A Bard College graduate filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education this week, saying she wasn’t permitted to discuss her alleged rape with a school official until she signed an agreement preventing her from discussing the assault.
The woman — who asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity – told BuzzFeed News that as soon as she began telling the school’s Title IX coordinator, Tamara Stafford, about her sexual assault, Stafford interrupted and told her to sign the agreement. Title IX is a federal gender equality law.
The woman said she was raped by an acquaintance on Feb. 8, 2015. The next day, she set an appointment to meet with Stafford. The meeting happened on Feb. 11.
The woman brought a close friend to the meeting and initially asked Stafford to walk her through her options for possibly reporting an incident to the college and to police. At this point, the woman said, the Title IX coordinator only vaguely knew that something had occurred the previous weekend — the woman had not yet disclosed the details of the assault.
The woman, then a senior, consulted privately with her friend and returned to tell Stafford she wanted to report to the school.
She began to tell Stafford about the incident and was about to name the alleged assailant — but Stafford “stopped me,” the woman said. “She said, ‘don’t tell me his name yet.’”
Stafford then had the woman — and her friend who came for emotional support — sign an agreement that, among other things, prohibited them from talking about the assault, the details of the case, and the perpetrator. That included discussions with friends.
“After she read that out loud, I stopped and said, ‘are you saying I’m not allowed to tell anyone?’” the woman told BuzzFeed News.
When the woman “asked if this meant that she could not tell anybody about her assault, Stafford said that [the woman] could tell her personal support system, but that she was prohibited from telling anyone outside of it,” according to the complaint. That also included not posting details about the case online.
If they didn’t comply, both women could could be disciplined — or even expelled.
“I thought it was pretty weird,” but woman said. “But at that point we were pretty trusting of the school.”
A Bard College representative told BuzzFeed News that the institution could not discuss details of the case due to Title IX confidentiality rules, but said that "the claims made against the college in this article are false."
"Bard has acted properly and the contention that anyone was asked to sign any type of 'non-disclosure' agreement is not true," the representative added. "We will, of course, fully comply with the request of the Department of Education as they investigate these claims."
Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Massachusetts, called the school's alleged actions “problematic,” and “an impediment to reporting that universities don’t need.”
“It’s a really disturbing,” Bruno told BuzzFeed News. “Any time a victim comes to you and starts disclosing, you want to do everything you can to encourage that disclosure and encourage even more disclosure.”
“It’s very unfair for the victim to be burdened with that when she might need to talk to an advocate, friends, a lawyer or anyone she needs support from.”
The Department of Education does not take a clear position on the types of non-disclosure agreements the Bard student allegedly had to sign in order to report the assault. Historically, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has said that colleges can’t require gag orders on students who want to disclose the outcome of an investigation.
Sofie Karasek, Director of Education & Co-founder of End Rape on Campus, a national advocacy group, said that she is seeing an increased number of universities using non-disclosure agreements preventing survivors from talking about the case.
“They’re not allowed to talk about what happened – often with no expiration date. Some feel like they’re not able to warn their friends that this guy was a predator,” she told BuzzFeed News.
The former Bard student said she felt pressure to not talk about what happened. Even when friends who knew about the rape asked her how she was doing, the woman told BuzzFeed News she was reluctant to answer because she didn’t want the university to know she was discussing the case.
On February 26, the woman visited the college’s health services center to get pregnancy and STD tests. While waiting to see a nurse, the woman filled out the necessary forms, including one about her sexual history. In the questionnaire, she noted that she had non-consensual sex.
The nurse asked her about it, she said, and the woman told her she was pursuing a university investigation but had not yet decided whether or not to report the incident to police.
”The nurse insisted that if [the woman] was still considering going to the police, then the health services could not test her, because it would risk tampering with evidence collection,” the complaint said.
She said the nurse told her that if she reported to police they would require her get a rape kit – which is not true, according to Bruno, adding, “That type of information should never come from a health center.”
Also, the woman said, “at this point, it’s been almost three weeks — there’s not much evidence to be collected.”
The woman said she asked the nurse if she could at least “pee in a cup” for a routine pregnancy and STDs test. The nurse refused, telling her to go home and think about what she wanted to do.
The woman told Stafford about this interaction, and one week later, the nurse called the woman telling her to come back to the health center for a pregnancy and STDs test — “on the condition that [she] verbally give up her right to a rape kit,” according to the complaint.
Ultimately, the university found the man responsible for “non-consensual sexual intercourse.”
The school’s policy on sexual assault said that the minimum sanction for rape is immediate suspension for two semesters. The minimum sanction for a student responsible for sexual assault is suspension for one semester.
Despite the policy, the man was instead put on “social probation” — which the student handbook describes as “an official warning” requiring him to meet with an administrator once a week for the remainder of the semester to talk about “effective consent,” according to the complaint.
Distraught by the assault the outcome of the school’s investigation, the woman overdosed. When Dutchess County police officers arrived to her home, an officer found the school’s case verdict letter on her desk. Over the next few days, the officer told the woman that she could still report the rape to the police.
Once the woman recovered, she talked with police – who disputed the health center’s claim that she would be required to do a rape test – and filed an official report. Within a week, Sam Ketchum was arrested and charged with third-degree rape – a felony. Ketchum pleaded not guilty and was released on bail, according to NBC New York.
“The police were really nice,” the woman said, adding she was impressed with how quick their investigation was. “I know that’s not the experience for everyone, but they were really nice and comforting to me. I’m so glad I went to the police and wish I had done that from day one.”
The woman said that even though school officials told her reporting to the police is an options, she felt discouraged from doing so.
In her first meeting with Stafford, the woman said she was told that the criminal reporting process can be “re-traumatizing” and “very scary” for survivors.
Additionally, after the incident at the health center, the woman said in the complaint that she called her victims advocate – a school counselor – who advised her that her case “probably wouldn’t go very far with the police.”
After the man’s arrest, the woman said rumors started spreading around campus whether her claims were legitimate and people started speculating whether she had been raped.
“I really wanted to defend myself, tell people the truth, but I was nervous” because of the non-disclosure agreement, she said. “It was right before graduation and I was worried something would go wrong.”
Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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