GUEST EDITORIAL: Vanderbilt Chose Not to Expel My Rapist
After finding my perpetrator responsible for “nonconsensual sexual penetration,” the most severe violation of Vanderbilt’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, he was not expelled.
January 17, 2022
Editor’s note: This piece contains mentions of sexual assault. The Hustler has elected to publish this story without the author’s full name to ensure her personal and professional protection while bringing an important story to our readers that would not otherwise be possible.
Author’s note: In this piece I refer to my perpetrator as “R” for Respondent, which is what he has been referred to throughout the Title IX process.
I am writing this piece to raise awareness of the hurdles I faced in the Title IX process. My goal is to urge change and improvement to Vanderbilt’s Title IX process, hopefully encouraging more survivors to report. The inherent shame around sexual assault prevents systemic problems from coming into the light and being addressed. It’s something nobody wants to talk about, which further perpetuates assaults and subsequent hesitancy to report. I hope my story can help future survivors. I love our school and want to help make it better.
On a Saturday in March 2021, I was raped by a Vanderbilt student who was a complete stranger to me. More than eight months after filing a Formal Complaint, I received the final determination of my Title IX hearing, despite an intended 90 business day process from start to finish. He was found responsible for “nonconsensual sexual penetration.”
Yet despite the process finding him responsible for the most serious violation of Vanderbilt’s policy, and with the knowledge that I allegedly was not his first rape victim, he was not expelled.
During the early evening, after drinking too much, my friends and I headed to the bars. The next thing I remember is being driven to Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to get a rape kit later that night. The rest of my understanding of this night has unfolded through a series of interviews conducted by the Title IX investigator. It’s painful to read about the events surrounding my assault: from my friends scrambling to find me, witnesses who interacted with us and my perpetrator’s own story, built to defend himself.
I first met R at a bar downtown. During our short time at the bar together, witnesses reported my rising level of intoxication and increasing confusion. One friend says I introduced R to her as a friend from home who was supposed to visit me the next day. Through the interviews, I learned that I was so confused and cognitively impaired that I repeatedly referred to R by this trusted friend’s name, when the reality was that I had no idea who R was. Even more disturbing is the fact that after repeatedly calling R the wrong name to his face, he took advantage of my confusion and incapacitation to assault me.
When my friends left to go to the bathroom, they returned to the bar to find that I had left with R. They began to panic. While R and I were in an Uber back to my dorm, I stopped responding to calls. My extremely concerned friends were able to get R’s number from a mutual friend and began calling him directly. During the Uber ride, two individuals successfully made contact with R to convey the same message, one of them explicitly remembers telling him “Fran is so intoxicated, and you’re not telling her that you are not this person. When you guys get home, you need to drop her off at her dorm. Don’t go into her room. She doesn’t need that. She’s got friends who will meet her and help her. And do not have sex with her.”
This was only minutes before he raped me.
The calls continued the entire time R was in my dorm, totaling 40 phone calls and FaceTimes between both of our phones. A photo I took in my bathroom shows me from the shoulders up. I am naked, my face is red and distorted and it is clear that I am sobbing. According to R’s statements, sexual activity occurred just before I went into the bathroom and again when I came out.
Almost immediately after the assault, R left my room. I called my sister, crying hysterically and told her verbatim “I was just raped and I don’t know by who.” She added my mom to the call, where I apologized for calling her “in the middle of the night,” even though it wasn’t even 9 p.m. I told my mom and sister “I have no idea who he is.” This call was among my mom’s worst nightmares.
We decided I should go to the emergency room to get a rape kit.
One of my friends came to my room to help me get ready to go to the hospital. She watched me cry while I put on sweatshirt after sweatshirt, sweatpants after sweatpants, changing my clothes over and over in hopes that the feelings of violation my body carried might go away with each new set of clothes I put on. It didn’t.
I spent nine hours in the hospital that night. I had to take my clothes off to be examined, had uncomfortable photos taken of me, multiple swabs of various parts of my body, received shots in my buttocks that hurt for days and was given many medicines for various STDs. I was advised to take two HIV prevention medications for 30 days, which caused debilitating side effects on top of everything else.
I was told my dorm was a crime scene; my body was the evidence.
This horrific night was just the beginning of the nightmare that would become my life for the next nine months. My mom flew out the next morning to be in Nashville with me while my dad stayed at home with my three brothers and had to tell them what had happened. In the days following the incident, I barely ate or slept. I relied heavily on the resources, support and advocacy provided by Project Safe. I don’t know how I would have made it through these early days without them. I began to struggle with my mental health and spent the rest of the semester bouncing between Nashville and North Carolina where I attended therapy and leaned on my family for support.
At school, I wasn’t able to sleep in my dorm room by myself; I either had a friend stay with me or stayed in a friend’s room every night. The crime scene was not conducive to sleeping, studying or healing. I switched rooms three weeks before the spring semester ended. Although I could now stay in my room alone, I continued to struggle with nightmares, panic attacks and other symptoms of PTSD and still have days where getting out of bed is the most I can manage.
My education, the whole reason I am at Vanderbilt, is no longer my top priority. I’ve withdrawn from classes and taken incompletes in others. I am no longer going to graduate on time. I have spent hours almost every day attending meetings and interviews, making phone calls and writing Title IX emails, not allowing me to focus on school or on healing.
In the weeks following the assault, my friends described me as “a ghost,” a “shell of a person.” I became uncomfortable around alcohol and large groups of people and began avoiding many social situations. My relationships with those closest to me became strained as we each struggled to process this trauma in our own ways.
Word spread around campus almost overnight about what had happened. While I was thankful for the kindness and support shown by others, this did not take away from how violating it was to know that my classmates and peers, people I barely knew, were talking about the most traumatizing event of my life.
Title IX Process: Spring & Summer
The day after the incident, as a result of my hospital visit, Vanderbilt sent out an email notifying all students that a sexual assault had occurred on campus the night prior. In the days following the incident, I was told R had hired an entire legal team including private investigators. Still in shock, I, on the other hand, had not even processed everything that had happened and didn’t file a Formal Complaint with Title IX until several days later. This was the start of the nearly yearlong process to hold my perpetrator accountable.
In the next few months, the Vanderbilt Title IX investigator assigned to my case conducted interviews of myself, R and witnesses he deemed relevant.
Given that I really did not want to go to school with my rapist and realized the Title IX process would not be complete by the start of the Fall 2021 semester, I decided to accept R’s request to attempt an Informal Resolution in June. Recently added to Vanderbilt’s policy as an option under new Title IX regulations, Informal Resolution provides the Complainant and Respondent the opportunity to come to a compromise on what they would accept as a resolution in order to avoid the time and trauma involved in a Formal Hearing.
The Title IX office did not provide me with any details about what to expect beyond saying it would be a daylong “facilitated dialogue” that would take place on Zoom. I was also informed it would be a month before the Informal Resolution could take place and the formal process would be put on hold during this time, resulting in a month of inactivity in my case. I requested to share what my non-negotiables would be ahead of time so as to not delay the formal process if there was no chance of coming to an agreement. These included voluntary withdrawal from Vanderbilt, a note in his Code of Conduct and mandatory therapy. My request to share this information in advance was denied.
Although I am prohibited from sharing details of what took place in the Informal Resolution, we were unable to come to an agreement and I withdrew from the process, with the Formal Investigation resuming the next day. Under its current structure, I would not recommend the stressful, unproductive and upsetting Informal Resolution process to any victim of a serious violation.
Vanderbilt should not allow the discussion of criminal charges to be part of any Informal Resolution agreement. Additionally, the process needs to be improved so parties are not left staring at blank Zoom screens for hours with no communication. I regret that I wasted four weeks waiting for a day that did not have a chance of working.
As the start of the Fall 2021 semester quickly approached, the Formal Investigation had resumed, but I had received no updates from Title IX regarding progress in my case. I debated returning to school, not wanting to encounter R but also yearning to return to some sense of normalcy. My parents debated their willingness to pay tuition given the circumstances. After reaching out to Title IX multiple times, I was informed that R was not only enrolled in one of my classes, but would also likely be living in the same building that I was planning to live in, although they could not tell me for sure. After expressing my concern about being in the same class and dorm as my rapist, the Title IX office’s solution was to have me switch classes as well as change dorms, isolating me from my entire support system. Yet again, the system had placed the burden on me.
Finally, with less than two weeks before the start of classes, the Title IX office started making progress in my case and I finally received answers to my questions. I was given a timeline with an estimated date for the release of the Preliminary Report. I was finally given a copy of my interview transcript, which had been conducted months prior, to review for accuracy. I was also told R would not be on campus in the fall, resulting in my decision to return.
Title IX Process: Fall
On the Friday after the first full week of classes, I received the Preliminary Investigative Report for my case. The report was over 1,000 pages. This was the first time I learned many details of my assault and was forced to relive much of the trauma.
Upon receiving the Preliminary Report, I was given only 10 calendar days to submit a maximum 10 page (double spaced) response. All of my witnesses who had been contacted agreed to participate in the process, which was amazing. However, I was shocked to find that many of the witnesses that I suggested the investigator talk to were never interviewed. I then had to fight for these witnesses to be interviewed, not knowing at the time that several would become key witnesses. It is so upsetting to think how different the outcome could’ve been if I hadn’t fought to prove these witnesses were relevant.
Because participation in the Title IX process is optional, all but two of R’s witnesses simply declined to participate, with only one providing any relevant information. Despite confirming certain calls and texts, R did not share any of his phone records from that day. It became clear how nearly impossible it would be to continue navigating the system on my own.
At this time, now more than five months after the assault and having just received the 1,000+ page report, my family made the decision to hire a private Title IX attorney. R had been utilizing private counsel since the beginning of the process, while I had relied on the advisor Vanderbilt was required to provide free of charge. While the advisor answered questions I had about the Title IX process, she was not actively engaged in the details and review of my case or documents, leaving the majority of the work to be done by me and my family. Additionally, because Vanderbilt is the one paying these advisors, I wondered if there was a limit to the amount of time she could spend on my case. I truly believe that if I had not been fortunate enough to afford a private attorney of the same caliber as R’s (both Harvard Law School graduates), it is unlikely he would have been found responsible. It is now clear to me that the system in place favors those who can afford private attorneys.
After the submission of my response to the Preliminary Report, it was back to waiting. On Oct. 5, I received the Final Investigative Report. Once again, I was given only 10 days to submit a response to this report, again over a thousand pages. On Oct. 11, our pre-hearing conference took place. This was also the last day to submit our witness lists of who we would like to be present at the hearing. At this time, I learned through my peers of another student who also said she had been raped by R. Although she did not want to pursue the Title IX process on her own, she asked to be added to my witness list in hopes of strengthening my case and proving that this was a pattern of behavior. I submitted my new witness list along with a statement she wrote summarizing her incident. Two days later, I was notified that, due to the nature of my new witness, my hearing was going to be postponed for four more weeks.
As other students scrambled to finish up assignments the week before Thanksgiving, I was preparing for my hearing, wishing I could be stressing about school like all my classmates. I spent the Sunday before my hearing prepping with my advisor. We made a plan to put sticky notes over R’s picture on Zoom so I wouldn’t have to look at him. On Monday morning, R and I were questioned by the adjudicator as well as cross-examined by each other’s advisors. Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday, witnesses were questioned and cross-examined.
During the cross-examination, I was pounded with questions by R’s attorney that felt like they were meant to invalidate me. I was asked hypothetical questions I assume were meant to avoid the Rape Shield Law, which prevents victims from being questioned about their sexual history. I was asked about things they knew I couldn’t remember. No, I don’t remember saying no; I don’t remember him restricting my ability to move from my room or bed; I don’t remember receiving all those phone calls; I don’t remember crying. No, I do not frequently drink this much alcohol. Yes, I appear to be walking up the stairs to my room unassisted based on a several second clip.
On Dec. 3, over eight months after the incident, I received the final hearing determination.
R was found responsible for “nonconsensual sexual penetration.”
The disciplinary sanction: suspension until the last day of the Spring 2024 semester.
These two findings alone were enough to spark a range of emotions. I was so relieved that he had been found responsible. On the other hand, it was infuriating that Vanderbilt would allow a rapist to return to campus after my intended graduation date. It was as if they believed I was part of the problem and that when I left campus he would no longer be a threat. Nevermind the fact that I had never interacted with him prior to the incident, that it could have been anyone that day, that it could be anyone when he returns to campus in two years. The suspension will be wiped from his academic record when his suspension period is complete.
While the experience of being raped will follow me forever, Vanderbilt is allowing R to erase any trace of his wrongdoings from his academic record after just over two years.
As I spent more time combing through the 37-page determination report and 500-page appendix, it became clear that the disciplinary sanction was not the only miscarriage of justice.
One of the final sentences of the report reads, “While Respondent’s severe level of intoxication does not excuse his misconduct under the Policy, I find it does mitigate my view of the severity of his conduct because the evidence does not establish malintent or an intentional disregard of Complainant’s lack of consent.”
It is quite literally written into Vanderbilt’s Sexual Misconduct Policy that “the intoxication of a respondent does not excuse the failure to obtain effective consent,” yet here was the adjudicator claiming that the severity of R’s conduct was somehow lessened due to the fact that he had been consuming alcohol. Beyond reducing culpability because R claimed to be intoxicated that day, this statement implies that an individual can “accidentally” rape someone.
While this is egregious in any context, it is especially infuriating that multiple individuals had notified R that I was severely intoxicated, did not know who he was and was unable to consent. Here, it is also critical to note that any evidence provided to establish that R was intoxicated apart from his own claims was next to none. A witness account from R’s close friend who had been with him both prior to and immediately after the incident testified that R had not been severely intoxicated, a finding that can be logically corroborated by the fact that R attended several parties after leaving my room and stayed out partying for more than five hours after raping me.
Although the adjudicator was willing to take R’s word that he was drunk and utilize this information to lessen his culpability, the entirety of my Title IX process revolved around me trying to prove that I was too drunk to consent. While my lack of memory was used against me, R’s selective lack of memory seemed to benefit him.
When I finished reading through the report, it was unsettling to realize that the other woman (Student X) who had come forward had not been mentioned. I reread and found her name buried in the footnotes. I still cannot comprehend that a second victim came forward, shared her story and was reduced to a footnote in my case. The adjudicator’s reasoning was that “the conduct alleged by [Student X] is not significantly similar to the conduct alleged in this matter, and therefore I conclude that it is not relevant pattern evidence.” This claim was made despite all of the ways in which her description of her assault mirrored my own. She says it was her first and only sexual encounter with R, she was incapacitated, there was no consent and he did not discuss or use protection. The adjudicator also failed to acknowledge the fact that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by a small number of repeat rapists.
The reasoning then goes on to claim that Student X’s account is unreliable. The adjudicator had concerns about the credibility of Student X after reviewing R’s response to her interview. His response included many photographs from the night in question as well as screenshots showing text messages between R and Student X discussing schoolwork in months that followed.
Repression and continued interaction are hallmark responses to sexual assault, not evidence that can be used to prove it wasn’t assault at all. R had every reason to lie, while Student X had every reason to tell the truth. I was a stranger to her; he had been her friend.
Title IX Process: Ongoing
I am currently in the process of appealing the severity of the sanction. By the time the appeal process concludes, it is likely that close to a year will have passed since the incident.
While my assault and the Title IX process have been traumatic, both for me and those in my closest support system, in many ways I am lucky: I had the courage to report; I have parents who not only believed me but were also willing to put all of their time into supporting me until I had some kind of justice; I have a strong support system of friends who helped me feel comfortable returning to campus; I had teachers who were accommodating and understanding; I was able to afford a private Title IX attorney who proved to be invaluable in navigating the Title IX system; I had witnesses who had been with me before and after the incident that were willing to undergo investigation, testimony and cross-examination.
Most importantly, my perpetrator was ultimately found responsible for what he has done. Most survivors are not afforded these advantages. While I stand behind my decision to report, I now understand why so many students choose not to.
Request for Action
Vanderbilt, this is your call to action. Expel all students found responsible for nonconsensual sexual penetration. Always consider pattern evidence relevant. Conduct the Title IX process within the intended 90 day window. Increase funding for both Title IX and Project Safe. Train your Title IX staff on trauma sensitivity and gender violence. Be proactive in providing more supportive measures and accommodations, especially to survivors. Protect your students who have been assaulted, not your students who are the assaulters.
Your website reads “the University prohibits and seeks to eliminate all forms of sexual misconduct. Such conduct is contrary to Vanderbilt’s values and is not tolerated,” to which I say: prove it. Because right now, I certainly don’t believe you.
Editor’s Note: A representative from Vanderbilt’s Title IX office said the office cannot confirm or discuss the specifics of individual cases due to privacy laws. However, Title IX did comment on procedural elements mentioned in this piece, stating that federal Title IX regulations prohibit an informal resolution process from happening concurrently with a formal investigation. They added that if parties involved in a Title IX matter are concerned about being in the same class or living in the same residential building, there are supportive measures they may request that are coordinated by the Title IX office. Additionally, the office stated they carefully investigate every filed complaint and do not tolerate sexual assault.