Campus / News / May 25, 2014

Alumna shares her ’empowering,’ yet ‘overwhelming’ experience

The name of the victim in this story has been changed to protect her identity.

 

Jessica Smith ’13 woke up and found him on the couch with her.

After going to his place for last year’s senior week celebrations, after being told to drink, after watching everyone else leave, after he inched closer and closer to her while they watched a movie with her friend, after he put his hands on her stomach and hips underneath her shirt, after she and her friend finally went to sleep on his couches at 4 a.m. – she woke up and his legs were entwined with hers.

“My immediate reaction to [his] position was to keep my hands close to my face and in the shape of fists in case he attempted to do anything more overt,” the alum wrote in an email to Title IX Coordinator Lori Schroeder on Feb. 18, 2014.

Right after the incident took place in spring 2013, she hadn’t known what resources were available to her.

“I was a graduating student and it occurred in this weird liminal space,” Smith said. Many administrative offices were closed, and so she didn’t know if she could even go to the counseling center.

“I ignored it and tried to pretend it didn’t happen,” she said.

But by mid July, it was too much. Smith was having breakdowns, outbursts and panic attacks. She emailed administrators about what had happened.

About a week later, she got an email back stating that administrators had met with the respondent – an employee of the college – and that “it had been taken care of.”

“A meeting, that’s it?” Smith thought. “I wasn’t terribly satisfied.”

As she moved into graduate school, she found herself becoming increasingly paranoid, stressed and emotionally drained to the point that her grades were suffering. She realized why.

“I didn’t have the closure I needed,” Smith said. In February 2014, she contacted a student on the Sexual Assault Resource Reform Coalition, who told Smith that she could still retroactively file a report after graduating.

She was encouraged, but disheartened that she’d been unaware of this option.

After seeing the support for survivors who voiced their stories during the Student Diversity Initiative’s walkout last week, Smith’s hesitance to talk about her own story faded. For the first time, she feels comfortable sharing her experience.

***

SARRC brought her case to the administration on her behalf.

On Feb. 17, Smith received an email from Schroeder that stated, “We had not thought from your letter last summer that you were alleging sexual assault. Since that is the case, we really must reopen the matter.”

In a recent interview with TKS, Schroeder declined to comment specifically on Smith’s case. The college is bound by privacy laws that prohibit the release of confidential information.

Though Smith appreciated Schroeder’s desire to handle the case swiftly, opening an investigation “wasn’t really a choice for me,” she said.

“It was overwhelming. I was in the midst of my first year of graduate school, and I was having a really hard time adjusting,” Smith said. “And then to be told, OK, now you need to devote all your free time to corresponding with the administration and Campus Safety and providing testimony and giving names of people who might be able to support your allegations.”


“It was a little empowering, but also overwhelming and scary.”


“It was a little empowering, but also overwhelming and scary.”

On Feb. 18, Smith spoke to Campus Safety for hours on the phone, recounting every detail of the assault. She recalled the officers being “as respectful as possible,” though they informed her that her case was unique.

“That’s not what you want to hear when you’re in that situation,” she said.

With her interview with Campus Safety, the investigation was officially opened. According to Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf, all cases of sexual misconduct are investigated in the same way.

Schlaf declined to comment specifically on Smith’s case to TKS.

He wanted to emphasize the fact that Campus Safety is available 24/7 for any Knox community member who has any information they feel they need to share. Along with investigating cases, Campus Safety can help that person find a counselor.

Officers heard Smith’s account of the incident and asked her to provide names of other students they could interview. As Schlaf said, Campus Safety aims to continue interviews until they can think of no one else to interview. Though she was hesitant to get others involved at first, the alum was assured that her identity would remain confidential.

Schlaf said an investigation takes a minimum of two weeks. Under Title IX, all investigations must be completed within 60 days. Smith’s investigation process took about a month and a half.


“As the victim, you don’t really have much control. You’re constantly waiting to hear back from somebody … That was the most difficult part.”


“As the victim, you don’t really have much control. You’re constantly waiting to hear back from somebody,” Smith said. “That was the most difficult part.”

During an investigation, Schlaf said that Campus Safety will offer to create a written statement with the person filing the report and the alleged offender.

These statements, along with any other pertinent information, will then be incorporated into a Title IX summary report, which then goes to the Title IX team.

***

On April 16, Smith received an email from Schroeder saying the person had been found guilty of sexual misconduct.

According to Knox’s Title IX policies, “Sexual misconduct includes sexual assault, inducing incapacitation for sexual purposes, sexual exploitation and relationship violence.”

When found guilty, the respondent can choose whether or not they accept responsibility for the allegations.

“The person did not appeal that ruling. They accepted that,” Smith said.

Because the respondent accepted responsibility, the case did not move on to a formal hearing with the Grievance Panel. Instead, it was referred to an administrator outside of the Title IX team who is designated to give sanctions. Along with the materials from Campus Safety’s investigation, that person also receives a statement of impact from both parties.

In cases of sexual misconduct, Schroeder said that Dean of the College Laura Behling is responsible for giving sanctions to faculty members, while Dean of Students Deb Southern gives sanctions to students. In either case, sanctions can range from harassment education training to removal from campus. The only sanctions that a complainant may know about are those that directly concern them.

In Smith’s case, the final sanctions taken against the offender are unknown.

Before the offender was found guilty, Schroeder had informed Smith that the respondent would be told that contacting her or anyone else involved would be prohibited. With this no-contact order still standing, Smith thought that her case was closed.

In total, Smith estimates that she has had to give a detailed account of the sexual assault two or three times throughout the reporting process.

“It’s just really emotionally and physically draining, and definitely triggering,” she said. “It can be really disruptive for daily life.”

***

On May 4, Smith received another email from Schroeder stating that current students were expressing anger because the respondent had not been removed from campus or discharged from his position with the college.

“Such a concern we obviously take very seriously,” Schroeder said in her email. “So I wanted to reach out to you again to ask you to share any concerns of this sort that you might have.”

Smith was taken aback.

“I just really didn’t know how to respond to that,” she said. Smith didn’t think it was her own responsibility to decide whether or not someone should be removed from campus or lose their job.

Instead, Smith agreed to submit a narrative about what her experience had been like.


“I still have days when just getting out of bed to face the world seems utterly impossible.”


“I still have nightmares,” she wrote on May 7. “I still have days when just getting out of bed to face the world seems utterly impossible. I still have panic attacks when I’m forced to confront my assault – either through mediated images and triggers or through the process of communicating back and forth with the administration and Campus Safety officers to report on my investigation.”

Since then, Schroeder emailed Smith to thank her for her narrative, but otherwise, she has not heard from either administrators or Campus Safety. Smith is unsure whether her case is closed, and as far as she knows, the respondent is still on campus.

***

Both federal and Knox policy dictate that the identity of the respondent – even after accepting responsibility of the allegations against him – is to be kept confidential.

Schroeder told TKS that the Title IX team considers early on whether there is enough evidence against a respondent for them to be considered a threat to the rest of the Knox community.

“If allegations were made and they were of the nature where we felt like this person was an immediate danger to students, that person would be gone as an interim measure,” she said.

In cases when other students have brought forward further concerns, and thus, potentially further allegations, Schroeder said that sanctions will not be determined until all investigations are completed.

In the hopes of providing further clarification, Schroeder mentioned including “the range of sanctions, the level of misconduct and the level of sanction that might go with that” both in policy and online.

As it stands, though, Schroeder said that there is no standard penalty for sexual misconduct.

Indeed, this is something Smith thinks the institution could have improved upon in the handling of her case.

“If Knox wants to set an example and respond to the fact that they’re now under investigation by the OCR,” she said, “they should have zero tolerance for this kind of stuff.”

Editor’s note: This is not the case being called into question as part of an ongoing investigation by the Office for Civil Rights.

Chelsea Embree
Chelsea Embree is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in art history. She previously served as co-mosaic editor and as an arts and features reporter for TKS. During the summer of 2013, she served as a content intern at The St. Louis Beacon. Chelsea has studied under former Random House copy chief Sean Mills and taught writing as a teaching assistant for First-Year Preceptorial. An avid blogger, she has written extensively about youth in St. Louis and maintains a lively poetry and nonfiction blog on Tumblr. She is also the director of communications for Mortar Board and co-president of Terpsichore Dance Collective.

Tags:  Campus Safety Knox College sexual assault sexual misconduct title ix

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Chelsea Embree
Chelsea Embree is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in art history. She previously served as co-mosaic editor and as an arts and features reporter for TKS. During the summer of 2013, she served as a content intern at The St. Louis Beacon. Chelsea has studied under former Random House copy chief Sean Mills and taught writing as a teaching assistant for First-Year Preceptorial. An avid blogger, she has written extensively about youth in St. Louis and maintains a lively poetry and nonfiction blog on Tumblr. She is also the director of communications for Mortar Board and co-president of Terpsichore Dance Collective.




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