In most college sexual assault cases, schools take the early step of instituting a no-contact order between the alleged victim and the accused assailant. The order, similar to a restraining order, serves as an interim accommodation for the person reporting an assault. It helps keep the two parties away from each other before, during or after an investigation by the school.
Yet students who have filed federal civil rights complaints against colleges, especially small liberal arts schools, often say that administrators fail to address violations of no-contact orders by their accused assailants.
“I would definitely say it’s one of the most common problems we’ve seen,” said Sofie Karasek, co-founder of the activist group End Rape on Campus.
Considering that fewer than a third of students found responsible for sexual assault are expelled, these no-contact orders are sometimes the most stringent restriction put in place for assault cases.
A Vassar College student, Margot Mayer, publicly accused her school last week of failing to enforce a no-contact order with her assailant. And in a case that was opened for a federal investigation last month, Skidmore College is accused of failing to punish a student who a dozen times violated a no-contact order in place between him and a woman who accused him of assault.
Sadie, a pseudonym for the female student who filed the complaint against Skidmore, a college in Saratoga Springs, New York, said that multiple reports of her accused assailant entering her dorm building and following her on campus did not result in additional punishment for her offender.
But no-contact orders can be implemented effectively if college administrators do what Skidmore officials did toward the end of Sadie’s ordeal — get specific. That change resulted in the accused student’s suspension for repeated violations of the order.
When The No-Contact Order Is The Harshest Punishment Given
Sadie filed an official sexual assault report with Skidmore in March 2014, alleging that a male classmate sexually and physically assaulted her the month before. The school launched a Title IX investigation. In text messages submitted for the investigation Sadie told a friend within minutes of the encounter that the classmate slapped her, according to copies obtained by The Huffington Post. The accused also told a mutual friend of his and Sadie’s in a text that he was angry that night about a falling-out with another girl he dated, and didn’t remember much.
A hearing panel determined in April 2014 he was in violation of part of the sexual misconduct policy prohibiting sexual touching and disrobing without effective consent, but not responsible for sexual penetration without consent, Sadie said. He was sanctioned to speak with a therapist, and a no-contact order would remain in place while Sadie was still at Skidmore, according to the complaint.
The no-contact order meant that if Sadie was somewhere, like sitting in the Skidmore common yard, he could not enter the same location. For places like the campus residence hall where she lived, he was not allowed to go there at any point. But that’s exactly what he did, multiple times over a year and a half without any punishment until fall 2015, according to the complaint.
“It was basically me trying to figure out how to keep myself safe and [college administrators] either ignoring me or brushing me off,” Sadie said.
He hurled insults at Sadie in front of people, frequently stared at her in an intimidating way on campus and turned up in the residence halls where she lived and worked multiple times, according to the complaint and witnesses who spoke with HuffPost.
It was basically me trying to figure out how to keep myself safe and the college ignoring me.” Sadie, a sexual assault survivor at Skidmore College
“It was very uncomfortable, I felt very unsafe, and Skidmore kept saying, ‘Oh, we’ll talk to him,'” Sadie said. “It happened a few times so finally I just stopped bringing this up because I knew they were just going to talk to him.”
During one incident at an outdoor Earth Day celebration on April 19, 2015, which three witnesses described to HuffPost, he saw her at a campus event and continuously stared at her for an extended period of time. When Sadie moved to a different spot at the event, he moved closer to her, sending her into a panic attack, the witnesses said. When the group tried to move toward a campus safety officer to report him being there, they said he walked over and started talking to the security guard. He also entered Sadie’s dorm building later that afternoon, the witnesses said.
Sadie and her friends reported violations to the campus safety office, but they said officers there told the group they had nothing on file about a no-contact order. At that point, the order had been in place for over a year.
“What schools need to remember is that Title IX is a civil rights law that is dealing with gender equity in education,” Karasek said. “And if someone is afraid to go to class because they’re afraid they’ll see their perpetrator, then you have a huge problem.”
Title IX obligates a college to remedy and prevent an environment that is hostile due to gender-based harassment. “Generally speaking, if a survivor is placed in the presence of their assailant that does not constitute a remedying of the hostile environment,” S. Daniel Carter, a longtime college security consultant, told HuffPost in 2015, speaking about complaints against Grinnell College’s handling of no-contact orders. The college had allowed students accused of sexual assault to remain in the same classes as the women who reported being their victims.
“In terms of what the solution is, that’s challenging,” Carter added. “I will acknowledge that.”
During one meeting in April 2015, two Skidmore administrators told Sadie that they didn’t consider his violations of the no-contact order retaliatory, so they would not count as violations, according to the complaint. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Instead of sanctioning her offender, according to the complaint, an associate dean suggested that Sadie get therapy to “work out her issues.” The administrator also suggested she participate in a mediation session with the guy she said had raped her, the complaint states.
Being Specific In No-Contact Orders Makes Them More Effective
The accused assailant did not receive additional restrictions on his movements on campus until September 2015, when Sadie and her friends spotted him directly outside of her on-campus residence. One of them snapped a photo of him and shared it with campus security.
Skidmore then banned him from being on campus except for when he had classes, according to internal documents. The two had classes in the same building at the same time, so the college instructed them to use separate entrances. He violated the no-contact order again, and on Nov. 2, 2015, Skidmore suspended him through May 15, 2016, and ordered him to do community service, according to confidential college documents.
That shift by Skidmore to designate specific times that the accused was allowed to be on campus and use the college library, and even what entrance he could use in certain buildings, shows how a college can more effectively implement a no-contact order, said Colby Bruno, a lawyer with the Victims Rights Law Center in Boston.
Bruno often works with sexual assault victims in Massachusetts, where there is a plethora of liberal arts colleges and no-contact orders are a frequent challenge. When schools issue vague no-contact orders, Bruno said, it allows the accused and the school to plead ignorance that the alleged assailant was not intentionally trying to violate the order. Instead, she said, colleges should “make the experience a bit more predictable for victims.”
“So we will craft very specific things,” Bruno explained, “like from 6 to 7 [the accused] can’t be in the dining hall, or on Tuesdays and Thursdays from this time to this time they can’t be in the library. We’ve found that to be really effective and helpful.”
Skidmore declined to comment, citing the ongoing Education Department investigation and privacy laws. But it did say in a brief statement that the college is “confident that Skidmore’s handling of this case was appropriate and in compliance with state and federal regulations.”
Margot Mayer, a Vassar College student, said that the no-contact order issued against the guy she reported in February 2015 for sexual assault and dating violence did not include specific guidelines. Instead, the “ambiguous” directive only said additional sanctions and removal from campus were possible, she said. He was not banned from campus residence or academic buildings during Vassar’s Title IX investigation.
Still, Mayer said he violated the no-contact directive multiple times in the weeks after her report. “I reported about seven instances of the no-contact order being broken — there were three separate security reports filed,” Mayer told HuffPost. She often hid behind trees to avoid him, she said.
For example, he rushed at Mayer on his skateboard when he saw her on campus and attended a Founder’s Day event despite being banned from college events, Mayer said. Campus security located him at Founder’s Day and told him to leave, but no additional restrictions were imposed.
When he was found responsible for sexual misconduct and suspended in May, administrators told Mayer that any violations of the no-contact order would have to be adjudicated separately and would not be taken into account for levying a harsher sanction, according to internal documents.
Vassar declined to comment, citing federal privacy law.
Until her assailant’s suspension at the very end of her junior year, “the only protection I had against him was a no-contact order, a piece of paper which he violated as easily as my consent,” Mayer wrote in an essay about her experience. “I did not feel safe, and Vassar did not care.”
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