Campus Sexual Assault Survivors: Purchase Failed Us

by Curtis Brodner with additional reporting by Eleanor Houghtaling and Ben Verde

Drawing by Sam Crohn

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.

Drawing Sam Crohn

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.

Drawing by Sam Crohn

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.

The room in Crossroads Dormitory where Alyx Esquilin says she was raped. (Photo by Ben Verde)

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.

The interior of the room in Crossroads Dormitory where Alyx Esquilin says she was raped last year. The occupants have since changed. (Photo by Ben Verde)

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.

Drawing by Sam Crohn

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.”