About 200 people marched Thursday at Davidson College to show solidarity for on-campus victims of sexual violence. And hundreds more signed an online petition calling on the college to create a task force this year to change Davidson’s sexual misconduct policy.
The students, faculty and alumni were spurred to action by two events last week: the online publication of a 20-year-old Davidson student’s account of how the college failed her in a sexual misconduct case and the release of a White House report that said colleges and universities must step up their handling of a crisis in which one of every five women is sexually assaulted in college.
Davidson, a prestigious 1,920-student school, was rocked by the online essay – detailed and personal – written by Susanna Vogel, a junior psychology major. Published on a website called Her Campus Davidson, Vogel’s account began: “When I was raped last semester, my world imploded.”
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Vogel, one of a growing number of students around the country willing to go public with their stories of being sexually assaulted on campus, never identified her alleged attacker in the online article – partly due to Davidson’s insistence on confidentiality in such cases.
But she wrote at great length about her disappointment with an adjudication process at Davidson that, she says, found the male student responsible for “sexual misconduct,” but refused to suspend him.
“I lost my faith in Davidson’s ability to protect sexual assault victims,” she wrote. “I lost my sense of safety here.”
Davidson officials declined to comment on Vogel’s case, saying it and others that come before the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board are kept confidential.
On Thursday at the march, Davidson President Carol Quillen acknowledged sexual assault is an important issue nationally and at Davidson. And she said she expects to work with students to create a task force in the fall.
“The campus must feel safe and be safe to our entire Davidson community,” she told students.
Vogel said she was raped last semester. The Observer usually does not identify victims of sexual assault. Vogel, though, said she is telling her story to help others. Details of the alleged attack, and her case before the misconduct board, are based solely on her essay and an interview with the Observer this week.
Vogel distinguished between the process at Davidson and the school’s administrators, several of whom offered her support after she told them she had been raped and even looked at her essay before she submitted it for online publication.
“As individuals, the administrators do very much care about this issue,” she said. “And it’s not that Davidson isn’t trying. Davidson is trying. They really want the process to work. It’s just hard to make it work.”
Charlotte attorney John Gresham, who represents the unnamed Davidson student accused of misconduct by Vogel, told the Observer that he agrees “the Davidson policies need to be changed. They do not provide a full and fair hearing for the accused.”
Like many women who say they are sexually assaulted on campuses, she didn’t report it right away. Then she decided to speak to Davidson authorities. They advised her that she could pursue legal charges. She decided not to but did take advantage of the process Davidson offers.
In her case, she said, the board put sanctions on her alleged attacker that were designed to keep the two of them from having any contact. But Vogel said she sees him at least four times a week on the small campus. And each time, it triggers reminders of what happened.
“I honestly do not believe that I can be an effective Davidson student if I have to see him all the time,” she said. “I think suspending him and giving me some space to work through this would have been the best possible solution. It would have also sent a very clear message that this wasn’t OK.”
School plans review
Kathy Bray, associate dean of students, earlier this week told the Observer that the college was already planning to review its sexual misconduct policy this summer and was hoping to get feedback from Vogel and others.
Davidson also plans to adopt some recommendations proposed by the White House, and the school is weighing others, Bray said.
This fall, she said, Davidson will initiate a “Bystander Intervention Program,” which the White House touts as a way to get witnesses, including men, to step in and help when sexual misconduct happens.
At the march, Quillen asked students to help her create a culture that doesn’t tolerate sexual assaults. “I’m not gonna be a bystander,” she said. “What are you gonna do?” In unison, students repeated, “I’m not gonna be a bystander.”
Bray said the college is also considering, for next year, another White House proposal that could become a requirement for all universities in 2016: Survey students to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus and test their attitudes and awareness about the issue.
She said the school typically gets 10 to 15 reports of sexual misconduct in a school year, though she agreed with national research that suggests many sexual assaults go unreported.
Marchers and petitioners Thursday, including Vogel, want to see Davidson change its policy regarding suspensions for sexual misconduct – a term the school uses to cover everything from verbal harassment to rape.
In the last two school years, Bray said, the Sexual Misconduct Board decided four cases. One student was suspended for sexual misconduct.
This week, in response to “questions ... raised about how Davidson College responds to reports of sexual misconduct,” Vice President and General Counsel Sarah Phillips sent an email to students and faculty reiterating school policy. The provision that critics seized on says that, in deciding whether to suspend a violator, his or her “emotional health” can be considered.
“It is the alleged victim’s emotional health that should be taken into account,” said Hailey Klabo, a Davidson student who heads the school’s Rape Awareness Committee and helped plan the petition and the march. Citing Vogel’s article, Klabo added that not suspending those found responsible for misconduct can leave a “victim so traumatized that day-to-day routine is compromised and schoolwork becomes nearly impossible.”
A personal story
Vogel’s alleged attacker was not a stranger to her. She declined to say anything more about him or the circumstances of the attack.
But in her online article, she wrote in detail about the personal toll of being assaulted – and of having to see him on campus and at parties.
Vogel dropped one class and failed another. Returning to school for the spring semester, she had panic attacks and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she wrote.
By February, she decided to act. She sought out Bray and Georgia Ringle, the school’s health educator, who were supportive and spelled out her options.
Vogel had already decided not to report the attack to police, partly because weeks had passed and she didn’t have physical evidence.
Instead, she filed a formal complaint with the dean of students’ office that would be heard by the Sexual Misconduct Board. This is her description of what happened at the hearing:
Students sometimes sit on the board, but in this case it was six faculty and staff members – three men and three women. There was also an investigator, four or five witnesses, and a facilitator who redacted some of the incident report.
Instead of a courtroom, she and the accused sat in a conference room, facing the board and a facilitator. Both filed personal statements and submitted questions for each other. The session lasted five hours. She said she was happy when the board returned with a verdict: He was responsible for sexual misconduct.
But the next morning, she was baffled when she got the board’s email laying out his sanctions. Twenty hours of counseling about relationships and alcohol consumption. And certain parts of campus are off limits to him.
She appealed the sanctions, but another board, the review board, denied her appeal, she said.
Thursday, Vogel said she planned to make a final appeal to Quillen to have her alleged attacker suspended.
Attorney Gresham said “we will appropriately respond if there is an appeal” by Vogel.
Vogel said 70 days passed from when she filed the complaint until she heard the review board say no to her appeal. She said it’s been hard to press her case and be a student. Frustrated by the process, Vogel published her article online.
“I wanted to have some sort of voice,” she said. “Whatever happens, after my case ends, I don’t want it to just be locked away and forgotten about. Because other students will be dealing with this next semester. And I want them to have a better experience than I did.”
It’s unclear whether Vogel will return to Davidson in the fall for her senior year. She will discuss her plans with her parents in New Jersey.
Vann Vogel, Susanna’s father, told the Observer that he and his wife appreciate the support his daughter received from some administrators and faculty. “We are extremely upset, however,” he said, “that the internal review process could find an individual responsible ... and keep him on campus.”
Davidson senior Gabriel Perlow, who organized Thursday’s march, said the event was not just about one case.
“This is not a protest,” he said. “This is not the ‘March for Susanna.’… However, we clearly need change.”