VCU’s tenuous claim to Title IX transparency

Illustration by Miranda Leung.

Sarah King
News Editor

Two complaints were filed to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights regarding the compliance and proceedings of VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity in Title IX investigations last year, and although nearly half a year has passed since the federal review concluded, the reverberating impact of the university’s actions have not entirely dissipated.

Graduate business student Antoinette Moore and an employee of the university each filed OCR complaints in September and December 2013 respectively. Their allegations were compiled into one OCR investigation of university Title IX compliance practices, and Michael Rao, president of VCU, signed the OCR resolution agreement mandating changes on April 23, a week before the OCR’s May 1 publication of schools under federal review for mishandling sexual assault cases.

“I will say it over and over,” said the second complainant, a VCU employee and ’08 alumna who asked to remain anonymous. “What I went through with the university was worse than anything my assailant did to me because these are the people who are supposed to help and care. Encountering their indifference really compounded the trauma of being assaulted,” she stated as she concluded her description of the eleven-month-long process she endured by contributing to a university sexual misconduct and harassment investigation.

The case involved a tenured faculty member who the employee stated raped her on her penultimate day of work for the university before she left the state for graduate school. Upon her return to campus as a full-time employee after grad school, he exhibited retaliatory behaviors that eventually warranted the services of VCU’s threat assessment team, a specific safety plan, and the Richmond and VCU police departments.

“While Ms. Moore and (the second complainaint) have the right to make statements or complaints about VCU to the media, the university is not at liberty to discuss cases involving confidential student, employee or investigative records,” stated senior director of University Public Affairs Anne Buckley.

Comment from threat assessment and VCUPD were referred to university public affairs. This Friday the employee will present her perspective regarding her experience with the OIE throughout the last year to the new Title IX leadership team following her request for this meeting to the Board of Visitors in August.

“Rape is a reality. The overtones of our compliance efforts cannot continue to perpetuate the same silence, suppression, and fear that people who report sexual assault have already endured,” the employee stated in an email to board member Bob Holsworth on Aug. 8, four days after Rao emailed the campus announcing university initiatives to strengthen compliance efforts.

“Instead, we can be among the first universities to abandon the archaic, counterproductive, and harmful attitudes toward sexual misconduct,” continued the employee in her email to Holsworth.

She said her intent in contacting Holsworth was to alert the BOV to the problems with the Title IX leadership at the university. A few weeks prior to reaching out to the BOV, the employee learned third-hand that the faculty member was allowed to resign in July following the two OIE investigations she had participated in.

Wanda Mitchell, Ph.D., the Deputy Title IX coordinator at the time of the employee’s participation in the OIE investigative process, said the Division of Inclusive Excellence has 60 days to complete investigations of sexual misconduct cases in a statement to the Commonwealth Times last February. In contrast, the employee said her experience spanned nearly eleven months.

In light of her contact with Holsworth, William Ginther, the university rector, sent her a letter on Sept. 4 stating that the manner in which her case was handled is the immediate focus of attention and concern by the new university legal counsel, who began at VCU on July 1.

“Rest assured that the Board will remain engaged with these issues and will demand accountability as the university implements changes to its Title IX program,” Ginther stated in his letter.

Among numerous other grievances cited in her complaint to the OCR in November, the employee stated that the OIE subjected her to a process she was not completely comfortable engaging in because she was fearful of retribution and didn’t want to participate in a way that might potentially compromise her safety.

Once part of the OIE’s investigation, however, the leadership failed to proceed in a way that she felt acknowledged these concerns, ultimately causing her physical and emotional consequences due to the university’s “lack of timeliness, structure, and transparency in conducting this investigation.”

The employee emphasized that she did not bring her assailant to the attention of VCU administration because of the sexual assaults she endured years prior, but because she was concerned that others were also at risk to his behavior. She stated in her OCR complaint that she learned second-hand on Sept. 5 that the decision to hand over the situation from threat assessment to OIE was made on Aug. 19, two weeks prior to her even learning of the office’s existence.

Her OCR complaint also drew specific attention to the practices of Dolores Carrington-Hill, J.D., the Title IX investigator originally assigned to the case.

“Ms. Carrington-Hill’s interview tactics seemed much more in line with what I would expect from a defense attorney rather than a neutral fact-finder,” she stated on page 14 of her complaint in reference to her initial interview in a witness capacity to the case on Sept. 25.

Furthermore, the employee’s statement to OCR said despite confirming that the employee would not have to reiterate traumatizing experiences during their interview if she provided a written account, when they actually met Carrington-Hill would not accept a written statement as sufficient and had the employee verbally recount her experiences.

“Recounting these experiences is physically and emotionally draining. It requires me to reoccupy and revisit feelings of extreme fear, panic and helplessness. These feelings are not confined to the meetings in which I recount my experiences. They do not dissipate when I return to my work and home lives,” she stated in a Dec. 10 email to Mitchell, Jacqueline Kniska, University Integrity and Compliance officer, J.D., and provost Beverly Warren.

Furthermore, the employee said she was distressed to learn that Carrington-Hill stated she had not reviewed all of the pertinent information the safety case manager had provided prior to the interview. Included in these materials were links to various posts on the faculty member’s class blog that potentially contained sexually harassing content as well as where he sometimes advertised an off-campus location where one of the sexual assaults occured.

Less than a week after the employee’s initial interview with Carrrington-Hill, she said the safety case manager informed her that the faculty member appeared to have been “tipped off” and had locked down the blog. Her case manager was uncertain whether Carrington-Hill had reviewed the blog prior to him doing this.

In late October, the employee was notified that Carrington-Hill had released a report to the dean of the college and director of the faculty member’s department. Carrington-Hill informed the employee that due to her witness status she would not be privy to the findings despite the report effecting her police-formulated safety plan.

Five days later the employee’s safety case manager informed her that Carrington-Hill changed her mind and would release the findings when the investigation’s outcome was “official,” and that the initial report was now being referred to as a “draft.” To date, the employee stated that she has not been informed on the difference between the initial and official report. On Oct. 31 the VCU PD also became engaged in the process.

“The university seems to have almost a conflict of interest. For them, caring means being at risk for bad publicity, being at risk for higher numbers about campus crime … I definitely encountered the attitude of ‘this is complicated and we don’t like complicated things,’ … kind of pushing back the burden of the situation on the person who comes forward,” the employee stated.

In November, the employee received a letter from Carrington-Hill through campus mail — a neither secure nor confidential method — that detailed case-sensitive, personal and in some cases inaccurate information regarding the sexual assaults and state of the investigation.

Shortly thereafter, the employee said she filed her OCR complaint because she did not want future victims to endure a similarly haphazard process due to the administration’s lack of experience with the reporting process, survivors of sexual assault and unfamiliarity with Title IX law.

The OCR settled on combining her grievances into a comprehensive investigation of VCU’s practices in conjunction with Moore’s complaint due to overlapping similarities.

Moore alleged in her complaint that the male group members in her product development class excluded her and the other female member’s involvement with their semester-long project. When she brought this to the attention of her professor, Frank Franzak, Ph.D., she said she was told to work individually.

“For a lot of students, that would have been enough to just get out of the situation,” stated Jana McQuaid, associate dean of the school of business, in a conversation regarding the situation last spring which Moore recorded. “Not everybody’s looking to make a stand on what’s right and what’s wrong in an appropriate way of getting people to behave in a way that they want them to behave.”

To conclude the federal review of the university, Rao signed the OCR resolution agreement mandating changes to university compliance efforts on April 23. Of these requirements, VCU revised its misconduct policy to clarify that harassment based on gender is a form of discrimination. The agreement was not an admission of guilt by the university. Buckley stated that the requirements in the agreement have been taken to heart by VCU to aggressively focus on improving and strengthening Title IX related policies and procedures.

Amidst the OCR’s federal investigation and prior to signing the agreement, Rao stated in an email to the VCU community on Feb. 5 that cautionary tales from campuses around the country serve as reminders to remain vigilant and regularly communicate the duty to report and address any wrongdoing.

“(Rao’s) words do not make an honest or transparent representation of what is currently taking place at VCU,” stated the employee in a Feb. 17 email to an OCR attorney advisor. “By keeping quiet about my OCR complaint, I feel like I am being complicit in the university administration’s lack of transparency,”

By this date, the employee’s involvement in the OIE investigation of the faculty member was no longer under Carrington-Hill’s leadership. The employee requested she no longer have to work with Carrington-Hill in light of her experiences thus far.

Mitchell and Kniska took over the investigative process in December and the employee said that huge communication gaps amongst the leadership quickly emerged. According to Mitchell, the OIE learned of the sexual assault in the police report and considered this “new information” in the investigation.

“When I met with the commonwealth’s attorney after filing the police report, she compared VCU’s response to the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky cover-up,” the employee stated in an email to the same OCR attorney advisor. “That was difficult for me to hear because I had believed — and want to believe — that VCU has a stronger ethical backbone than that.”

The immediacy of the now six-month-long process seemingly culminated on Feb. 18 when a friend of the employee brought to her attention a poem posted by the faculty member’s to his class blog.

She described the post as intimidating, retaliatory and a clear act of emotional violence.

“He intimated that he would be more likely to murder or torture someone than rape them. And he proclaimed that in response to my allegations he was going to become more great and live a rich and powerful life. It was like being assaulted again, but at the same time, it finally resulted in action,” said the employee.

She said she did not see the poem until a day after it was posted, and that it was very apparently specific to the allegations and investigation.

The employee provided the email chains evidencing her immediate contact with the OIE, college and police with screenshots. While the PD and College contacted her back immediately, the OIE did not respond for six days.

“I asked Jacqueline (Kniska) in the second investigation, if he had punched me in the face in the middle of the compass, would it have taken OIE six days to acknowledge it? Because that’s what happened,” said the employee. “If you can’t recognize it for what it is and respond with some immediacy, you shouldn’t be charged with handling these investigations because you’re putting people at risk.”

Following this turn of events, the employee agreed to change her status in the investigation from witness to complainant in an attempt to gain better access to pertinent safety information.

She was notified by Mitchell and Kniska on March 4, thirteen days after the post, that the faculty member should no longer be seen on campus and if he made direct or indirect contact to report it to the PD immediately.

The employee stated that to the best of her knowledge, this was the date that the second investigation officially began and that there were definitely improvements during this investigation, which continued after Rao signed the OCR resolution agreement in April.

Since the agreement, Moore filed a subsequent complaint to the OCR in May citing retaliation from the university due to her September complaint regarding the business school. The Times-Dispatch reported that VCU business faculty and administrators received Title IX training on May 12.

The VCU PD has officially banned the faculty member from campus.

Rao announced in an email to the VCU community on Aug. 4 that the OIE has organizationally shifted from under the Division of Inclusive Excellence to a new office under the Division of Finance and Administration. Assurance services also falls under the Division of Finance and Administration.

Rao also stated in the August email that he is committed to bringing in additional resources to the office including more investigators with specific expertise in civil rights compliance.

The Title IX leadership team is in transition. The position of Title IX Coordinator, which formerly belonged to Mitchell, is currently vacant. Kniska currently serves as interim Acting Deputy Title IX Coordinator and is responsible for any employee involvement with Title IX.

In September Rao mandated in an email that students must complete an online training course on Title IX related topics.

1 Comment

  1. So, is Dolores Carrington-Hill still serving as a Title IX investigator? Has any disciplinary action been taken toward her, or at least training?

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  1. U of R, VCU among 272 schools facing Title IX investigations

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