BOSTON — Amid increasing scrutiny nationwide of college administrators’ response to sexual assault cases, a former Williams College student and her parents have accused leaders at that college of mishandling her assault case.
Lexie Brackenridge, and her parents, Heidi and Alec Brackenridge, of Boston, also oppose the expected return to campus this fall of the alleged assailant.
(WBUR policy does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission. In this case, both the woman and her parents agreed to be publicly identified.)
Lexie says the assault happened during her first semester at the private four-year institution in the Berkshires, during a party where alcohol was served.
“In October of 2012, I was sexually assaulted by a member of the men’s hockey team on campus at Williams,” Lexie says.
Lexie says she went to her alleged assailant’s room, and at that point realized how drunk and drugged he seemed to be. She does not want to discuss further details, because, she says, she does not want to re-victimize herself.
The next day, Lexie’s mother picked her up and drove her home to Wayland, where the family lived at the time. Lexie received medical attention. Her parents consulted an attorney. He advised against pressing charges, warning them that a trial would take two years and take their daughter out of college.
After a couple of weeks, Lexie returned to Williams. She met with two deans who, she says, persuaded her to file a complaint in the college’s disciplinary system against her alleged assailant. Originally, she says, she had refused.
“And they encouraged me that it would be very confidential,” Lexie says, “and the direct quote from Sarah Bolton, who is a dean at the college, she said that: ‘We want him off campus by tomorrow.’ ”
(WBUR is not naming the alleged assailant because no criminal charges were filed.)
When interviewed last week by WBUR in her office at Williams, Bolton said the college was unable to comment on the specifics of the case.
Lexie filed a complaint. The dean investigated. But Lexie was frustrated that she was not able to read what witnesses had said. She was also frustrated with the number of witnesses: 30, she says. Word got out that she was accusing a popular hockey player of raping her, and students — even some she had thought were her friends — started to turn against her.
Like other college officials, Bolton is in a tough spot. She can’t talk about the specifics of any case. But she can talk about how the college investigates reports of sexual assaults. And it does involve gathering information from as many witnesses as possible.
Bolton admits that it’s hard to maintain confidentiality at a small college.
“Often, the students know one another really well. They’re parts of the same social circles,” Bolton says. “And in a small community, the social pressures that build around that, and the way that pushes against reporting are things that we’re really concerned with.”
As word leaked out on campus about Lexie’s accusation, some of the witnesses changed their stories — among them, a friend of Lexie’s who started to date one of the hockey players. Lexie says the hockey player who assaulted her and a teammate concocted a false alibi, proved wrong by their ID card swipe records. Lexie says she received a letter from Bolton informing her that the two men had created a false story.
“And that’s why the dean of the college, that was one of the reasons that she was finding him guilty, but the boy who lied with him was never punished,” Lexie says.
The student Lexie says lied to help her alleged assailant concoct an alibi did not respond to a request for comment.
In an exchange on Facebook, the man Lexie accused of sexually assaulting her initially asked why WBUR wanted to talk to him. Informed that the Brackenridges are opposing his return, and that it was important to get his side of the story, he did not respond. That day, he deleted his Facebook page.
In 2012, Bolton was the chief judicial officer in sexual misconduct cases. She would look at the testimony and other evidence, such as patterns of students moving in and out of buildings. She would then decide whether it was more likely than not that the accused student violated the code of conduct, and if so, how. Then she would decide what the appropriate sanction would be.
Bolton found the alleged assailant had violated the code of conduct, and suspended him for three semesters.
“In our old process, both parties have a right of appeal, and they could appeal, under that old process, for any reason, whether they felt that I’d found the facts incorrectly or just simply that the sanction was inappropriate,” Bolton says.
The student appealed to a committee of four students and four members of the faculty, “who would reassess the evidence and decide whether there had been a violation of the code of conduct, and then redetermine what an appropriate sanction would be,” Bolton says.
The disciplinary committee confirmed Bolton’s initial decision in the case.
“My rapist was suspended for three semesters after being found guilty of sexual assault,” Lexie says. She remembers sitting in an office with the dean who had been assigned to her. She asked why her alleged assailant was suspended and not expelled.
“As they said, an expulsion would ruin their life, and they weren’t looking to do that, never mind that my life had been openly ruined by this man,” Lexie says.
Williams College estimates based on a 2011 survey that 50 sexual assaults occur on campus every year. According to the college’s website, the year Lexie reported she was sexually assaulted, she was one of six people; one took legal action; three, including Lexie, pursued disciplinary action; one student was suspended for two semesters; the other student who had been suspended for three semesters appealed, and was expelled.
Lexie says it became clear to her that as long as she was at Williams, it would be hard for her to focus on her academics because of the way she says some of the members of the hockey team kept harassing her.
“And one of the main occurrences, when it really, I would say, hit its peak was when they surrounded me and started throwing beer cans at my head and screamed that I should have kept my mouth shut,” Lexie says. She says the beer cans were full. She says the witnesses were the hockey team and one woman who a week after the incident started dating a hockey player. Neither the woman nor the hockey players responded to requests for comment.
The next morning, Lexie says, she reported the assault to the dean who had been assigned to help her. The college never disciplined the hockey players, Lexie says.
Bolton points out that retaliation is a violation of Williams’ code of conduct.
“We have in place strong policies that forbid people to take revenge on people who have reported,” Bolton says. “But you can have all of those things in place and still, social backlash can happen.”
Lexie says she finally decided to transfer after she found out she and a friend would be assigned housing with the hockey team her sophomore year. She is finishing her sophomore year at Columbia University, in New York.
Again, Bolton says she cannot discuss the specifics of the case, but says the college does make housing accommodations for a student who experiences an assault.
Lexie did not seem to get that message.
“And I think that the way in which the Williams administration handled it, it made it exceedingly clear that I was not welcome on that campus and that I was essentially being used as an example of why people should not come forward on that campus,” Lexie says.
Lexie says three Williams women have told her that after seeing how she was treated, they decided not to report sexual assaults against them.
Last fall, during his suspension, the man Lexie says raped her was arrested for possession of marijuana, according to a local news report. He had also been listed on the roster of a hockey team called the MILF Hunters, which Lexie’s parents say demonstrates that he has no remorse about what he did to their daughter.
Bolton says students must abide by the code of conduct even when they are suspended. But minor violations of the code would not prevent a student from coming back.
“There are things that are not permitted in our code of conduct for which we ordinarily have just a warning conversation with a student,” Bolton says. “Underage drinking is an example of that. So are low-level drug violations.”
Heidi Brackenridge, Lexie’s mother, opposes the alleged assailant’s return to Williams this fall, in part because she’s worried he may assault another student.
“My best friend’s daughter will begin as a freshman in the fall, and it appalls me that they would be willing to take that risk, and I don’t understand why they would,” Heidi says.
The Brackenridges say when the alleged assailant was suspended, they never expected him to be allowed back on campus. But Bolton explains that if she tells a student he is suspended for a fixed period of time, he receives a letter saying he is eligible to return in a particular semester. The letter may contain additional requirements.
“You might say you are required to receive alcohol treatment,” Bolton says. “And if they meet those requirements, then they are eligible to return on the date that we specify in the letter.”
Bolton says the college expects that students it finds have violated its code of sexual conduct may come back.
“Certainly students do return to campus following suspensions and reintegrate and succeed,” Bolton says.
By speaking out, Lexie says she intends to protect the next woman and to prevent anyone else from being placed in her position. She also hopes to bring into question a college culture she sees as too protective of athletes.
“On the Williams campus, it should hopefully generate a conversation about this individual case and the fact that a winning team is not worth sexual assault on campus,” Lexie says.
Lexie and her parents believe that a culture of older, experienced hockey players — admitted as freshmen — played a role in her assault. Her alleged assailant was admitted as a 20-year-old after a year in a Canadian league. That same year, the college accepted five other freshmen hockey players, ranging in age from 19 to 22 years old, who had delayed entering college to play hockey.
“So I think that yes, there’s obviously an athletic component that comes into play here, and I think an entire team mentality was also facilitated and created by their coach and also by that team themselves: ‘Hey, this is our teammate. We have to stick by him no matter what.’ ”
The head coach of men’s ice hockey at Williams, Bill Kangas, did not return a request for comment.
Lexie’s parents say Williams seems to have changed since they were students there in the 1980s.
But the college’s new director of sexual assault prevention and response, Meg Bossong, says sexual assault on college campuses is not something new.
“Those experiences were happening for decades, and we’re just talking about it a lot more publicly now,” Bossong says.
Heidi Brackenridge says she felt good when her daughter decided to attend Williams.
“It was a place that we felt safe,” Heidi says. “And it was a place that we trusted. And I can even remember talking about when Lexie was accepted how nice it was to drop her at a place where we thought, ‘Ah, it’s familiar. We know it. We loved it.’ ”
Alec Brackenridge says he and his wife were naive because they believed that their daughter would be protected by the college’s disciplinary process.
“Instead, I feel like the college was protecting themselves and making it possible for the assailant, the guy who raped our daughter, to get back on campus,” Alec says.
This spring, the college changed the way it investigates and adjudicates accusations of sexual assault. Professionals come in from off campus to conduct the investigations. And a panel from the student affairs staff now decides the cases.
Bolton says the changes are meant to instill confidence in victims of sexual assault so that they will file complaints.
“If students don’t believe that we will take these matters seriously, that we will listen to them carefully and support them through the process, then they simply won’t come forward, and we won’t have an opportunity to support them or to address the issues that may be happening,” Bolton says.
The Brackenridges have written to trustees, a former Williams College president, professors and alumni, many of whom are up in arms about the treatment Lexie received.
Williams College trustees and officials, in correspondence obtained by WBUR, indicate it’s unlikely the school will reverse a judicial decision to allow the accused student to return.
Update: Adam Falk, the president of Williams College, has released a statement regarding sexual assault. It reads, in part:
We are confident that throughout our handling of the case in question, we adhered to all of our policies and to all applicable laws, including our policies on the provision of housing for the survivor, and we investigated fully and promptly any allegation of retaliation or harassment. Even in an environment in which there is public discussion of this case, our own legal and ethical commitments of confidentiality make it impossible for Williams to address the particulars in any detail.