UMass mum on mishandling of sexual assault case
[*This story has been updated to reflect Wednesday’s announcement from that University that a meeting scheduled for Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. to discuss the mishandling of a sexual assault case will be open to the campus community in Campus Center Room 101.]
The assistant dean who reportedly handed down the wrong sanction to a student that allegedly confessed to rape said yesterday she wanted to speak to the press, but is being prevented from doing so by administrators. And, repeated requests for further information regarding how the case was mishandled have been thwarted thus far by multiple campus officials.
A University of Massachusetts student confessed to raping a friend and former student in the fall and was mistakenly given a deferred suspension, according an article by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) at Boston University published late last week. University officials allowed him to stay on campus, a move that now has administrators reexamining UMass’ sanctioning policies and procedures, as reported in Friday’s Collegian.
Assistant Dean of Students Christina Willenbrock, according to NECIR, handled the case, did not properly report it to her superior and decided on the sanction – which notifies students that a subsequent violation of the University’s conduct code will result in suspension – ultimately given to the accused student.
Willenbrock reluctantly declined to comment to Collegian reporters who visited her South Hadley home yesterday.
“The University won’t let me speak about it,” she said. “I would love to tell you all my opinions and thoughts on the matter, but I really can’t.”
Campus spokesman Edward Blaguszewski confirmed that Willenbrock has had discussions with the Dean of Students office, but declined to comment on Willenbrock’s allegation that the University is preventing her from discussing the incident because he said he is “not familiar with the details of that.”
The University has repeatedly refused to confirm NECIR’s reports that the case was handled by Willenbrock, and has also declined to disclose any disciplinary action that might have or could be taken against administrators who mishandled the case. UMass is not legally required to withhold that information, but rather it is UMass’ choice to do so and is consistent with how UMass handles what it considers personnel matters, Blaguszewski said.
The Dean of Students office has also been silent on the issue. Assistant Dean of Students, Shawn McGuirk said Thursday questions regarding the matter will not be handled by the Dean of Students’ office and referred questions to Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Jean Kim.
However, UMass will hold a meeting open to all campus community members Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. “to discuss the sexual assault that has recently been reported in the media,” according to e-mails sent this morning from the office of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Jean Kim.
Collegian reporters and several Student Government Association (SGA) officials were invited to the meeting in an e-mail sent Tuesday, but campus officials today opened the meeting to the entire community and have relocated it from a smaller conference room to Campus Center Room 101 “to accommodate as many students as possible,” said an e-mail.
Both Kim and Dean of Students Jo-Anne T. Vanin “will be available to answer questions and to address any concerns you may have on this issue,” said an e-mail.
The deferred suspension sanction did not follow the proper procedure to necessitate a final review and decision by Dean of Students Jo-Anne T. Vanin, said Kim.
Kim said last week there was no one individual to blame for what she said was too lenient of a punishment and a regrettable situation. She said the blame instead goes to how the administrative process was set up.
“Personally, I do not believe the sanction matched the misconduct,” Kim said.
“I can’t explain why it happened. I don’t know,” added Kim Thursday of the failure to have the case follow proper protocol. “We take the situation of sexual assault and the safety of all of students very seriously.”
However, the University cannot change or add to the sanctions already handed down through the student judicial system because, as Kim explained last week, there is no appeal process allowed to any person other than the accused.
The Collegian in an interview with Kim Thursday was told and reported that the school could not release the names of the two students involved because they were legally prohibited under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
However, with assistance from the NECIR the Collegian has found, and the University subsequently confirmed, that the federal privacy law does not apply in this case. UMass is instead choosing to not release the names case “due to privacy considerations,” Blaguszewski said Tuesday.
“We are confirming, as allowed by FERPA, that a UMass Amherst student was found responsible for sexual assault and received a deferred suspension. The victim was a UMass alumna, and the incident occurred during Homecoming Weekend,” said an e-mail press release sent to media members last week.
Kim also confirmed that the accused student is currently enrolled, living on campus and expected to graduate in May. She added that the victim initially went to UMPD first, but later decided against pursuing criminal charges.
FERPA does, however, prohibit the University from confirming NECIR’s reports that the act allegedly committed was a felony rape, that it happened in North Apartments Building C on Oct. 16, 2009, and that the victim reported the incident in November, according to Blaguszewski, who said he consulted with UMass’s lawyer on the matter.
The only information the University is allowed to release or confirm under FERPA is the accused suspect’s name, the sanction given to the student found responsible, and the name of the violation the student was found responsible for under UMass’ Code of Student Conduct (CSC) – which is only specified in the CSC as sexual assault, said Blaguszewski. There is no violation in the CSC that specifies what form of sexual assault a student is accused of or found responsible for.
According to a 1998 FERPA amendment, colleges and universities are not prevented from speaking about disciplinary matters if those matters involve a violent offense – such as sexual assault – and if the accused student is found to be in violation of the school’s conduct code – as University officials said happened in this case.
The amendment, 20 U.S.C. 1232g (6)(B), states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit an institution of postsecondary education from disclosing the final results of any disciplinary proceeding conducted by such institution against a student who is an alleged perpetrator of any crime of violence (as that term is defined in section 16 of title 18, United States Code), or a nonforcible sex offense, if the institution determines as a result of that disciplinary proceeding that the student committed a violation of the institution’s rules or policies with respect to such crime or offense.”
“In short, FERPA does not require the University to release the name, charge, or sanction connected to a student disciplinary case,” said Blaguszewski in an e-mail yesterday.
The University has since tried to clarify misconceptions among its own leaders about why the University is not explaining the incident further.
In an e-mail titled “Daily Collegian Sexual Assault Articles” sent to Housing and Residence Life staff Friday by Associate Director for Residence Life Laura Giles said, “The law requires that details of the proceedings be confidential.”
Blaguszewski confirmed last night that this statement – which “was the longstanding guidance and practice [UMass] was given” – is no longer true under FERPA and that campus officials have since been briefed on the law’s 1998 amendment.
“There was no intent to misguide anyone,” Blaguszewski said yesterday.
Last week, the Center for Public Integrity’s Executive Director Bill Buzenberg said in a press release, “The full extent of campus sexual assault is often hidden by secret proceedings, shoddy record-keeping, and an indifferent bureaucracy.”
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 last week’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.”
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