#MeToo in­spires wave of old mis­con­duct re­ports to col­leges

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LOCAL NEWS - By Collin Bink­ley

For 35 years, Ruth D’Ered­ita tried to dis­miss her former pro­fes­sor’s be­hav­ior — the way he touched her, groped her and kissed her. But last year, as dozens of women came for­ward to share sim­i­lar en­coun­ters with pow­er­ful men, she started to see her mem­o­ries dif­fer­ently.

“It made me look at that in­ci­dent and say, no, it was wrong,” said D’Ered­ita, a 1984 grad­u­ate of Mount Holyoke Col­lege, a women’s school in Mass­a­chu­setts. “I went there with a heart full of pas­sion, eager for schol­ar­ship, just to throw my­self into it, and this man looked at me as a po­ten­tial sex­ual part­ner.”

She’s now among a wave of women in­spired by the #MeToo move­ment to re­port past sex­ual mis­con­duct to their col­leges, break­ing some­times decades of si­lence in an at­tempt to ac­knowl­edge the wrong­do­ing, close old wounds and, in some cases, seek jus­tice.

The re­ports from deep in the past have also raised big ques­tions about how to in­ves­ti­gate such cases and how to usher them through newer dis­ci­pline sys­tems built upon up­dated ideas about right and wrong.

In many ways, schools say, they face the same frus­tra­tions that arose in last month’s Se­nate hear­ing over Supreme Court nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh, who was ac­cused of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing an­other teenager in the mid-1980s. Mem­o­ries fade. No one agrees. Wit­nesses stay quiet.

But un­like the Se­nate or the White House, which have broad in­ves­tiga­tive pow­ers, col­leges are left to tease out the truth with le­gal author­ity that does not ex­tend beyond their cam­puses.

“We don’t have sub­poena power. We don’t have the same kind of reach or author­ity that courts would have,” said Rob Kent, in­terim chief of the Ti­tle IX of­fice at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity.

Col­leges from New Eng­land to the West Coast say they’ve seen an uptick in “his­tor­i­cal” com­plaints over the past year, a shift they credit to the na­tional reck­on­ing sparked by #MeToo. Cases that were never re­ported in the past are com­ing to light as much as 50 years later.

In the first half of 2018, for ex­am­ple, Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity re­ceived 22 com­plaints from two decades ago or longer, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press. In the pre­vi­ous five years com­bined, there were just nine cases that old.

Most cases in­volve women who say they were ha­rassed or as­saulted by male pro­fes­sors, ad­vis­ers or oth­ers who worked on cam­pus.

“Peo­ple feel they’ve got a voice,” said Sau­nie Schus­ter, a lawyer who ad­vises col­leges across the coun­try and co-founded the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ti­tle IX Ad­min­is­tra­tors. “I think it’s a trend we’re go­ing to see for the com­ing few years.”

The uptick has prompted some schools to re­think poli­cies that placed time lim­its on in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity dropped a two-year limit this month, say­ing it will now look into all sex­ual mis­con­duct com­plaints.

At Mount Holyoke, D’Ered­ita’s case is among at least three that have emerged from the 1980s. In a let­ter to the school in Oc­to­ber 2017, she de­scribed how a pro­fes­sor drove her to an art mu­seum for an aca­demic out­ing, but then be­gan force­fully kiss­ing and grop­ing her in the car and later in an empty mu­seum gallery.

The pro­fes­sor, who still works at the col­lege, de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tion. The school hired an out­side firm to in­ves­ti­gate but ul­ti­mately con­cluded there was not enough ev­i­dence to prove her ac­count.

She said she views the fi­nal de­ci­sion as “wrong but un­der­stand­able.”

“I know what he did to me. I know where he did it. I have been re­liv­ing it,” said D’Ered­ita, who now lives in Vi­enna, Vir­ginia.

Mount Holyoke of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment on the case but said they are craft­ing a new pol­icy on his­tor­i­cal com­plaints and have hired the school’s first full­time Ti­tle IX co­or­di­na­tor, among other changes.

D’Ered­ita’s case il­lus­trates the bind that some col­leges are in: They en­cour­age vic­tims to come for­ward but strug­gle to ver­ify their claims. Of­ten it comes down to de­cid­ing which side is more cred­i­ble, based on what­ever scant ev­i­dence may ex­ist.

Even de­cid­ing whether to in­ves­ti­gate can be a chal­lenge. Many al­leged of­fend­ers have re­tired or taken new jobs, plac­ing them out­side the school’s reach. And while fed­eral rules now re­quire schools to take ac­tion if a “hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment” ex­ists, they are not ob­li­gated to ex­plore older cases that pose no threat.

As a re­sult, some schools pass by older com­plaints to fo­cus on newer ones.

Kel­lie Bren­nan, Ti­tle IX co­or­di­na­tor at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity, said her of­fice takes com­plaints as they come in and tries to de­ter­mine if they need to be ad­dressed. “The older they are, the less likely that is,” she said.

Ad­di­tion­ally, many schools weigh al­leged mis­con­duct against rules that were in force at the time, not those in ef­fect now. The is­sue of­ten arises in cases deal­ing with re­la­tion­ships be­tween fac­ulty and stu­dents, which many schools al­lowed un­til the past decade.

“What con­sti­tutes ha­rass­ment might be much dif­fer­ent now than what it was in 1980, but the re­port­ing that we’re get­ting is based on stan­dards of con­duct that ap­ply to­day,” said Kent, at Michi­gan State. If of­fi­cials find the of­fense wouldn’t vi­o­late rules at the time, he added, “a lot of times it stops right there.”

In­ves­ti­ga­tions can also carry a hefty cost. Ohio State has paid an out­side firm $1.4 mil­lion for an on­go­ing in­quiry into a former team doc­tor ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct against scores of ath­letes dat­ing back to the 1970s.

And even when schools ver­ify mis­con­duct, if the of­fender has been hired else­where, many opt not to no­tify the new em­ployer for fear of a defama­tion suit. Only re­cently have some started draft­ing poli­cies re­quir­ing such dis­clo­sure, in­clud­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin.

Cam­pus of­fi­cials from across the coun­try gath­ered to dis­cuss such mat­ters on Thurs­day at a con­fer­ence for Ti­tle IX ad­min­is­tra­tors. Michael Dunn, who helped lead a panel on the topic, en­cour­aged of­fi­cials to ask vic­tims what they hope to gain from re­port­ing. Some want an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, he said, but some just want their sto­ries to be heard.

“We need to be re­ally thought­ful and sen­si­tive to what’s mo­ti­vat­ing some­one to come for­ward now,” Dunn, who is Ti­tle IX di­rec­tor at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land, said in an in­ter­view. “What are the steps that they’re look­ing for, and what are the steps the col­lege needs to take?”

D’Ered­ita said she was look­ing for jus­tice, but that’s not all. By com­ing for­ward, she hoped to make sure that what hap­pened to her does not hap­pen to young women to­day. And if it does, she says, she hopes they speak up.


Ruth D’Ered­ita is pho­tographed in her Vi­enna, Va., ear­lier this month.

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