A University of Massachusetts student confessed to raping a friend and former student in the fall and was mistakenly given a deferred suspension. University officials allowed him to stay on campus, a move that now has administrators reexamining UMass’ sanctioning policies and procedures, according to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR).
The University would only confirm that the student, who is currently enrolled, living on campus, and expected to graduate in May, was found responsible under the Student Code of Conduct for a sexual assault. The University did not confirm that the act allegedly committed was rape, a felony, as the NECIR at Boston University reported in yesterday’s Boston Globe.
In the early morning of October 16, the Friday during homecoming weekend, a male student allegedly raped an ’09 female alum in the North Apartments Building C, according to the investigative piece reported in collaboration with other media outlets. The victim reported the incident to the dean of students’ office in the month that followed. However, an assistant dean of students handed down a deferred suspension to the alleged offender – a decision UMass officials have since said was too lenient and have called the situation regrettable, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Jean Kim told The Collegian yesterday.
“Personally, I do not believe the sanction matched the misconduct,” Kim said.
The deferred suspension sanction, which notifies students that a subsequent violation of the University’s Code of Student Conduct will result in suspension, did not follow the proper procedure to necessitate a final review and decision by Dean of Students Jo-Anne T. Vanin, said Kim.
However, the University cannot change or add to the sanctions already handed down because, as she explained, there is no appeal process allowed to any person other than the accused within the student code of conduct .
According to the NECIR’s piece, Christina Willenbrock was the assistant dean who handled the case. University officials declined to discuss any disciplinary action that might have or could be taken against administrators who handled the case. Kim said there was no one individual to blame for what happened. She said the blame instead goes to how the administrative process was set up.
UMass also declined to name either student involved, citing privacy rules – Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) – in both instances.
The University learned of the procedural error last month after the victim contacted UMass to inquire about the punishment given to the accused student, Kim said. A review of the case was conducted shortly thereafter by Kim, and she has since instituted a written, formal policy that states any cases classified among the most serious offenses – level-3, which includes sexual assault, possessing weapons and distributing illicit substances – are to be sent to the dean of students for review and a final decision.
Kim is also in the early process of putting together a special committee to review the University’s Student Code of Conduct in its entirety, she said.
That committee will later present its recommendations back to Kim. However, any recommended changes to the student conduct code would ultimately have to gain the Board of Trustees’ approval before their implementation.
“It’s important to put a fix in if you think something’s not working right. But then again, it should then ask the larger question, ‘is it time to take a look at the whole system?’ I think it is,” she said, adding that such a review “is something that should be done on a periodic basis,” but, “sometimes a situation arises that just begs the question.”
Following the alleged rape, the University reviewed past cases and said there has been no other case in which proper procedure was not followed, according to Kim.
“I believe we have a good judicial process in place,” she said. “This was an anomaly, an aberration, but there’s always room for improvement.”
When asked if the assistant dean’s decision may have been an act of favoritism, Kim said it was absolutely not the case.
“I can’t explain why it happened. I don’t know,” said Kim of the assistant dean’s failure to have the case reviewed by the dean. “We take the situation of sexual assault and the safety of all of students very seriously,” she said.
Assistant dean of students, Shawn McGuirk said questions regarding the matter will not be handled by the dean of students office and referred questions to Kim. Christina Willenbrock is currently on maternity leave, according to Kim, and a voicemail left at her South Hadley residence was not returned.
Students who report a sexual assault are immediately offered counseling, said Kim. The victim then has four choices: to report the incident to the UMass Police Department and pursue criminal charges, to have the incident go under the dean of students’ review, to do both, or to not take action.
According to Kim, the student who was sexually assaulted in October initially went to UMPD first, but later decided against pursuing criminal charges.
Campus spokesman Edward Blaguszewski added that the victim could still decide to pursue criminal charges.
Both Blaguszewski and Kim assert that campus reports of sexual assault have declined in recent years and credited the downward trend to grant money the campus receives from the Office of Violence Against Women of the U.S. Department of Justice.
From July 2003 through June 2007, the Five Colleges received around $700,000 in funding. Of this, $300,000 went to UMass, Blaguszewski said. The grant money is used to enhance preventative and support services for victims and hold perpetrators responsible. Schools receiving the grants are required to report back data on reports of assault.
In 2003, there were 36 forcible sexual offenses at UMass, according to Federal Cleary Report data provided by the University. In each of the following two years, that figure dropped by more than half to 14 such offenses, then dropped again to 12 in 2006, then to nine the next year and then increased slightly to 11 in 2008, the most-recent year in which data is available.
“Clearly we need to continue to work on reducing these incidents, but we have been moving in the right direction,” said Kim.
Between 2003 and 2007, 26 reports of sexual assault were brought for review by the dean of students. Eleven of those cases received sanctions – none were expelled, three were suspended – while the other 15 were dismissed due either to insufficient evidence, the victim’s request, or the accused student’s willful departure from the University, said Blaguszewski. UMass has a broad range of sanctions beyond expulsion and suspension, including probation, removal from housing, and fines, he added.
“The full extent of campus sexual assault is often hidden by secret proceedings, shoddy record-keeping, and an indifferent bureaucracy,” said Center for Public Integrity Executive Director Bill Buzenberg in a press release yesterday.
According to the release from center, which was among the collaborative media outlets involved in a larger component of the investigative piece on sexual assaults on college campuses in Wednesday’s Globe, “Students found ‘responsible’ for sexual assaults on campus often face little or no punishment from school judicial systems, while their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down.”
It claims UMass is not alone in having mishandled a sexual assault case, and many students were troubled by the news yesterday.
“I think this campus makes a big deal about stupid things a lot of times and not a big deal about serious things like this,” said UMass sophomore Tim Miller, a natural resources conservation major. “People are getting all of these crazy suspensions for things like downloading music, and something like this happens and gets overlooked.”
Undeclared sophomore, Liz Zheng, said, “Of course [the sanction handed down] is not right, but there’s not really much that can be done about it now, so I’m not sure.” She added, “I think what happens from here is really up to [the victim.]”
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Matt Rocheleau can be reached at email@example.com.