She was 18, a freshman, and had been on campus just two weeks when one Saturday night in September her friends grew worried because she had been drinking and suddenly disappeared. Around midnight, the missing girl texted a friend, saying she was frightened by a student she had met that evening. "Idk what to do," she wrote. "I'm scared." When she did not answer a call, the friend began searching for her.
In the early-morning hours on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., the friend said, he found her — bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching.
The student said she could not recall the pool table encounter, but did remember being raped earlier in a fraternity-house bedroom.
The football player at the pool table had also been at the fraternity house — in both places with his pants down — but denied raping her, saying he was too tired after a football game to get an erection. Two other players, also accused of sexually assaulting the woman, denied the charge as well. Even so, tests later found sperm or semen in her vagina, in her rectum and on her underwear.
It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players.
A New York Times examination of the case, based in part on hundreds of pages of disciplinary proceedings — usually confidential under federal privacy laws — offers a rare look inside one school's adjudication of a rape complaint amid a national debate about sexual assaults on campuses.
Whatever precisely happened that September night, the internal records, along with interviews with students, sexual-assault experts and college officials, depict a school ill prepared to evaluate an allegation so serious that, if proved in a court of law, would be a felony, with a likely prison sentence.
At a time of great emotional turmoil, students who say they were assaulted must make a choice: Seek help from their school, turn to the criminal justice system, or remain silent. The great majority choose their school, because of the expectation of anonymity and the belief that administrators will offer the sort of support the police will not.
Yet many students come to regret that decision. The woman at Hobart and William Smith is no exception. With no advocate to speak up for her at the disciplinary hearing, panelists interrupted her answers and misrepresented evidence. The hearing proceeded before her rape-kit results were known, and the medical records indicating trauma were not shown to two of the three panel members.
One panelist did not appear to know what a rape exam entails or why it might be unpleasant. Another asked whether the football player's penis had been "inside of you" or had he been "having sex with you." And when the football player violated an order not to contact the accuser, administrators took five months to find him responsible, then declined to tell her if he had been punished.
Hobart and William Smith officials said they have "no tolerance for sexual assault" and treat all complaints seriously. They said the school's procedures offer students a fair hearing and were followed in this case. But they cited privacy laws in declining to answer specific questions.
Yet privacy laws did not stop Hobart and William Smith from disclosing the name of the woman in letters to some students. "I'm surprised they didn't attach my picture," she said.
After that disclosure, the woman agreed to allow the New York Times to use her first name, Anna, as well as her photo.
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It was at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house where sometime between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Sept. 7, Anna attended a party.
Anna and a senior football player she had just met were grinding to the music. When the football player escorted Anna upstairs, a friend tried to stop her, but she went anyway.
Around midnight, a fraternity member opened the door and caught a glimpse of what would become a pivotal episode in Anna's case: The football player was naked, and Anna was sitting on a bed with her top off, covering her breasts. The visitor quickly left.
About the same time, Anna texted to the friend who had tried to intervene earlier with a message about hookups and added, "I'm scared." She texted again, "He won't leave me."
Her friend tried calling, but got no response. Around 1 a.m., he asked another student to check Anna's room. She wasn't there. "We need to find her ASAP," he texted. "She is so drunk."
Around 1:25 a.m., the friend said, he found her in a building called the Barn. She was "bent over the pool table face down with her back towards the wall." She and the football player had their pants down, he said, "and it was clear they were having sex."
Anna "had a scared look on her face," he said, as six or seven people were "looking and laughing."
Soon word spread that something untoward had happened at the Barn. "The girls and I decided we should call campus security," one friend said. "We knew something was really wrong."
At 2:10 a.m., Sgt. Anthony Pluretti arrived. After talking to her, Pluretti called campus paramedics.
The friend who had walked Anna home from the Barn accompanied her to the hospital. As the hours passed, he later told school officials, she talked about what had happened at Kappa Sigma: She was in a room with several boys and girls who left her alone with the football player; three times she refused his request for sex; two other players entered the room, and she was sexually assaulted.
Around 7:30 in the morning, the nurse told Pluretti that she had found "internal abrasions and heavy inflammation" and believed Anna had suffered a forceful sexual assault.
Anna had begun the evening drinking shots of rum mixed into Gatorade. Based on tests at the hospital, her blood-alcohol level at the time of the first sexual encounter would have been about twice what is considered legally drunk.
• • •
After a few hours of sleep, Anna gave a statement to the Campus Safety Office. Other students provided statements, including the three football players. Now it was the school's responsibility under federal law to evaluate the allegations and, if necessary, hold a hearing.
At 3:14 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, a three-member panel convened behind closed doors to begin adjudicating Anna's complaint. Such hearings are usually confidential. But the Times obtained a transcript.
The hearing bore little resemblance to a court proceeding. The panelists could act pretty much as they wished, including questioning Anna about internal college reports and witness statements she was not shown. The panel acted as prosecutor, judge and jury. All members were supposed to be trained for this delicate assignment. The chairwoman, Sandra Bissell, vice president of human resources, was joined by Brien Ashdown, an assistant professor of psychology, and Lucille Smart, director of the campus bookstore.
According to the federal Education Department, a sexual-assault investigation typically takes around 60 calendar days. Hobart and William Smith did it in a little more than a week. The hearing followed almost immediately. It left little time for the panel to study witness statements. It also left Anna with little time to process events of that night, much less familiarize herself with the statements of others, some of which she had received the day before the hearing.
Anna was questioned first. "It was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through," she said later. "I felt like I was talking to someone who knew nothing of any sort of social interaction; what happens at parties; what happens in sex."
Two of the three panel members did not examine the medical records showing blunt force trauma. Instead, the panel asked what Anna had drunk, who she may have kissed and how she had danced. It was, Anna said, as if admitting you were grinding — a common way of dancing — "means you therefore consent to sex or should be raped."
The three football players then testified. The senior player said Anna had given him a lap dance behind the fraternity bar. Upstairs, he said, she performed oral sex on him for two to three minutes. However, he said, he could not get an erection because he was tired from playing football.
At the Barn, he said, she again pulled his pants down. "My flaccid penis was rubbing up against her vagina," he had told the campus police, adding that he had then realized their conduct "was inappropriate" and pulled up his pants.
The second football player said that while his teammate was in the room, Anna pulled down his pants and gave him oral sex. "I didn't consent," he said. The third player acknowledged being in the fraternity room but said he left before the sexual encounter.
Records show that the first two players had lied to campus officers when initially asked about Anna's allegations. The panel, though, chose not to ask about it.
Several hours after the last witness, the panel announced its decision, clearing all three athletes.
• • •
While the school explained to Anna that talking to the police was an option, she said, she decided against it after a school administrator said it would be a drawn-out process. When she changed her mind six months later, the district attorney said he had "virtually nothing to work with" and quickly closed the case.
Disappointment is a recurring theme among many students who ask their schools to adjudicate their sexual-assault complaints. One reason for this disappointment is that many college hearing panelists lack even the most basic training, said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has investigated the quality of campus rape investigations.
Looking back, Anna said she knows only too well the price of pursuing her complaint. But against her parents' wishes, Anna plans to return to Hobart and William Smith in the fall. "Someone needs to help survivors there," she said.