A petition by a former Williams College student, whose public account of being raped on campus and the school’s alleged mishandling sparked outrage, has garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
Lexie Brackenridge created a Change.org petition last month calling on the school to take steps to improve the way it handles sexual assault cases and how it disciplines offenders.
Last month, Brackenridge wrote a column in the school’s independent newspaper, The Williams Record, that she had been raped by a 21-year-old freshman hockey player in October 2012. She wrote that she reported the assault, but school officials encouraged her not to pursue legal action, but instead pursue disciplinary action through the school.
Brackenridge wrote that during a three-month process she was harassed members of the hockey team and friends of the alleged assailant. In the end, she wrote, an investigative panel found the alleged assailant guilty of sexual assault and the student was suspended for three semesters—which she called a “mere slap on the wrist” as the student was later allowed to return to campus.
Brackenridge has since transferred to Columbia University.
The petition outlines a list of steps she wants the college to take in sexual assault investigations. She said students who report assaults should not be discouraged by the school to pursue a criminal investigation. The petition also called for mandatory expulsion of offenders, transparency in the investigation for the victim and the accused (including access to witness testimony and a full explanation of the verdict to both parties), and for acts of retaliation or harassment against the victim to be punishable by expulsion.
“Outside of the mandatory sanctions, everything else [in the petition] are things that we already do in every instance,” Williams College spokesman Jim Kolesar told Boston.com, reiterating previous statements from school officials.
College President Adam Falk said in a statement last month that the school was “confident that throughout our handling of the case in question, we adhered to all of our policies and to all applicable laws, including our policies on the provision of housing for the survivor, and we investigated fully and promptly any allegation of retaliation or harassment.”
College dean Sarah Bolton wrote a response to the petition that addressed each proposal outlined by Brackenridge.
Nothing in my job as dean of the college is more important than student safety and well-being. And nothing can damage the fabric of our campus community more than sexual assault. As someone who's worked closely with many survivors, I have a sense of the great harm that sexual assault creates -- both its immediate effects for survivors and the longer-term consequences for them and their friends and family.
Bolton also highlighted the work of the school’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness group, which was formed in 2011, as well as some policy changes. One change was to have sexual assaults investigated by professionals from outside the school instead of by members of the dean’s office.
“So far it seems that has been a change for the better,” Kolesar said.
Another change was to have a three-person panel of professionally trained staff members make decisions on imposing sanctions instead of the decision being made solely by the dean.
Kolesar said that the colleges policies and procedures are reviewed annually by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness group as well as other campus groups and offices that work on issues of sexual assault.
In terms of the mandatory sanctions mentioned in the petition, Kolesar said there would need to more discussion for the school to move in that direction.
“In our ongoing discussions on campus and in the national scene, the center of gravity would need to move,” Kolesar said. “Right now they are not in favor of mandatory sanctions.”
The issue of college sexual assaults has recently been a point of discussion nationally. On May 1, the US Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities—including six Massachusetts schools—under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases. Since then the department has expanded its investigations adding five more schools to the list.