Thomas College administrators have asked faculty to not answer questions about the school’s handling of several sexual misconduct cases in the wake of stories published by the Bangor Daily News, and it’s had the effect of tamping down conversation about the issue, according to some on campus.
Provost Tom Edwards emailed the college’s faculty on Monday, about five hours after the first story posted online, instructing them to immediately send all emails, phone calls or social media posts about the piece or the school’s sexual misconduct policies to a school spokesperson to ensure that they “can be answered in a timely, consistent, sensitive, appropriate, legal manner.”
If people get in touch, he gave the faculty a response to say: “Thank you for reaching out. We appreciate it. I’m not the appropriate person to answer your questions, but if you would please share your contact information, I will make sure it gets to the appropriate person who can answer your question,” according to the email forwarded to the Bangor Daily News.
Even though the email didn’t explicitly tell faculty to not discuss the stories among themselves, that appears to have been the effect, said Ireland Webb, one of the students who reported multiple cases of sexual misconduct. For instance a staff member told her she didn’t share the stories on Facebook because she didn’t want to get in trouble, and professors have been hesitant to talk to her because they got the impression they weren’t supposed to, Webb said.
At least one professor at the Waterville college bristled at the idea of the school appearing to restrict discussion and decided to share her disappointment with the school’s response anyway. It may be OK in a business setting, but it’s not OK in academia, which teaches the importance of the First Amendment, said Gail Rioux, who has been a criminal justice assistant professor at Thomas College for three years and is the academic adviser for one of the students featured in the pieces.
Rioux said she has been troubled by the college’s response to the stories, which detailed how the school didn’t investigate several reports of sexual misconduct unless students specifically asked for an investigation. In one case, three women reported that the same male student had groped them and were outraged at the apparent lack of consequences for the man, who started following them even after one obtained a protection from abuse order that prohibited him from directly or indirectly contacting her.
Under the federal law Title IX, colleges that receive federal funding “must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred” if they know of — or even just “reasonably should know of” — sex-based harassment that limits students’ ability to participate in their education. The school said it complies with all requirements.
Instead of appearing to stop conversation, the college should be opening it up, said Rioux, who previously served as chair of the criminal justice department at West Virginia State University for 14 years and was a dean of professional studies there for seven years. In that role she helped win a federal grant to better respond to sexual assault on campus.
“They seem to think they can correct it themselves. I don’t think so. You get a certain type of mentality going on a college campus, and it just goes and goes. It’s a bureaucracy. It’s very difficult to change. They need to go outside of themselves and go to the experts,” she said.
In addition to not talking to others about the stories or the school’s sexual misconduct policies, the provost told faculty that federal privacy law prohibits anyone at the college from discussing specific information about sexual misconduct cases.
“We cannot respond to specific cases in any instance,” Edwards said. “This is a highly sensitive matter concerning very personal, traumatic situations for all involved – complainants, respondents, and witnesses,” he wrote.
If faculty learn of “other situations on campus where people feel they have been mistreated or have not been heard regarding their Title IX incidents,” they should report the information to the school’s Title IX staff, he said.
In addition to the email to faculty, Thomas College President Laurie Lachance sent out a campus-wide email Monday around 5 p.m. saying the school takes reports of sexual misconduct seriously.
“Our goal is to treat all parties involved in a complaint fairly, to investigate alleged misconduct thoroughly, and to hold people appropriately accountable for any findings. We believe we have done that consistently,” she said.
She also told the BDN that school officials “reached out to all those impacted by the story to offer additional access to support, including counseling.”
Asked if the college planned to hold any campus discussions about the issue of sexual assault, change any of their policies, amend any Title IX trainings or make any staff changes or additions, Lachance said that finals end this week, and most students and faculty will be leaving, or have already left, for the summer.
“We are constantly looking for ways to improve our Title IX process and to better serve our students. That work will continue,” she said.
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.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to the recording of a student’s meeting with a college administrator to discuss her sexual misconduct case