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BU mishandles rape cases
by Dan Feder
Email: dan (nospam) thestudentudnerground.org
20 Jan 2002
The Student Underground investigates how one survivor became a victim not only to sexual abuse, but to BU's allegedly sexist judicial policies. The case is currently being investigated by the Department of Education. Is it an isolated incident or part of a pattern?
She knew something was wrong. She didn?t remember everything from the previous night. She didn?t remember flirting with him, not in the way she would later be accused. She did remember saying no. And the faces of those she thought of as friends, looking on as he took her to his room; drunken, she didn?t resist. And she knew that physically, she was still in pain.
She would see him in the halls of her dorm. One day he approached her, awkwardly tried to talk to her.
"You don?t think I umm?" she remembers him saying. "You don?t think I? you don?t think I took advantage of you, do you?" He wanted to know if she had talked about it, if anyone knew.
"I freaked out," she told me. "I said, get away, I?m not talking to you!"
Kristin Roslonski was telling me her story as we sat together in the Tufts University Student Center. Kristin transferred to Tufts this fall, where she now leads the quiet life of a hardworking college sophomore. Few here at Tufts know of her legal struggle against the administration of her old school. Back at BU, her name, often her photo as well, have appeared daily on the front page of the student newspaper ever since she went public with her story.
A small crowd was lingering outside when I arrived at the Student Center. I almost didn?t recognize her. We?d only met once before. I was late, and she was laughing quietly, talking to a friend. From the militant scowl she seems to wear in every newspaper photo, you wouldn?t know Kristin laughs all the time. Laughter is the only way she can deal with what she?s been put through. She laughs because it?s absurd that anyone in her position should be treated as a wrongdoer.
Early in our conversation, she brings up the way administrators have depicted her in the pages of the Daily Free Press, BU?s daily newspaper. They want the public to see Kristen as a "deeply troubled" person, a woman who "needs help," in the words of BU?s attorney, Bob Smith. To Kristen, it?s all a part of a malicious campaign to discredit her personally. Moreover, she believes the administration wants to obscure the real issues brought up by her legal action against the school.
She has filed an official complaint with the Department of Education claiming discrimination on the basis of gender, and has threatened a $1.4 million lawsuit. Based on her story, she has good reason to. After accusing a fellow student with rape, Kristen found herself the subject of a sexual assault investigation by BU. She would ultimately be suspended from school, while the man she accused of raping her would go unpunished.
"If I?m so deeply troubled and I need help, it?s because of the way [the school has] treated me," she says, laughing slightly. I?m not sure if it was desperation of defiance I heard in that laugh. Probably, there was a little of each.
"They?re doing everything they can to make me shrivel up into the corner. I think it pisses them off, what I?m doing. I really think I?ve pinched one of their nerves. They realize that I?m not going to take their shit."
She had told her story once already that day to a new therapist. Her previous therapist had decided a case as complicated as Kristen?s would be too time-consuming. She talks to reporters often, again and again trying to recreate the worst period of her life.
She knew he had taken advantage of her, but she wasn?t sure she had been raped. She hadn?t thought about this kind of thing before. Afraid of getting her friends involved, afraid of upsetting a social circle she was still trying to fit into, only after five days did she work up the courage to go to the BU police.
The detective she first told assured her that what had happened was very serious. Though he believed she had been raped, it was hardly comforting. She had been raped. Now realizing how much she had been changed by what had happened, she was more frightened than ever.
The police collected evidence from the man?s dorm room that she believes corroborates her story. An exam she underwent at Brigham and Women?s hospital showed a "clear sign" of sexual abuse. Months later, BU?s Office of Judicial Affairs would conclude that there was no evidence of rape.
Kristin anticipated problems from her first meeting with the officers back in December 2000. She had just read about Jennifer Smithers, the former BU student who has sued BU for pressuring her not to report or seek treatment for being raped. BU wanted to keep its campus crime statistics low, she alleged. BU offered Smithers a multimillion-dollar settlement on the condition that she never again discuss her charges publicly. She refused.
Kristin wanted assurances that Judicial Affairs was on her side, so she mentioned the Smithers case. "The conversation really turned," she recollects. "They got so defensive. I said, okay, something?s not right here. Of course, I had no clue what would happen, but that kind of gave me the initial sign that maybe I shouldn?t be so trusting of these people."
Kristin filed a temporary restraining order against the accused rapist. He would be moved to Myles Standish dorm, on the other end of campus, BU police told her. Still, every day, passing the people she believes could have prevented the rape in her hall at Claflin upset her. She felt haunted by their faces.
"He?s such cute guy," they told her. "He wouldn?t do that."
"He looks like the ugliest person in the world to me now," she replied.
Kristen asked to be moved, and was placed in an empty two-person South Campus apartment. But the loneliness was almost as bad. "South Campus is scary when you?re a freshman," she said, and her old friends from the dorm seemed like enemies now.
And she would still see him. Usually in the dining hall, sometimes at the gym. Seeing him often brought on intense panic attacks, which she went on antidepressants to control. She reported this to Judicial Affairs, but nobody there seemed concerned.
BU made an appointment for her with the DA, but Kristin had a German test that day. Her lawyer told her she had time, that she didn?t need to rush the legal investigation. So she skipped the appointment.
Kristin decided to move to Bay State Road for the Spring Semester. She packed up her stuff, dragged it out of the gloomy, empty apartment, and went to turn in her key. When she signed the name sheet for the key return, her eyes wandered up the page. There, two names above hers, was the name of her assailant. He had been living in South Campus the whole time, not blocks away in Myles Standish as BUPD had promised her.
Her feeling of betrayal reminded me of my own freshman year. Before winter break, a student moved in to my Bay State Brownstone. We found out later that the student had been accused of raping a woman student on his floor in Warren Towers. Though the woman decided not to press charges, she requested that he be removed from her floor. We had an empty bed in our building, so BU moved him in with us. No one in the house, which was co-ed, would ever have known he?d been accused of sexual assault if it weren?t for happenstance. Living in our dorm was a friend of the woman who accused him.
I called Betsy Rakocy, one of my old housemates from that year, who has since graduated, to ask her what she remembered of the situation. "I was pissed, I was scarred," she said. "He moved into my home. All the girls met together. We didn?t know what to do. We were living with someone who might be very dangerous. It put us in a very difficult place. Girls in the house had had experiences, and this brought a lot of that back for them."
Our RA complained to the housing office, but nothing came of it. I didn?t want to judge him as guilty without knowing the facts, but being near the guy gave me the creeps. It angered everyone that the school would gamble with our safety.
"We felt that the school was acknowledging that there was a truth to the allegations," said Betsy, "but they were putting him in one of the nicest buildings on campus, which was coed. It seemed like a double standard."
When Kristin moved back to campus after Winter break, she tried to settle into a somewhat normal life. Her lawyer was often busy in federal court, but assured her that she didn?t need to worry about meeting with Judicial Affairs. She had given her statement, the evidence was on record, and her life was getting better
In February, Kristin joined a rape survivors? group at BU, led by Judy Pierson, a counselor for the school. That?s where she met Liz Edwards, who lived near her on Bay State Road: another survivor, an active member of the BU Women?s Center, and a good friend of mine. It was Liz who would introduce me to Kristin for the first time later that semester.
I stopped by Liz?s apartment recently to ask her about Kristin. Liz is a tallish woman with light reddish hair, round eyes and a kind smile on her face nearly all the time. Liz, along with the Women?s Center, spent much of last year trying to negotiate a partnership between BU and the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. The idea was to improve the school?s services, which lag significantly behind other universities. They are also indicative, she says, of a general inability to deal intelligently with the problem.
"My RA told us that a girl had been raped in the back ally, here," she says, pointing out the window. "He came around and told us not to bring our trash there. And so I asked him, ?OK, first of all, is this girl OK?? And he says, ?she?s fine.? Obviously, if you?re attacked in the back ally in the middle of the night while you?re taking out your trash, you?re not going to be fine."
"So I asked, ?where are we supposed to bring our trash?? And he said, ?oh, there?s another trash bin behind that bin.? I went over there, and it?s the exact mirror image of my ally. Hmmm? across the street, that?s going to be so much better."
I like listening to Liz talk - she has a soft, sweet, and intelligent voice. But that night, listening to her was difficult. I didn?t know Liz was a rape survivor as well; I had thought she just knew Kristin from living on the same street. It was information I was still processing as she continued her story.
Kristin and Liz bonded quickly. Liz was particularly interested in Kristin?s story because of her own involvement in the Women?s Center?s decade-old project to establish a rape crisis center at BU. She was familiar with the bad reputation BU administrators had for dealing with victims of assault.
But more than that, she knew Kristin needed support. "It?s really hard at first," Liz said, "when you don?t have anyone to talk to. You need people to talk to about this. When this first happened to me, I didn?t realize what was going on in my situation. I thought I was ok. But I attached myself to the first person that talked to me about it.
Liz identified with Kristin?s stories of panic attacks and depression brought on by the mere sight of her assailant. Liz, too, had seen the man who attacked her over Winter break. He approached her as she was on a Stairmaster at the gym, and she "disassociated"; falling off the machine and nearly losing consciousness.
"You don?t understand what?s going on. In your head you?re going crazy. You?re having nightmares. You?re seeing this person when he?s not there. You are living in a completely different world. And to have someone that understands that, it?s so grounding, and it?s so amazing.
"You have to check in. You have to be, like, am I going crazy, or is this just, like part of it, because, it?s like, it?s like I?m crazy?" she stopped herself as she said this, and laughed nervously. We both glanced uncomfortably down at the floor for a moment.
Kristin knew there were problems with the school?s investigation, but her lawyer assured her not to worry about meetings with Judicial Affairs and to just continue with her life. Early in the spring semester, the school told her that they had launched a new sexual assault and alcohol violation investigation against her, at the request of the same man she accused of rape.
But with weekly sessions at the survivors group, personal counseling with Judy Pierson, and a new group of friends like Liz, Kristin was trying to ignore the now disastrous investigation. She had filed applications to transfer to other schools, including Tufts, but now she wasn?t sure she wanted to leave all this behind. One day in April, she decided. She had worked hard to rebuild her life at BU, and would stay.
The next day, the letter came.
They had cc?ed it to her advisor and her family. At home, her sister opened it, thinking it was Kristin?s grades. Instead, she found a letter from Daryl DeLuca, head of the Office of Judicial Affairs, informing Kristin that she was suspended for the remainder of the semester, fined $250 for sexually assaulting another student, and $250 for alcohol violations.
The letter details the events of the night in shocking, humiliating language. Kristin is described "pulling up her top" and "putting on a show for individuals in the hallway," while vulgar language she used while drunk is repeated.
When Kristin?s sister gave the letter to their father, "he just started crying. I mean, he doesn?t cry. Whose father cries? He was hysterical. My mom was hysterical."
The letter made no mention of the rape charges she had filed against him. In fact, during the course of the year, Kristin was never notified of the results of the investigation. According to Security on Campus, Inc., a prominent non-profit organization devoted to campus safety, this was a violation of the Cleary Act. This federal legislation requires universities to, among others provisions, notify both the accused and the accuser of a rape case?s outcome.
When Kristin got the letter, she just started laughing. And couldn?t stop.
"Even though I knew it wasn?t a joke," she said, "I just started laughing like a maniac. I went up on my roof with some friends that night and just started screaming. I felt so helpless."
"You have to deal with it," said Liz,"and for her, that?s laughing at it, because it was ridiculous. Obviously, you can?t rape yourself." Kristin seemed to almost believe she had done something wrong, even though she knew she was right.
Rage consumed Kristin for days. She shredded up every document she could find with the BU logo on it. She burned a copy of DeLuca?s letter, and started making collages in her art class from the documents from her case. And she decided to get a new lawyer.
Towards the end of April, Kristin?s father called the law firm of Corcoran, Fitzgerald & Hennessy, who were representing Jennifer Smithers in her suit against the school. Firm partner Tim Corcoran has gotten used to hearing these complaints against the school. Since taking the highly public Smithers case and now Kristin?s, he says several other students with similar stories to tell have contacted his firm.
"We?re a busy little law firm," said Suzanne Oliver, another attorney at the firm who has worked closely with Kristin. "We?ve got a lot of cases right now. But I think everyone sort of feels this one in their gut."
Suzanne is a young, energetic woman with an obvious New England accent. It was Suzanne that stood with Kristin this November as she faced a panel over the sexual assault charges her. She sees a power dynamic in the school?s handling of the case similar to sexual violence itself.
"It?s a power issue," she said. "They?re trying to humiliate her and make her as powerless as possible. It?s the same power situation that you get in an actual rape.?
Kristin partly blames her previous lawyer, saying he handled the case terribly. On the other hand, she said, "they have my statements in their office. I met with them once. I mean, how many times do I have to sit in a room of men in suits and tell them what had happened to me? That?s not a comfortable experience. They never requested my medical records from Bringham and Women?s hospital, they didn?t look at my counseling records." What kind of investigation was this, where the responsibility of finding evidence all fell on the victim?
Kristin transferred to Tufts in the fall. With the help of Corcoran, Fitzgerald and Hennessy, she filed a complaint with the Department of Education and appealed the letter Daryl DeLuca sent her. Just a few weeks ago, at the end of November, BU held a hearing to settle the appeal. Like her experiences with the administration leading up to it, Kristin described the hearing as hostile and humiliating.
Panel members asked her what she was wearing that night. They asked her about her prior sexual experience. And then, they allowed her to question the man whom she had charged with raping her. She didn?t want to. "They put him in the same room as him. That is nerve, that is real nerve. You don?t want to have to see that person."
But Kristin asked him a few questions, which, she says, he answered tellingly.
"Since you?ve been allegedly sexually assaulted," she says she asked him, "and you feel so hurt by this, have you been to counseling?"
"Would you have brought these charges against me if you didn?t know I was bringing charges against you?"
One hardly knows where to begin naming the problems with this entire case. Kristin was cleared of sexual assault charges after the hearing, but her alcohol violations remained.
How can the university be oblivious to the message this sends? Please, have the courage to come forward and bring about justice if you?ve been raped, but only if you weren?t drinking, only if you weren?t dressed provocatively, only if your own behavior before the incident was beyond reproach.
As far as I could tell, the other students who were drinking with Kristin that night, who testified against her, were never charged for their own obvious alcohol violations. Members of Judicial Affairs had watched a video tape other students had secretly made of Kristin having oral sex with another student, on a night before the one in question. Kristin?s lawyers say the tape is a felony violation of privacy.
The investigation was about Kristin?s character, not what really happened that night. This contrasts sharply with the lack of zeal BU seems to have put into investigating her own accusations; no one asked her assailant to defend his sexual history, no one forced him to face Kristin from the witness stand. Is that discrimination?
I wanted to find out how the members of the BU Women?s Center, the oldest feminist organization on campus, had reacted to all of this, so I went to visit the group?s leaders.
The door to the small South Campus apartment of Jaime Cereti, president of the Women?s Center, and Fahema Rahman, the Vice President, opened to reveal a "Girls kick ass!" bumper sticker just at my eye level. The two were huddled around a computer along with Colden Ray, the treasurer, filling out last minute paperwork, due the next day if the three wanted funding for their organization in the spring.
The group?s work took on a new urgency when Kristin?s case exploded on campus. The Women?s Center?s continual; decade-old quest to establish a rape crisis center on campus came back to the forefront.
"I think it?s definitely become our focus, recently," said Jaime, a small woman with glasses, a ponytail, and an old green t-shirt that reads "I survived Catholic School." "I mean, people want to talk about this. It comes up in every meeting, every discussion. It?s like our September 11th."
It was obvious the women?s center has been talking about this a lot in the past weeks. By the time I spoke to them, Jaime, Fahema and Colden were finishing each other?s sentences on the subject. Despite the gloomy conversation in Fahema and Jaime?s dark, claustrophobia-inducing university apartment, the mood stayed light. Like Kristin, they deal with their most outrageous setbacks by finding the humor in what they see as the absurdity of BU?s position.
Jaime, along with Liz Edwards, has put a lot of work into the rape crisis center project, and seems to have the most to say about the administration. "We?ve talked to the administration so many times about this crap," she says, competing with the other two. All three have a lot to say about this. "They don?t seem to understand that rape is a societal problem. It happens other places, but it happens at BU, too.
"We?ve never tried to say that BU has some inordinate problem, or everyone who comes here gets raped. That?s not what we?re trying to say at all. But that doesn?t negate the fact that people do get raped here. Maybe BU?s not responsible for it per se, but there should be a climate where people knew that it wasn?t tolerated."
Since Kristin went public, the three said, surprising amounts of people have come out of the woodwork with a story to tell. They need a place to feel safe to talk about what happened to them, and about their experiences with the school?s judicial and counseling services.
"There?s a rape survivors group," Fahema said, "but we?re not it. Obviously, any time someone wants to talk about it, we?re more than happy to help them. But none of us are trained counselors, you know? We?re activists."
Overall, the biggest problem the three see with the case is how it has discouraged other students from coming forward if they are raped on campus.
?Who?s going to want to come forward after this?" said Fahema.
"I?m constantly reading that a woman?s movement is not really needed anymore," said Colden, "because women have progressed so much. Yet there are cases like this, in the US, at our college, constantly. And who the hell is going to do something about it if there isn?t some sort of feminist activity? I think it?s needed more and more."
Kristin says she?s made up her mind to see the case through, to make sure something changes at BU. She?s so determined, she said, because "I have this gut feeling that something good is going to come of this."
It?s hard to know what will come of it in the end. Lawyers for Kristin and the school both seem confident that they will win. But if the past is any guide, BU will probably try to settle out of court. Whether Kristin accepts it or not, either option will be regrettable and sad. Settling will mean that once again BU will have used its money and power to avoid taking responsibility for a serious problem. Going to court will certainly be a sickening and traumatic experience for Kristin and her family.
Kristin tells a powerful story. It?s possible that I?ve been suckered into believing it, as I?m sure Bob Smith will say after reading this. But I really doubt it. Kristin told me that she would get bad news from the school just when she was settling down, just when things were going all right. I always find out about these types of cases just when I?ve personally come to terms with the administration of this school, just when I?ve decided to stop protesting and focus on the positive things at BU. Something like this always comes along, to remind us all of the cruelty, sexism, arrogance, stubbornness in the most powerful offices of the BU "community."