Crime & Courts

Sexual assault reports renew concerns at Davidson College

More than 100 Davidson students sat in silent protest during baseball practice to protest that a player has been allowed to remain on the team despite being charged with misdemeanor sexual battery last week.
More than 100 Davidson students sat in silent protest during baseball practice to protest that a player has been allowed to remain on the team despite being charged with misdemeanor sexual battery last week.

A misdemeanor arrest last week of a Davidson College student has awakened a larger debate over the safety of women at the prestigious school and how its leaders handle reports of on-campus sexual assaults.

George “Ward” Coleman, 20, is charged with sexual battery stemming from a Jan. 15 campus incident, according to police with the Town of Davidson. His alleged victim, a fellow student, was treated at a Charlotte hospital.

Coleman’s arrest has sparked concern among Davidson’s 1,950 students. A petition, signed by six women who say they have been sexually assaulted on campus, calls for Coleman to be suspended from the baseball team pending the outcome of his trial. On Wednesday, more than 100 students sat in the stands beside the baseball field in silent protest as the team practiced. A school spokesman said Coleman did not participate.

By Thursday afternoon, hundreds of students had signed the petition. Others had left anonymous comments that Coleman is innocent until proven guilty, and that a charge is not a conviction. Coleman’s attorney says his client is innocent and should remain on the team.

In 2014, students marched through campus after a female student wrote in an essay that she had been raped and her attacker allowed to stay in school.

Now, the more recent incident has reopened a window into what appears to be a high number of reported sexual assaults at a school considered one of the best small colleges in America.

A mother of one of the student victims described Davidson’s numbers of reported sexual offenses as “insane.”

Meanwhile, a national expert who has worked with the school on public safety matters says the high numbers indicate Davidson’s aggressiveness in reporting and attempting to solve the problem.

According to the records released by the college, 12 campus rapes have been reported to college police in the current academic year, along with three reports of fondling and one each of sexual battery, second-degree forcible sexual offense and sexual harassment.

An Observer analysis of U.S. Department of Education statistics submitted by colleges and universities from around the country appears to indicate a longer-term issue of campus safety at the school.

▪ From 2012-14 – the latest years of complete national data – Davidson reported 33 on-campus forcible sexual offenses, ranking it first in the Carolinas and 31st nationally among private, nonprofit four-year universities.

▪ The school’s three-year total ranked ninth among all colleges or universities with fewer than 2,000 students, the government data show.

▪ In 2014, Davidson’s 6.2 reported forcible sexual offenses per 1,000 students ranked 28th among all two- and four-year U.S. colleges and universities. By comparison, UNC-Chapel Hill had fewer than 1 reported rape per 1,000, ranking it close to 500th nationally.

▪ In 2015, UNC Charlotte, with almost 30,000 students, reported 12 campus rapes; Davidson reported 15, records show.

“I’m appalled,” said the mother of a student who reported that she was assaulted on Sept. 25. That led to the November arrest of Davidson student Danny Jones, a former varsity wrestler at the school.

“This college is the size of a high school,” the mother said. “These numbers are just unbelievable to me.”

Jones, 21, of Garden City, N.Y., is charged with misdemeanor sexual battery and is scheduled to be in court May 24. Court records say Jones fondled a fellow student. The accuser’s mother said the incident occurred in Jones’ dorm room.

The Observer does not name those who say they have been sexually assaulted. The name of the mother is being withheld because it could identify her daughter.

In a statement released Wednesday in response to Observer inquiries, the college acknowledged that sexual assault is a problem at Davidson and most schools. The college said it “strives to support our campus survivors” and works to “radically reduce and ultimately eliminate sexual assault on our campus.”

After meeting Tuesday with eight female students who say they had been sexually assaulted at Davidson, school President Carol Quillen issued a campus statement urging students to get more involved in combating the problem.

“Talk with each other. Ask questions. Learn what consent means. Hold friends accountable. Look out for each other, even when it’s awkward and hard,” she said, according to a copy of the statement obtained by the Observer.

Dolores Stafford, a national expert in the issues surrounding campus assaults, assigns Davidson’s comparatively high number of reported sexual assault cases to a campus culture that invites and supports students who come forward.

Abigail Boyer with the Clery Center, a nonprofit that provides training on campus safety, agreed. She said high numbers often mean a school has more programs and watchdogs in place rather than a problem with safety.

“Those numbers are not alarming at all,” said Stafford, the former longtime police chief at George Washington University and now a consultant who has worked with Davidson and other schools on issues surrounding campus safety. She declined to say how much Davidson paid her.

“We know sexual assaults are happening on every campus. What the (higher numbers) typically mean is that the school is trying to be proactive. Davidson is being very proactive.”

Charlotte attorney Chris Fialko, who is representing Coleman, said he is innocent of the charge.

“I am surprised that people are marching and protesting to remove my client’s bedrock right of being presumed innocent,” Fialko said. “My client did not commit this misdemeanor offense. We will have a trial in court, and just like any other Davidson student charged with a misdemeanor, my client should be allowed to continue his studies and extra-curricular activities until then.”

Town or campus

In the cases that led to the arrests of Jones and Coleman, however, the victims went off campus for help.

Davidson town Detective Vernon Siders, who handled both cases, said the first student came to him saying she had become frustrated by the response from her school. The second victim contacted him after learning of Jones’ arrest, bypassing the school process entirely, Siders said.

He said both were willing to risk public disclosure in bringing criminal charges, and that both women said they did not trust campus police or other figures to act in their behalf.

The mother of the first woman described the town police’s treatment of her daughter as “phenomenal.”

In its statement, Davidson College said it offers an array of channels for assault victims to follow, which includes reporting the case to town police. The off-campus option also is spelled out in a policy and procedures manual for sexual misconduct.

“We are grateful that these courageous young women reported these events, and we trust that the town of Davidson police will investigate fully,” the statement said.

In its 2014-16 summary of campus crime, the school said it had received reports of 64 cases of sexual misconduct. Those ranged from rapes to verbal harassment.

Eleven were classified as being unfounded, unsubstantiated or including insufficient information.

The school said it took action in 49 of the remaining 53 cases, ranging from evictions from dorms, no-contact orders, conferences with deans or police, to expulsion. Some cases were referred to campus police or their town counterparts, or the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office, the school says.

Victim v. accused

The mother of Jones’ accuser, however, said the college’s procedures left her daughter confused and discouraged. She described Quillen’s statement after her meeting with assault victims this week as another “betrayal” of her child.

“That statement was pathetic. Nobody is holding these boys accountable,” she said.

In response to the petition from the assault victims calling for the suspension of Coleman from the baseball team, Athletic Director Jim Murphy said his department “takes reports of sexual assault very seriously.” But Murphy cited a policy in which the department “does not discuss individual disciplinary cases, including the college’s actions in response to a report of sexual misconduct.”

Stafford, the consultant, said a college’s proper role is to help the victim make an informed decision on how she wants her complaint to proceed. She says fewer than 5 percent of reported campus sexual assaults nationwide end up in court.

“No college administrator should be deciding if a case goes forward or not,” Stafford said. “That is part of empowering the victim, educating them about their options and letting them make the decisions. In the end, they’re the ones who have to show up.”

This story was updated with comments from Coleman’s attorney at 9:40 a.m. Friday.

Researcher Maria David contributed to this report.

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