings for students about what counts as sexual misconduct — it’s not just rape, she said — beyond the first month of freshman year. Otherwise, it seemed they were liable to forget.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Ideas? 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.