by Curtis Brodner with additional reporting by Eleanor Houghtaling and Ben Verde
A number of students who have reported incidents of sexual violence over the past four years to Purchase College say that their cases have been ignored, suppressed or otherwise mishandled by the University Police Department (UPD), the Title IX Office and the Office of Community Standards (OCS).
The school’s alleged failings have reportedly had wide-ranging consequences, including damaged relationships, lasting trauma and suicide attempts. These students say the school has a problem with aggressive officers, an unempathetic bureaucracy and unethical investigation practices.
As these reports have spread online and through word of mouth, distrust has grown between the student body and UPD.
According to students who say they have been assaulted, Purchase College has potentially violated seven of the 11 rights described in the Student Bill of Rights from the SUNY Policies on Sexual Violence Prevention and Response.
According to the Clery Report, an annual security report that all colleges that receive public funding must release by law, reports of rape at Purchase have more than tripled from four in 2016 to 13 in 2017.
Reports of how Purchase College has handled allegations of sexual misconduct come amid a national discussion about sexual assault brought about by the #MeToo movement and a series of highly publicized sexual assault allegations against well-known figures, such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, CBS chairman Les Moonves, and President Donald Trump.
Part One: Brought to the Brink
Fumi Huang says UPD and the Title IX Office were slow and opaque while investigating her reported rape, that she was kept in classes with the accused during the investigation and that she was suspended for a suicide attempt by overdose that was considered a drug infraction by the Office of Community Standards.
Fumi Huang is now 21 years old, but she was an 18-year-old freshman when she says a classmate from the Dance Conservatory raped her in October 2015. Two days later, Huang made a report to UPD, but did not press charges against the student. She says the police did not explain her options for legal recourse.
Dayton Tucker, the campus police chief, said that anyone making a report to UPD would be told about their legal options before an interview took place. “We are interested in pursuing a criminal case… against the accused,” said Tucker, speaking of sexual assault reports in general. “So yes, they’re given their options on where this would go and can go.”
According to Huang, the investigation was completed and the accused was eventually expelled, but not until the next semester, and not before Huang says she was driven to a suicide attempt by circumstances for which she, in part, blames the school.
The Title IX Office investigates rape cases for the school, while UPD will only investigate if the claimant decides to press charges. Huang says she was never made aware of that distinction and thus spent the better part of the semester unclear which office was handling her case.
When she wasn’t updated about the status of her case and began to get anxious, she turned to UPD for answers.
“Whenever I go [to UPD] it’s just a lot of waiting. A lot of people not really knowing exactly what I’m asking for in terms of help or things like that, but I do remember wondering why it was taking so long for things to happen for any sort of change,” said Huang. “I remember I went to UPD once to ask them that, and the police officer was basically saying like, ‘Oh, we were waiting for you.’ I think I was supposed to get in contact with someone that they never mentioned before. Possibly a lawyer. I think they made the assumption I was going to take this to court.”
Huang said she was kept in the dark while the Title IX Office was investigating. “There were several months that passed by in which I had very little communication with them,” said Huang. “Very little guidance or any sort of explicit guideline of what I should expect to happen within certain time frames.”
Once a student makes a report to UPD, Title IX, or OCS, the other offices are notified and reach out to the claimant.
Jerima DeWese, the Title IX Coordinator, said that the OCS, which determines responsibility and disciplinary action, is supposed to contact claimants at regular intervals. “The claimant will know if the accused is being called in for hearings, etcetera,” said DeWese. “When the hearing is adjudicated, whatever the decision is, the person would be told whether or not the accused was found responsible.”
DeWese started working at Purchase at the beginning of the fall semester. She was not the Title IX Coordinator when the office was investigating Huang’s case.
OCS is in charge of all disciplinary hearings, so that communication would come through officials there. Title IX handles the investigation, but, in Huang’s case, did not communicate the status of that process.
It is not school policy for Title IX to update claimants on the status of their investigation, but Huang reports that the lack of communication made life difficult. She says she felt isolated and anxious as she waited for these sparse updates from OCS over the course of the semester. “The only times I think they really reached out to me were procedural or just policy. They only ever really contacted me in terms of statement things or when they needed a report,” said Huang. “There was definitely a lack of them offering resources. Or when they did offer resources, it was just very much like, ‘Oh, you’re familiar with how we do have a therapist on campus.’ ”
SUNY-Purchase’s Sexual Violence Response Policy entitles Huang “to obtain effective intervention services,” including the counseling center, health center and wellness center.
Huang says she felt the onus was on her to get help. “I was just so depressed and the dance schedule is impossible,” she said.
On Nov. 18, 2015, a month after the incident, Huang took out a No Contact Order against the accused through the Office of Community Standards. Despite that, the Title IX Office never removed her or the other student from the multiple classes they had together.
Huang said she was under the impression that the No Contact Order only prevented communication, but the SUNY Sexual Violence Response Policy says, “If the accused and a protected person observe each other in a public place, it is the responsibility of the accused to leave the area immediately and without directly contacting the protected person.” By that definition, a classroom would clearly count as a public space.
Afraid and traumatized, Huang started missing class. She said her absences damaged her relationship with her professors, who were not made aware of her situation. “I would skip class a lot, so that I wouldn’t have to see the perpetrator,” said Huang. “They [my professors] never really understood. They just saw me as a slacker.”
The Response Policy also states that people who file a sexual assault report are entitled “to obtain reasonable and available interim measures and accommodations that effect a change in academic, housing, employment, transportation, or other applicable arrangements in order to ensure safety, prevent retaliation, and avoid an ongoing hostile environment.”
While school administrators could not comment on the specifics of Huang’s case, what she described clearly goes against college policy. “If two students [who are involved in assault proceedings] are in the same class we have to put people in different sections,” said Title IX Coordinator DeWese. “They should not be in contact with one another.”
This was not the case for Huang, though, who had multiple classes with the accused. The accused was not expelled until late spring semester of 2016. “I would still see this guy in class, in the hallways, just everywhere on campus,” said Huang. As the semester wore on, her mental health suffered. “I attempted to take my life spring semester of freshman year,” she said. “It’s sort of ironic, because I used the medication I was prescribed due to the assault.”
That was in February of 2016. After three months trapped in classes with the accused, who was not adhering to the No Contact Order, Huang overdosed on pain medication prescribed to her because of an injury she says she suffered from the rape. Medical records from White Plains Hospital confirm this.
Adding insult to injury, the Office of Community Standards considered Huang’s attempt at suicide by overdose a violation of SUNY-Purchase’s controlled substance policy. Huang, who was dealing with the fallout of a suicide attempt at the time, missed a subsequent meeting with OCS. The meeting was scheduled less than a month after her suicide attempt. She was suspended without the opportunity to provide the context behind her overdose.
Huang was suspended by OCS while her rape was still being investigated by Title IX. That means that Huang was punished for her suicide attempt before the accused was punished for the reported rape.
The Dance Conservatory has an academically rigorous and rigid path to graduation. The suspension threw Huang’s schedule and life into disarray.
“It’s all been really stressful, because within the conservatories there’s a very strict eight-semester plan,” said Huang. “It was very hard to negotiate the first time that I came back, because [teachers were] under the impression that I was just a strung-out druggie who wasn’t serious about dance.”
According to Huang, OCS informed her in April 2016 that the accused was found responsible for the rape and expelled from the school. Although Huang says she was informed of the expulsion by OCS, those records cannot be redisclosed to complainants and the original files could not be obtained.
Huang’s suspension would have repercussions beyond complicating her path to graduation.
Two years later, in the fall semester of 2017, Huang, who was underage at the time, was caught drinking with friends. This violation of Purchase community guidelines resulted in a second suspension, the maximum sanction for this violation. This suspension again derailed Huang’s schedule.
It can’t be definitively said that, had Huang not had a prior offense, she would have received only a warning. However, similar alcohol offenses often result in academic probation, or other disciplinary action that is less severe than suspension. According to the SUNY Purchase Code of Conduct, the minimum sanction for this violation is a reprimand, while the maximum is suspension.
Alongside the second suspension, Huang also had to participate in drug and alcohol rehabilitation courses once she returned to Purchase.
“The rehab center was just the worst place for me to go to, because none of it ever had anything to do with me having a drug and alcohol problem,” said Huang.
Now Huang is recovering, and she’s on track to graduate spring semester of 2020, and possibly even before, if she can make up enough lost ground. She is currently consulting with legal counsel.
Part Two: A Freshman Year Derailed
Alyx Esquilin says police failed to fully investigate her sexual assault report, were aggressive and intimidating, and coerced her to change her original written statement.
Alyx Esquilin, now 19, was 18 when she made a sexual assault report to UPD on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, a little over a month into her freshman year on campus.
The night before, she had been in another student’s Crossroads dorm, alone with a man from off campus, whom she had just met that day through a mutual friend. Esquilin says that she repeatedly rebuffed his advances while they worked on homework and waited for the other student to return from a trip to Manhattan.
“He kept trying to kiss me, and I kept telling him that I wouldn’t sleep with him,” said Esquilin. “I guess he took it as me being playful, and he kept saying, ‘Oh stop lying, you know you want to, this is going to happen, it’s going to happen.’ ”
Esquilin says that he wrestled her, undressed her and forced her to perform oral sex on him.
At the recommendation of Michael Schmidtt, a non-Purchase student who was Esquilin’s boyfriend at the time, and Meranda Zent, a close confidant and fellow student, Esquilin decided to make a report to UPD. The next day she would spend six hours, from roughly 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., in the campus police station, according to Esquilin and sources who were with her during and after the process.
Schmidtt and Zent accompanied her to UPD for moral support.
Esquilin says that she spent two hours waiting for UPD investigators to arrive. UPD Chief Dayton Tucker confirmed that waiting for investigators is a common delay in sexual assault cases.
“Say the victim requests a female officer, we may need to reach out and get a female officer to come,” said Tucker. “In many cases we’ve used Inspector [Cindy Markus Jones], who has a lot of experience in dealing with these sexual assaults, and we’ll call and see if she’s available in proximity to campus to come down, or another investigator. So those are things that could delay the actual case.”
However, according to Chief Tucker, only three officers out of the 21 who work there are female. This means it’s rare for female officers to respond to sexual assault reports.
Esquilin said she was interviewed in the interrogation room, a small room with a two-way mirror, by male officers.
“The interview may take place at the police headquarters or at other locations,” said Chief Tucker. “Variables include victims’ comfort and in some cases the accused may be interviewed off campus.”
Meanwhile, Zent and Schmidtt gave their own statements separately from Esquilin. UPD also reached out to other relevant parties. A friend of the accused, a Purchase student who asked to not be identified, and in whose dorm room the incident took place, reported that the accused was contacted over the phone, but not in person, by UPD.
At some point during the questioning, Esquilin says that the police officers became hostile. “It was like a switch flipped and they were like, ‘Oh you’re lying about everything,’ ” said Esquilin.
She says that she was in a state of utter confusion at the time. The night of the assault, she said, “[My friend] had texted me like, ‘Did you hook up with him, because I know you were with him,’ and I was like, ‘I guess.’ I didn’t know what to think at that point because my main thought was, ‘Oh my God, this just happened…’ Even though I didn’t want to do it, I felt like it was my fault and that I had cheated and that I was the lowest person that could be alive at that moment.”
Catherine van Bomel, a social worker at the counseling center and the sexual assault victims advocate at Purchase College, says that it’s common for sexual assault victims to feel disoriented in the wake of an attack. “Traumatized people get confused,” said Van Bomel. “Traumatized people are very difficult for police, in that police are asking for facts, and that is very difficult for people who are newly traumatized.”
Tucker said that his police officers have routinely undergone sexual assault response training. He said the training helped officers understand that “the victim might not be able to tell a complete story, or the victim may lose some pieces of their story.”
After hours in the same small room, Esquilin contends that an officer coerced her to change her original statement, which described the sexual encounter as assault, under threat of repercussions. According to her, he said, “You can either not sign this statement or sign this statement, but if you sign it we’re going to arrest you.”
“It was 9 o’clock at night,” said Esquilin. “I had been there for six hours. I was exhausted. So I wrote a statement with whatever story they told me they thought was true and then they finally let me leave.”
Tucker refused to comment on this claim, citing privacy issues, and affirmed his commitment to the privacy of those involved in sexual assault cases.
According to Esquilin, Schmidtt and Zent were told by police, “We have reason to believe she’s lying; you guys can leave.” Zent confirmed police told them that UPD didn’t believe Esquilin and asked them to leave.
When presented with this information, Tucker acknowledged that it would be inappropriate for police to tell a claimant’s emotional supporters that the claimant was lying about a sexual assault.
According to Esquilin, she and Schmidtt broke up the next day. Zent and Esquilin are no longer on speaking terms.
After leaving UPD, Esquilin says that she was distraught. She contacted Julie Wilson, another student, as well as a leadership and bystander intervention intern who had given a presentation about sexual assault in Esquilin’s freshman seminar. They met at Esquilin’s room that same night.
While Wilson was consoling Esquilin and talking on the phone with the counselor on call, Officer Gerardo Conti knocked on the door. Zent said that she had called UPD after leaving the station with concerns about Esquilin’s mental state.
According to both Wilson and Esquilin, when Conti asked Wilson to leave the room she refused, causing him to become irate. According to Wilson, Conti was standing very close to Esquilin. Wilson noticed that Esquilin was starting to panic. Wilson and Esquilin say that when Wilson asked Conti to take a step back, he raised his voice and berated her.
“It was a really unsettling feeling,” said Wilson. “Especially when you’re sitting with someone who has just gone through such a traumatic event, and now they’re seeming to be intimidated all over again.” Wilson and Esquilin independently gave the same account of this confrontation.
Officer Conti deferred to Chief Tucker when asked to comment.
Chief Tucker cannot comment on individual cases.
Esquilin was transported by ambulance to White Plains Hospital that night due to the police’s concerns about her mental state. She says she was kept there under psychiatric observation until around 2:30 a.m.
Brenda Ramos, Esquilin’s mother, was called from the hospital to pick her up. This was was the first she had heard of her daughter’s ordeal. For Ramos, even that call was traumatizing. “They didn’t want to give me any information as to what happened,” said Ramos. “I immediately thought maybe she’s badly hurt. Maybe she got in a car with somebody and they had an accident.”
Esquilin spent the night at her mother’s house. She said her mom didn’t feel safe leaving Esquilin on campus that night. “It has impacted me as a mother,” said Ramos. “As a single mom it is very frightening to speak up and fight a system that is so broken.”
The next morning Esquilin woke up at 9 to get ready for her 10:30 a.m. class. “I had to act like nothing happened,” she said.
According to Esquilin, according to Zent, and according to the student who lives in the dorm where the incident took place, the accused was banned from campus soon after the incident, despite UPD’s decision not to further investigate Esquilin’s report. However, the alleged attacker’s name is not on the persona-non-grata (PNG) database used by resident advisors.
PNG status is determined by the Title IX Office, which would have received a report of the incident as soon as Esquilin arrived at UPD, despite the fact that UPD later closed the case, according to the police blotter.
More than a year later, Esquilin and her family are still feeling the fallout from the alleged assault and her experience with the police. Esquilin says she is shaken and traumatized.
After spending the spring semester on medical leave, Esquilin decided not to return to Purchase, and is now looking for a fresh start at a different college. But this episode has had a lasting effect. “I still don’t feel safe,” she said. “Now that something’s happened to me, I know that I can’t go to the people who are supposed to protect me.”
“He’s still out there. Just because he was banned from this campus doesn’t mean he won’t do it to another girl,” said Esquilin. “No one believed me. So until this happens again, people still aren’t going to believe me.”
Esquilin’s mother says that she fears the impact Esquilin’s experience with the police has had. “They caused more damage than the incident by itself,” said Ramos. “Now, in the event something happens, I know she’s not going to have any trust in the police, and she’s just going to try and help herself. That can be very dangerous.”
Part Three: Exposed and Unprotected
Ali Weil says UPD was uninterested in investigating a sexually threatening incident and discouraged them from pressing the matter.
Ali Weil, a gender-fluid student who uses they/them pronouns, was close to graduating at the end of spring 2018 when a man from off campus broke into Weil’s bedroom in the Olde Apartment Complex while Weil slept. The invasion took place around 3 a.m. on Monday, March 26.
Once awake, Weil recognized the alleged offender from a date gone wrong that took place more than a week earlier. “I almost got date-raped on that date. I swerved to avoid it,” Weil said. “You have to navigate out of your own date rape. I’ve done it so many times. It’s exhausting.”
Weil said they felt especially threatened because they tend to sleep in the nude. “I was so groggy it took me awhile to realize what was happening,” Weil said. “I kept repeating, ‘Get out of my house.’ ”
“I’m so glad he actually left when I told him to, because otherwise I felt like I would have gotten raped,” Weil added.
Ray Antonison, one of Weil’s roommates, was home at the time of the incident and corroborated that a stranger had aggressively knocked on their door in the early hours of that morning and entered without invitation. “I remember it was scary. I thought it was UPD, and then he opened the door and walked in,” said Antonison. “I heard him walk to Ali’s room, knock on the door, and go inside.”
“He didn’t give me any text warning or anything to let me know he was going to come over,” Weil said.
The fact that doors were unlocked at the time of the invasion was a point of contention with the police, reports Weil.
“No one let him in. Everyone was either in their rooms or out of the house,” Weil said. “The door was probably not locked. I know that, but he let himself in and then let himself into my room. After that I was absolutely locking doors more, especially for the sake that if I went to the police again they wouldn’t be able to give me as much grief about that.”
Weil was thankful there was no touching involved in the event, but said there was “definitely a lot of looming... and asking to fuck without saying that word.”
Considering their previous encounter with the perpetrator and the context of the situation, Weil said that they felt endangered and their space violated. “I knew if I moved a certain way he would notice that I was naked and take advantage of that. He was the kind of person who kept badgering for a yes.”
Weil said this wasn’t the first time they felt imperiled on campus. In previous incidents, some relating to sexual assault, Weil chose not to report to UPD due to a general sense that the police wouldn’t do anything once reported. “What do cops ever actually do when you get raped?”
Weil’s lack of faith in UPD is symptomatic of a larger distrust felt across campus. On March 20, 2016, the Purchase Student Government Association Student Senate approved a Vote of No Confidence in UPD, citing that students contacting the police “feel uncomfortable... and results in students feeling belittled.” The statement adds that “there is a lack of transparency in the department,” and that “students have created multiple resources in order... to feel safer in their spaces on campus because they no longer have confidence that UPD can do this for them.”
Posts on the SUNY Purchase Open Forum, a Facebook group for students of Purchase College, asking whether it’s a good idea to report sexual assault to UPD or the Title IX Office have been met with a flood of discouragement.
“From what I’ve seen, there is very little justice for on-campus assaults,” wrote Aviva Frank, a sociology and gender studies student.
“Purchase is known for sweeping sexual assaults underneath the rug,” wrote Keisha Watkin, a Purchase journalism student.
Frank says that her perception of Purchase’s response to sexual assault reports is informed by a friend’s experience. “I had a very close friend who was raped and went through all of the correct school disciplinary mechanisms, and their rapist got suspended for only one semester,” said Frank. “The process of having a hearing was traumatizing,” she added.
Watkin also became skeptical due to a friend’s experience. “My friend got raped on campus, and they told her to take it to the Harrison police, because the guy wasn’t a student here,” said Watkin. “I encourage people to come forward, but it’s hard when no one takes them seriously.”
The people who Frank and Watkin say had negative experiences with the school and UPD were not reached for comment, but these anecdotes reveal how word of mouth impacts the school’s reputation.
Due to privacy concerns, Chief Tucker can’t comment on specific cases. However, he emphasized that it is difficult to remedy mistakes unless an official complaint is filed. “If you have questions about the status of or concerns about an officer who responded to your sexual assault, please go to the UPD website and fill out an online complaint or query so that that information can get to me from a direct source,” said Chief Tucker. “That gives me the ability to take action.”
The Student Senate’s Vote of No Confidence cited that “UPD has not adequately advertised their complaint process and has not taken any steps to remedy this even after students request to do so.”
Weil felt compelled to report to UPD despite the department’s reputation, because the man lives nearby and Weil feared he would return.
“I wasn't just being paranoid for paranoia’s sake. He kept text messaging me [after the incident]. That’s why I went to the cops,” said Weil. “Before he left that night, he asked when our next date was.”
Weil had to leave for Philadelphia the same morning as the incident and didn’t report to UPD until returning two days later, on Wednesday, March 28, around 4 p.m. According to the UPD blotter, Weil’s report was filed as a “suspicious incident.”
According to Weil, the officers at the station focused on why they didn’t report sooner, despite the fact that the report was made within two days of the incident.
“They were like, ‘Why didn’t you go the morning after?’ But I was in Philadelphia, I already had my bus tickets,” Weil said. “Getting harassed like that sucks, but I have to keep living my life.”
“I don’t think that’s what they should have been nitpicky about. And also, they were asking if he stole anything,” said Weil. “I feel [UPD] wished it was a robbery. If you were in the room at the time it was very obvious what [the offender] wanted, but it was almost as if they wished I had come to them with something important. Like, ‘Why did you bother us?’ ”
“It’s very common when students are attacked that they don’t come forward soon enough,” Daniela Nanau, P.C., a civil rights and Title IX attorney with a practice in Queens, said. “I think that is also a problem with the way a school enforces Title IX because if that student is not coming forward because they are unsure what is going to happen or even what the process is, to me, that suggests a lack of training and a lack of knowledge within the school. Every student should really know what to do and what is going to happen.”
The gender disparity at UPD added to Weil’s discomfort. “I only talked to dudes the whole time,” Weil said. “I was kind of surprised that they had a dude take my witness report instead of a lady. I’m not super hung up that a dude heard about [the incident], but I feel like they should have a lady for that so it seems more like, ‘We want you to feel comforted in your hour of need.’ ”
There are only three female officers at UPD, and two of them patrol. “In many cases you have a contact officer who’s assigned to that actual area or zone who will respond,” said Chief Tucker. “Given the fact that we only have two female officers who are assigned to patrol, the likelihood of them actually being on patrol varies.” This lack of gender diversity at UPD can force claimants to choose between reporting to a male officer or significantly lengthening the process of making a report while they wait for a female officer to arrive.
A victims advocate and school counselors can be invited by claimants, though it is not required for campus advocacy services to be present for an interview. Chief Tucker says that officers encourage claimants to invite advocacy services to participate in the interview or to speak with a victims advocate via telephone before the interview.
“It’s hard to make yourself go to report things to the cops because it’s so uncomfortable. Even if you know you’re in the right, it’s just a general scary experience,” Weil said. “I know [UPD] probably won’t help, but I was hoping.”
Because Weil had gone on a date with the alleged offender, UPD had access to his contact information. “I showed [UPD] the guy’s Instagram and his Facebook,” said Weil. “His Facebook cover photo is a picture of his car with the license plate visible.”
According to Weil, the officers at the station referred them to the Title IX Office to begin the process of putting the man on a persona-non-grata list, a status that would ban him from residential areas on campus.
Generally speaking, PNG status is difficult to enforce. It often falls to those who requested PNG status to report a violation.
Weil said the conclusion was unsatisfactory, as PNG status can’t be enforced until after a violation occurs. Given this man’s behavior, Weil feared that he would return and become increasingly violent. Weil didn’t want to wait until they were attacked to take action. “It just seemed kind of pathetic how they treated it,” said Weil. Like, they didn’t want to... deal with it, like it wasn’t a cop issue.”
UPD’s response to the report confirmed Weil’s fears about filing a police report. Fears that were stoked by the reputation that UPD has developed online and through word of mouth on campus.
“I got an email the next day asking if I needed a counselor. I ignored it because I was fed up,” Weil said.“It just felt like a waste of time.”
Part Four: The Big Picture
As the national conversation around sexual assault continues, sexual assault survivors feel Purchase has failed to adequately use state and college guidelines to address sexually violent crimes.
The SUNY Policies on Sexual Violence Prevention and Response, which were finalized in June of 2015, include a student bill of rights, a collection of broad assurances intended to protect SUNY students who report a sexual assault to their school. Based on reporting by The Purchase Phoenix, SUNY Purchase may have violated up to seven of the 11 rights listed.
Based on the statements of Huang, Esquilin, and Weil, their rights to “have disclosures of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual assault treated seriously” may have been abrogated.
The right to “make a decision about whether or not to disclose a crime or violation and participate in the judicial or conduct process and/or criminal justice process free from pressure from the institution” might have been violated for Esquilin, if she was pressured by a police officer to change her written statement.
Based on the statements of Esquilin, she was not afforded the right to “participate in a process that is fair, impartial, and provides adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard.” According to them, they never had their claims investigated by the Title IX Office and never had a hearing facilitated by the Office of Community Standards.
The right to “be treated with dignity and to receive from the institution courteous, fair, and respectful health care and counseling services, where available” was potentially violated for Huang, Esquilin and Weil. Huang says she felt the responsibility fell on her to seek out health services. Esquillin and Weil indicated that they never had the chance to follow the sexual assault reporting process through to its conclusion, and therefore were never given the full access to health services promised by the student bill of rights.
Based on Weil’s statements, their right to “be free from any suggestion that the reporting individual is at fault when these crimes and violations are committed, or should have acted in a different manner to avoid such crimes or violations” may have been violated. They say that UPD challenged them on leaving their door unlocked and “were really hung up on how it wasn’t a ‘real crime.’ ”
Based on her statements, the right to “describe the incident to as few institutional representatives as practicable and not to be required to unnecessarily repeat a description of the incident” might have been violated for Huang, who described the retraumatizing effect of being asked to repeatedly recount her story.
Based on Esquilin’s statements, the right to “be free from retaliation by the institution, the accused and/or the respondent, and/or their friends, family and acquaintances within the jurisdiction of the institution” might have been violated when her support network was told she was lying, which could be interpreted as retaliatory.
Dennis Craig, the Officer in Charge acting as interim president of Purchase College and the Vice President of Student Affairs, acknowledged that the school has room for improvement, but emphasized that Purchase staff do their best to address sexual assault claims.
“[UPD, OCS and Title IX] are part of a team that really care about these things and often do their very best work with the information they have to be diligent and appropriate and caring and fair,” said Craig. “I think that often, in any institution… it might appear that it’s just not good enough. So I think that an institution first and foremost needs to work in good faith.”
The backdrop of the #MeToo movement pervades the tense atmosphere between students and administration at Purchase College.
“People still have very significant stereotypes about women who are in situations where sexual assault or sexual harassment is involved,” said civil rights attorney Daniela Nanau. “Blaming the victim still happens despite #MeToo and a greater acknowledgement that this still happens to many women and that no one really invites harassment and abuse and rape, but it still happens.”
Most recently, sexual assault allegations against the newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh dominated national headlines. “We just had a Supreme Court nomination hearing where women wanted to testify against the nominee, and U.S. senators didn’t think it was a big deal,” said Nanau. “I think that these are larger societal issues that figure into life on college campus. I don’t know how you can separate out the two.”
As high-profile figures like Kavanaugh face a public reckoning, local approaches to sexual assault are also impacted by this cultural shift.
At SUNY-Purchase, reports of rape more than tripled between 2016 and 2017. UPD’s Chief Tucker acknowledged that reporting has increased recently, but he claimed “the most [sexual assault reports] we receive is maybe 3 or 4 in one semester.” However, the Clery Report, which provides statistics for on campus crimes, shows that there were 14 reported incidents of rape in 2017.
This statistic indicates that reporting has gone up, but does not necessarily reflect a shift in the number of sexual assaults taking place on campus.
More victims may have come forward in the past academic year as a result of the #MeToo movement and the media attention that has accompanied it.
Tucker attributes the recent increase in rape reports to on-campus bystander intervention training.
Some schools comparable in size to Purchase also saw a rise in rape reports, although the increase was less dramatic than at Purchase. Reports at Emerson College, a Boston school with almost 4,600 students, doubled from three in 2016 to six in 2017. Reports at Marist College, with nearly 6,500 students in Poughkeepsie, New York, increased from four in 2016 to six in 2017.
The phenomenon isn’t universal though. Rape reports at Manhattan College in the Bronx, with about 3,900 students, decreased from four in 2016 to three in 2017. Ithaca, with almost 6,800 students in Ithaca, New York, has had no rape reports in the last three years, a rarity for college campuses.
Elizabeth Osowiecki, a sexual violence educator for the Safe Center of Long Island and a 2016 Purchase graduate who says she was raped on campus, says that the #MeToo movement has led to a cultural shift that empowers women to be more vocal about sexual assault. “Everywhere you are, people are aware of it,” says Osowiecki. “People are like, ‘How are we supposed to talk to people now? How are we supposed to have a business meeting between a man and a woman?’ And it’s like, if you’re afraid of something like that, that’s the change we want.”
In her 2016 senior project detailing her own experience, Osowiecki describes being raped while on campus at Purchase College by a group of students who played for the Purchase Panthers, the school’s basketball team.
She was too inebriated to remember the assault. Instead she was told later by the man who brought her to his apartment that they had sex. As gossip spread around campus, she was told that many of the students present had sex with her while she was too drunk to consent.
The man who led her to his apartment was eventually expelled, but there were no repercussions for the other students involved. Osowiecki says she was discouraged from taking legal action by the Westchester District Attorney’s Office.
“Months later, she is proven right by DNA evidence found in the semen in her underwear, which identified another assailant,” wrote Osowiecki. “[Assistant District Attorney Michelle Lopez] makes it very clear once again that she will not be successful in a criminal case.”
According to Chief Tucker, legal recourse is difficult due to the often private nature of sexual assault. “These assaults take place behind closed doors,” said Chief Tucker. “It’s complicated, but you try to be honest and say that we may very well have problems prosecuting this case.”
Osowiecki’s experience, and the experiences of Huang, Esquilin and Weil, reflect the high level of sexual assault on college campuses. What is rarer about their accounts is that these students made reports to campus police.
The Association of American Universities administered a survey about sexual assault to 26 universities at the end of spring semester 2015. The study concluded that “11.7 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university.”
Almost 4,300 students attend Purchase College. If the AAU’s statistic holds true at Purchase, then roughly 500 of the students currently attending the school have experienced sexual assault at some point in their college career. Even with the three-fold increase in rape reports in 2017, the number of reports still falls well below the estimated number of rapes that happen on campus.
The AAU found that the rate of reports made to campus officials or law enforcement on college campuses ranged between five and 28 percent, depending on the type of behavior.
“The most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct was that it was not considered serious enough,” says the AAU study. “Other reasons included because they were ‘embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult,’ and because they ‘did not think anything would be done about it.’ ”
On Nov. 16 of this year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released new guidelines for how colleges address sexual assault charges that will allow students accused of sexual assault to cross-examine claimants in person. Following a 60-day public-comment period, Purchase will be obligated to adhere to these new rules.
Interim President Craig confirmed that Purchase is already planning for how these new policies will affect Purchase’s sexual assault response process.
OCS Director Glazer says that changes on a national level have left Purchase’s Office of Community Standards and Title IX Office guessing. “You can read the articles and go, ‘OK, the New York Times actually wrote a pretty good article, but it’s still has all these levels of review to go through.’ So no one, even SUNY, knows really what the end piece is going to be,” said Glazer. “Like, there’s a question of, are colleges going to be able to choose between the ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ which is 51 percent or higher to hold a student responsible, or ‘clear and convincing,’ which is about 75 percent or higher?”
Chief Tucker emphasized how difficult these investigations can be. “Sexual assault is one of the hardest cases for the police department because in some cases the police know that something was wrong here; it’s just not right what happened. This person was assaulted, but because of the circumstances the assault is not prosecutable,” he said. “I gotta tell you, that’s hard, because you think about a victim who’s kind of spent all this time, doing the right thing... and then to see that on their end, after all they’ve done, that nothing substantial happened is hard for a victim. And you know, we always, even in our recent training, we talk about that. How do we manage that?”