TW: Sexual Assault, Dating Abuse, Gross Administrative Negligence, Fragile Masculinity
On February 8, 2015, I filed Title IX charges against my ex-boyfriend Kevin: two counts of Sexual Misconduct and one count of Dating Violence. A Vassar College administrator immediately issued a no-contact order via email with the expectation that I “avoid having any interactions with Kevin.”
“Should you — or anyone on your behalf — have any interactions with this individual,” the order continued, “you will run the risk of being immediately removed from campus until the matter can be addressed through the student conduct system as a violation of the failure to comply regulation.”
I was told that “anything that might be posted in a public area–such as the internet–in addition to more individualized and private interactions” would justify sanctions against me.They advised me to “avoid discussing what you believe might be related to the cause of this letter with any other student in order to avoid the appearance of an effort to negatively affect the student who is named above.” If I wanted to speak, it would need to be only on Vassar’s terms, with a counselor employed by the Counseling Services. It took me three years to admit I was raped. Now, Vassar was silencing me, even with my friends. I was given a gag order.
As soon as I filed Title IX charges, I was entangled in a game of power and control with Vassar. Vassar deployed tactics of intimidation, manipulation, and gaslighting with two goals in mind: one, to convince get me to drop my case and two, to get me to leave Vassar on my own accord.
My mental health issues and Kevin’s history of substance abuse were a matter of record at Vassar. If Vassar could convince either one of us to withdraw from school, another sexual assault case would disappear. Vassar drew out the Title IX process as much as possible in the hopes that I would leave.
My “nos” held as little weight with the school as they did the night Kevin raped me.
At the start of the Spring 2015 semester I met with Ben Lotto, Vassar’s Dean of Studies, three times. The first time I met with him, I was trying to get a withdraw fail from a class that I had taken while abroad in London. He said that I could only get the withdraw fail if there was a serious medical reason for my failure. My Bipolar Disorder and my eating disorder were registered with Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity. This was not enough to convince him I was in distress. And so, I poured my guts out. I told him that my increased distress was the result of a Title IX case I had filed against my ex-boyfriend, that I had been experiencing PTSD, and that I could not to complete my work because I was manic and unable to keep food down. Lotto suggested that if this was how poorly I was doing, I should consider taking a medical leave. I told him that I was not going to take time off; my decision was final. Still, in our next meetings, he continued to remind me that I could ‘always take time off’ from school. This blatantly violated my Title IX right to not be pressured to leave.
I felt like my status at Vassar was being threatened; every time Vassar told me that I should consider leaving school, it felt like I was being told that I could not handle the Title IX process. It seemed like I was being ignored every time I said “no.” My “no’s” held as little weight with the school as they did the night Kevin raped me.
I knew having to leave school would mean Kevin still had power over me. By encouraging women to leave, Vassar thinks that it can make its rape problem go away. If I left, there would be one less woman walking around school crying rape. What’s important to them isn’t how many people are actually raped, but how many rapes they have to report to donors.
Through Ben Lotto I understood that not only did Vassar create its own policies but it also decided if and how they would enforce them. This became an issue when I found out that Kevin was living in the house directly across from mine.
Sitting in my living room trying to do my homework at night, I could see Kevin illuminated by the orange Halloween lights he’d owned since freshman year. I could feel his gaze on me, and I knew he hated me. Kevin could easily observe my comings and goings. He was watching me. I was terrified. Vassar refused to move Kevin out. I began missing classes, crippled by panic attacks. Our houses were only accessible through one path. I had to hope that I wouldn’t see him. Sometimes I traveled through the woods instead.
Both Vassar’s Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) Coordinator and I raised concerns regarding my living arrangements. The Title IX Director, Julian Williams, explained to me that had we lived in the same dorm, then he could have relocated Kevin. But because we lived in separate houses–a mere 50 feet apart–there was nothing he could do. He said he wanted to help me, but Williams had no real executive power. His hands were tied. He did however remind me that I could move. The burden of my safety was on me.
Vassar constantly assured me that I was safe. I had a no-contact order and Vassar would protect me. But how was I supposed to feel safe when my living situation put me in constant contact with my assailant? It was clear that someone had to move and that someone was not going to be me.
After two weeks of feeling too terrified to leave my room, I was informed Kevin had consented to be relocated. Via email, I was told to be aware that “[Kevin] is not banned from the Town Houses or any other location on campus so there is still the possibility that you may see him on campus,” making it clear that nothing would change. I was warned that, “the previously enacted no-contact order will remain in place as the investigation continues.” Nowhere on campus was safe. If I tried in any way to speak out, I would be punished. I could never let my guard down.
I found it nearly impossible to engage with school. I was not sleeping well. I was both depressed and manic. My eating disorder was triggered in new ways. My social life was nonexistent. Even after Kevin moved, I saw him more often than I saw most of my friends. I tried to go to a party once. Two minutes after my arrival, I saw him there dancing with a younger girl. I had a panic attack and the music was so loud that nobody heard me. I felt so alone. All I had was my case and I was not about to give it up.
On March 17, 2015 I met with Williams. He told me that Kevin had gotten a lawyer. I was being offered a deal. He sent me a follow up email, “I presented the option of allowing Kevin to permanently withdraw from the college. This decision is up to you. If you agreed to this option, I would explore with the college’s legal counsel a resolution agreement to your satisfaction. If we are unable to agree on satisfactory language then we will continue to move forward with the investigation.”
There was an open Title IX investigation against Kevin. Under Title IX statutes, “Even if a victim does not want to continue to participate in the investigation, a college or university is nonetheless obligated to conduct and conclude an adequate, reliable investigation and, as appropriate, take steps to remedy the effects of any harassment, and prevent it from recurring.” I was the victim here. Kevin was in no position to ask me to withdraw my case. How could he be “allowed” to withdraw and why did the college need my consent? In our meeting, Williams said he did not know if this was even legal. I asked him if I could consult with Vassar’s lawyers because I did not have a lawyer of my own. He said no.
Williams barraged me with reasons to take the deal. He advised me that the panel responsible for judging Title IX cases no longer existed because all of the volunteers had quit. He told me the school would have to hire an outside adjudicator. He said my case was going to take longer than expected. He emphasized that I had no guaranteed outcome. He even told me that having charges filed against him was emotionally difficult for my rapist. I had been going to intensive therapy for three years.
When Williams told me that Kevin had been to Metcalf, Vassar’s counseling service, I almost lost it. At that moment, Kevin was very much present in Williams’ office. I had been suicidal because Kevin had raped me and Williams was telling me that Kevin was upset. My face grew hot as I stifled tears and stopped myself from cursing Williams out. How many times during an argument had Kevin cited his own mental health problems as justification for his treatment of me? In this moment Julian Williams had become Kevin. Even from afar, I could still feel his abuse. He finished by recommending to me that it would be best if I came to a decision by the end of Spring Break.
Vassar knew I had never had a rape kit performed — it was too late for that. I did not have any physical evidence to take to the authorities. Vassar was my only option for justice. I had no lawyer, I was poor, which Vassar could have known from a quick look at my financial aid records. I did not have a solid relationship with my family — I was alone. I was already struggling with immense guilt for putting Kevin through this. I felt like I was the bad person, and Kevin was the victim. For a long time, Kevin had manipulated me to such a degree that I thought I was abusive towards him. He always played the victim. It took me years to understand that I was the one being abused.
In this moment, I was a twenty year old girl in a room with an adult man who seemed to be actively pressuring me to make an uninformed decision. I did not feel comfortable making a decision like that without help. Signing this deal would be effectively saying I had never been raped. I would forfeit my right to ever speak out again. It would be my signature against my word. I could risk being sued for telling the truth. My rape would not exist. It would be forgotten. But I knew I could never forget.
I do not know how this deal came about, I cannot speak to what conversations took place between Vassar and Kevin’s lawyer. It was not that Vassar was siding with my rapist over me, Vassar simply was trying to protect itself through any means necessary. My rape was irrelevant to them.
I made the decision to call my father. This was the first time I had ever told him I had been raped. With his help, I was able to get a lawyer who worked pro bono. Not everyone is so lucky.
I have since filed a complaint with the help of that wonderful lawyer with the Civil Rights Office of the New York Department of Education. In my complaint, my lawyer wrote, “it was entirely inappropriate and a violation of my rights under Title IX for Vassar to have pressured me into settling with my perpetrator and/or withdrawing from the school.”
Vassar offered me what was supposed to be an irresistible deal at the moment when they knew I most wanted to accept it. Both Vassar and Kevin’s needs would be fulfilled by this deal, mine would not. I wanted to make him listen to me.The night he had raped me he did not listen to what I wanted. If we were in a room together, he would have no choice but to listen. I do not know how this deal came about, I cannot speak to what conversations took place between Vassar and Kevin’s lawyer. It was not that Vassar was siding with my rapist over me, Vassar simply was trying to protect itself through any means necessary. My rape was irrelevant to them.
Williams said he reported directly to the President of Vassar College after I expressed misgivings about how he was handling my case. The same day that I was offered the deal, I was scheduled to have a meeting with Cappy. Initially, I had emailed Cappy inviting her to attend my Title IX hearing so that she could be more aware of the Title IX process. Instead she invited me to come speak with her. In our meeting, she explained that for legal reasons that she was unable to participate in the Title IX progress. What she really meant was that in order to protect herself and to protect Vassar she needed to maintain plausible deniability. She could not dirty herself with the details of how Vassar actually handles Title IX cases. Maintaining the illusion of care and concern, Cappy was perfectly friendly and attentive. I left her with some literature about Title IX and Dating Violence.
It took me a few days of conversation with friends and my lawyers to come to a decision. I sent the Title IX Director an email on March 25th: “I have made up my mind. I am proceeding with my case. Tell Kevin’s lawyer the deal is off the table. I’ll see him in the panel.”
Two days after I turned down Kevin’s plea bargain, Cappy sent me a follow up email. She thanked me for the helpful information I had shared and told me that “ if [I’d] like to meet again after spring break, let [her] know.” I was surprised she followed up. On March 29th I responded telling her I would like to meet again. She did not reply. I reached out again on May 1st, but again she did not reply. As soon as I stopped behaving the way that Vassar wanted me to, they closed ranks.
I was told that Kevin had left for Spring Break and that he might not return. At the end of Spring Break, I contacted Williams, asking him if he knew what was going on. I knew while the investigation would proceed, Vassar could not forcibly make Kevin return from break. Kevin not returning from Spring Break was as good as admitting his guilt. If he did return, there was a chance both he and Vassar could avoid labeling a rapist.
Williams did not respond to my lawyers’ or my inquiries for two days. I did not feel safe leaving my house until I knew. He told my lawyers, “As far as the college is aware, [Kevin] has returned to campus. If I become aware of any changes here I will let Margot know.” Williams gave me a ‘maybe’ until my lawyers aggressively reminded him of Vassar’s obligation under Title IX to keep me safe. I was informed within a few hours that Kevin had indeed returned.
Since the beginning of my case, concerns of my safety were raised by both myself and my lawyers. Williams responded by recommending that I “contact Vassar Safety and Security who will respond immediately.” I did as I was told: I had contacted Safety and Security, they had responded immediately. Three times, I filed security reports immediately after Kevin broke the no-contact order, but nothing happened.
Security knew Kevin was breaking the no-contact order but their hands were tied when it came to disciplinary actions. Disciplinary decisions are handled by the Dean of the College, Chris Roellke. All security could do was write report after report. They wanted to help me–they had all expressed that to me–but they said there was nothing they could do. Out of all the resources I had at Vassar, Safety and Security were the only people who took my safety seriously and did whatever was necessary to protect me.
Vassar was not unable, it was unwilling. They had shown throughout this whole process that they were ready to the bend rules to suit their interests.
Once my Title IX investigation was complete, I went back to Williams’ office, so he could instruct me on the procedures for the upcoming hearing. He told me that if I wanted, I could come in to read the final investigative report, a document which details all of the factual evidence, testimony, and witness statements. I had done countless hours of work going through my text messages, emails, medical records, Facebook, and old journals in order to put together a timeline. Two-thirds of the final investigative report was comprised of my own research. I played Nancy Drew to the investigator’s Bess and George. This was my work and Julian Williams was holding it hostage. The only information I really needed from this document was Kevin’s testimony. I asked Williams if my lawyer could be sent a copy of this report. He said no. I was infuriated. Without it I would not be able to formulate my strategy for the hearing. My lawyer reached out to him to inquire why this was school policy. She explained how it “unnecessarily hinders” her ability to help me and demanded an explanation for the “college’s practice to not send electronic copies to lawyers.” Williams parroted that he was “unable to provide this.” Vassar was not unable, it was unwilling. They had shown throughout this whole process that they were ready to the bend rules to suit their interests.
Interfering with my lawyer’s ability to properly inform me, the school intentionally made it more difficult for us to build our case. I wasted about 6 hours of my time over the course of several days transcribing on my computer a fourteen page document which detailed the worst moments of my life. I sat in Julian Williams’ office reading over and over again how Kevin blamed me for his alcoholism, how he had raped me, and how he did not even remember what he had done. I was reliving my abuse on a daily basis. Several times I had to leave Williams’ office to go sob in the bathroom of Metcalf. Metcalf, the same building where Williams told me that Kevin reached out for help.
I had to make sure every detail was perfect. I was petrified they would take Kevin’s word over mine. I was convinced that if I transcribed something incorrectly or forgot a detail, I could destroy all of the work I had done. If I did not win my case, I was going to have to go to Vassar for another year seeing Kevin walking freely around campus. He had already taken three years of my life. I could not bear to have another year taken from me. I went to Williams’ office six different times to transcribe the final report because I wanted my life back. I wanted to be safe.
Kevin was found responsible for two counts of Sexual Misconduct. He was still allowed to remain on campus with me, but he would be suspended with the completion of the semester. I wrote a letter of appeal asking for stricter sanctions, that Kevin be expelled instead of merely suspended.
If a sanctioned rapist broke the no-contact order after he had been found responsible, Vassar would be one-hundred percent liable. They were inviting lawsuits, press, and possibly the police if anything happened.
On May 8th, 2015, following my notification of the sanctions against Kevin, I met with Chris Roellke to talk about concerns I had about my safety on Founder’s Day. Founder’s Day is a campus wide event, where copious consumption of drugs and alcohol is standard. Kevin’s history of violence, substance abuse, and sexual assault made me more than a little cautious of attending.
Roellke realized when I came in to speak with him that he had made a huge mistake in his sanctions by letting Kevin remain on campus. When I introduced myself to him, he knew exactly who I was. While I was listing out all of the reasons that I was afraid for my safety at Founder’s Day and my concerns that he would show up regardless, Roellke’s entire disposition changed. His eyes lit up in fear and he suddenly became less formal and instead acted extremely concerned and attentive. He knew it was illegal to allow Kevin to remain on campus to finish out the academic semester. Roellke fucked up. If a sanctioned rapist broke the no-contact order after he had been found responsible, Vassar would be one-hundred percent liable. They were inviting lawsuits, press, and possibly the police if anything happened. Roellke wanted to make sure that he wasn’t putting Vassar in further jeopardy so he tried to rectify the situation by eliminating a further paper trail.
Roellke gave me his personal cell phone number. He told me he was going to be out of town that weekend in Portland, but if something happened or I did not feel safe, he told me to “call him instead of calling security.”
I left the meeting feeling disturbed. I called security to ask for a ride back to my house, as per usual. In the car, I asked the security officer if it made any sense to call Dean Roelke, who would be on the opposite side of country, instead of security who would be onsite at Founder’s Day. He said, “That makes no sense. It’s our job to keep you safe. You call us first.” I knew why Roellke told me to call him. I had already filed three security reports with the school. He did not want to risk a fourth.
Knowing Kevin would make an appearance at Founder’s Day, I wanted to make sure that security had a picture of him. I forwarded them a picture of Kevin skateboarding beside my house. Sure enough, despite Williams informing me that he was banned from all campus activities, Kevin came to Founder’s Day. He was immediately removed by security. Within a few hours he was officially suspended from school and banned from campus. I could not believe it had to go this far for Vassar to take serious action. The public nature of Kevin’s actions forced Vassar to pay attention. He had intimidated me in private, he had broken the no-contact order in private, and he had raped me in private. Once he became a threat to Vassar’s public image, he was kicked out of school.
On June 1st, the day after graduation when all students were to have vacated campus, my letter of appeal was rejected. I drove over to Dean Roellke’s office to demand an explanation for my appeal’s rejection. Roellke was the one who was jeopardizing my safety. He was the one who decided Kevin’s sanctions. He was the person in charge, not Julian Williams. When I arrived, his secretary told me that he was in a meeting. We set an appointment for one o’clock the following day. Within thirty minutes of leaving his office, I received an email saying, “Chris is unable to speak with you tomorrow. We ask that if you have any questions that you speak with Julian Williams, or make an appointment to see him.” On June 5, Julian Williams would officially retire from him position as the director of Title IX at Vassar. Roellke tried to send me on a fool’s errand.
This is not a story about rape. I do not need to prove I was raped–Vassar already decided that–and I have no interest in participating in any such conversations. Vassar recognized that Kevin raped me and they did nothing.This is a story about an institutional method of silencing survivors in order to make the rape problem go away.
Dean Lotto has a daughter, Dean Roellke has a daughter, and President Cappy Hill has a daughter. Would they feel safe sending their daughters to Vassar? How would they react if they heard their school tried to make them leave, tried to silence them, and left them completely unprotected? They would not let this stand. But we are not their daughters and they are not our parents. They do not care because they are not made to care. They hide behind school regulations and polite emails. They are the shifting face of the institution. They actively try not to understand or know what happens at this school. They act to make themselves unimpeachable and for a while they were very good at it. But every action and every non-action leaves a trail behind. In the hundred or so emails I archived over the course of my Title IX case, I came to understand that I can hold no single person accountable for this traumatic experience.
We cannot simply point fingers at Cappy, Roelke, Ben Lotto, or the other administrators who were involved in what happened to me. Yes, they should be removed from their positions at Vassar College, but if we do not change the overall system, they will simply be replaced. Vassar College is failing its students, Title IX is failing survivors. If we as a community can come together and demand more from our school, from Title IX, and from ourselves, change will happen.
Schools underestimate the women at their institutions, we are far stronger than we look. We are speaking up and taking action. It is already happening. Vassar women, both students and alumni, have come together to help me to share my story. I am graduating come May and I hope to do so knowing that I did everything in my power to protect my community. Vassar is one of the oldest women’s college in the country, it is time that we honor that history.
How has Title IX, a mechanism of justice, become a tool for silence? Silence is not written into its statues, but it is encoded into the practices of Vassar College and other institutions around the country. Even after Kevin has been suspended from school, I still receive notices about my no-contact order. It is as if Vassar is trying to give me a not-so-subtle reminder that they have all the power, that speaking out has consequences. But I never consented to silence.