Running the gauntlet: Two survivors on UVA’s sexual assault trial system

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UVA alum Caitlin Mahoney filed a formal complaint against the fellow student she said sexually assaulted her in a fraternity house in 2005. A disciplinary panel eventually found him responsible and banned him from Grounds until after she graduated, but she said the process she went through was deeply flawed. Photo: Marie Machin UVA alum Caitlin Mahoney filed a formal complaint against the fellow student she said sexually assaulted her in a fraternity house in 2005. A disciplinary panel eventually found him responsible and banned him from Grounds until after she graduated, but she said the process she went through was deeply flawed. Photo: Marie Machin

This story is part of a feature examining UVA’s sexual assault policies. Read a companion piece about the legal reviews of those policies here.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-discredited Rolling Stone story of a rape at UVA was written to shock and horrify. What it failed to do was show what it’s like to submit a formal complaint of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. An internal adjudication process is required under the gender equity statute known as Title IX, and UVA’s is being overhauled in the midst of investigation by the Department of Education into how the school handles complaints.

As administrators consider public comments on policy adjustments and legislators debate new laws that would force further changes, we bring you two accounts from UVA women. Two stories of assault. Two victories in name only. Two very different takeaways.

Caitlin’s story

When Caitlin Mahoney decided to take action against the man she said sexually assaulted her in a fraternity house bedroom in November of 2005—her first year at UVA—she told deans she wanted to pursue a formal complaint. She saw it through to the end, and after a trial in front of what was then called the Sexual Assault Board (SAB), she won.

It still wrecked her, and she said she fully understands why the number of women who press for action in the wake of their own sexual assaults at UVA and schools around the country is so low.

“It’s because of the gauntlet you have to run,” she said. “I can’t describe the process in any other way than, ‘Prepare to have your life ruined.’”

Caitlin describes what happened to her as horrifying, traumatic and disturbingly common. She went to a fraternity party with friends, met up with a couple of older fraternity members she’d gotten to know and drank with them in an upstairs bedroom. One of them plied her with vodka doubles, and while she felt uncomfortable, she drank them anyway. That’s the last thing she remembers. She woke up alone in his bed too sick to move, her underwear missing. She could hear men’s voices in the hall, joking about the guy who had been giving her drinks: “He likes to fuck dead girls,” she remembers one of them saying.

The guy told her they’d hooked up—he later admitted he’d fingered her—and that he’d been worried about her when she got sick and passed out. He said they’d had a good time, though. Then he dropped her off at her dorm.

“I reported it to the police within 48 hours,” Caitlin said. But ultimately, she decided against pressing charges. She knew she wasn’t a “perfect victim”: dazed, she’d taken a shower before she got a rape kit. She also didn’t want to go through telling her parents. But once friends told her more about what had happened that night—someone had seen her being carried nearly unconscious to an upstairs bedroom, and friends said they’d tried to find her, but were turned away by fraternity brothers—she decided to seek some remedy through the school.

“Somebody had told me about the Title IX option, that there was a lower standard of evidence, and it was confidential,” she said. “I could still be a private person instead of a public figure at a time when I was not capable of doing that. And I thought there was no way I could lose, knowing what I knew about what happened.”

Technically, she didn’t lose. The man she accused was found responsible and was suspended for three years, according to documentation of the formal resolution she provided to C-VILLE. Caitlin was able to graduate without having to worry about seeing him on campus. But she said she went through hell to get there.

“I knew there were things that were wrong with my trial,” she said. “But I thought that’s the way it was and I had to suck it up and deal, even though I knew deep down that what happened was wrong.”

For starters, it took 10 months for her case to make it in front of the SAB. She reported the incident in December 2005, she said, and the investigation was finished in March 2006. She didn’t get a trial until September of that year, because, she was told, UVA couldn’t muster the required number of students for the panel. In the meantime, she suffered through being called a liar by former friends who knew the accused.

Then came the actual trial. The first questions she was asked were invasive ones about her sex life, she said—Was she gay? Had she ever had sex with more than one person at a time? Such questions would have been inadmissible in a criminal proceeding. She said the panel also used the wrong evidentiary standard in deciding her case: For at least a decade, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has said that schools should use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning they’re to find in favor of survivors if they’re more than 50 percent sure they’re telling the truth; Caitlin said the panel used the “clear and convincing” standard required in criminal cases, which demands a much higher level of certainty.

Caitlin said even though the panel ultimately found her assailant guilty of “sexual misconduct” because he’d gotten her drunk past the point of consent, the trial was traumatizing in ways it should never have been. For a long time, she tried to forget about it.

“I had to wait so long and fight so hard to get through the process that once it was over, I was just done,” she said. “I could not do more at that time. I just sort of pushed it to the back of my mind, because I had to focus on my life, school, everything else.”

Amy’s story

Amy’s first months dating Mike were uneventful. Fellow students in the same UVA grad school program, they’d connected in mid-2011 through classes and shared mutual friends, but by early 2012, the relationship was troubled. “Early on there were a lot of controlling features—he’d put me down, tell me he could call up any girl at any time,” she recalled. Soon, the verbal abuse expanded to physical abuse. Although she would ultimately win a verdict against Mike through the SAB (the body was renamed the Sexual Misconduct Board later that year), Amy asked that pseudonyms be used in her case and that her department not be identified because she is still a student at the school and fears retribution. She also provided C-VILLE with documentation of the trial and the ruling in her case.

One evening, the couple had gone out for a friend’s birthday. Back at Mike’s off-campus apartment, they began arguing. “Things got verbally scary,” Amy recalled of the February 2012 incident that would become the subject of a SAB trial. “I wanted to leave, so I tried to pack my bags up in the bathroom. He picked the lock, took my stuff, and that included everything, my wallet and ID.”

Mike demanded that she leave without her belongings, and Amy said when she tried to go and retrieve her things, “he started pushing and tried to bear hug me out of the apartment.” He didn’t stop with the bear hug, Amy said. “He pushed me and I fell over. Then he dragged me by my hair across the floor.” Amy, who was wearing a pair of Mike’s sweatpants, said she saw her phone and her keys on the table, and when he let go of her, she grabbed them and ran out the door. Mike pursued her. “He comes out after me, says I’m wearing his sweatpants, then he pulls my pants down, trying to get them off of me,” she recalls. “He punched me from behind.”

Stunned, and having dropped her keys, Amy fled to a friend’s apartment, where she spent the night. The next day, she had a male friend accompany her to Mike’s apartment to get her things, then she left.

“I wanted to call the cops but didn’t know what I should do,” she said. “I was in a state of disbelief.” Mike was getting ready to graduate, and that contributed to her hesitance. “I didn’t go to police because of the impact it would have had on his career,” she said. In addition, “we had mutual friends. When you do these things, you also think about how other people are going to react to it.”

Instead, about a week later she filed a complaint against him with the school, hoping there would be some sanction against him and that he would receive help. The incident occurred less than two years after the death of Yeardley Love, and Amy said for that reason, she believed the administration would go to great lengths to support her and keep her safe. She now says she was mistaken.

Amy said that despite obtaining a school issued no-contact order, which prohibited Mike from interacting with her while on Grounds, she endured weeks of Mike’s friends making antagonizing comments to her, and she tried and failed to get a court-recognized restraining order against him. In April, the case went to trial through the SAB. It was a grueling process that Amy now feels victimized her further.

The hearing began at 8am, and Amy said she didn’t leave until 8 or 9 that night after a day of testimony.

“The craziest part of the whole trial was they started nitpicking at my story because I kept switching the order of him taking my stuff and me going to the bathroom,” she said. “I was distraught.”

Ultimately, the board did issue a ruling of guilt against Mike, based on his attempt to remove the sweatpants she had been wearing, according to the letter issued explaining the verdict. He was ordered to attend anger management treatment, but there was no oversight or enforcement of that treatment, Amy said, and he graduated and left Charlottesville with no marks on his record.

“The only way it would ever go on his record is if he was suspended or expelled,” she said.

The way forward 

UVA has made some changes in the way it resolves sexual misconduct claims in recent years; in 2011, after a mandate was issued by the DOE, the University adopted the less-strict preponderance standard. More adjustments have been proposed in a new policy draft released last November. Those proposed rules would require the University attempt to resolve complaints within 60 days. They would also remove a lot of power from the Sexual Misconduct Board; an investigator alone would be in charge of producing finding, and the Board’s responsibility would be limited to leveling sanctions. The new rules also put greater emphasis on those sanctions, demanding that the board consider suspension or expulsion in every case.

That’s good, said Caitlin, but it’s not enough. The new policy doesn’t lay out a route for appealing a ruling, which she said is critical. She also wants to see the school adopt a student bill of rights that emphasizes Title IX rights, and she wants to see the Sexual Misconduct Board publish its decisions at the end of each semester—with names redacted —the same way the Honor Committee does. And she thinks a basic gender studies class should be a requirement for graduation.

“The everyday situation where you get drunk and your friend has sex with your unconscious body—the fundamental issue is that a lot of these people don’t think they’ve done anything wrong,” she said. “They don’t understand consent. They see sex as something they can take.” Schools need to take a more active role in changing that mindset, she said.

Her biggest complaint, though, is that UVA hasn’t done enough to curb underage drinking, even as few deny that it’s a huge contributing problem. The school could put far more pressure than it does on student organizations, including frats, she said.

“I will never take the University seriously about wanting to fix the problems until they ban alcohol from fraternity houses, period,” she said.

Amy is so disillusioned with UVA’s system that she wants to pull it up by the roots. She thinks Title IX should be changed so that schools don’t adjudicate sexual assault cases at all.

“By going through the University you have a false sense or expectation of retribution that never happens,” she said. “You have law enforcers for a reason.”

She acknowledges that eliminating bodies like UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board might decrease reporting. “But looking back, would I go through this again? No,” she said. “I would have rather not done it at all. If I had known how much energy and effort and mental anguish it took to go through this, I would wholeheartedly not do this again. You don’t get anything.”

Her advice to other students experiencing similar issues: Go straight to police and report abuse or assault as a crime, not only for yourself but for potential future victims.

So what role does she think a university should play? A supportive one, by providing a more direct link to psychological services for victims, who currently are referred to the school’s Counseling and Psychological Services center (CAPS), which offers short term crisis counseling and then refers students for longer term treatment with clinicians in the community.

“Skip that step, and get an immediate response to the problem,” she said, noting that she’d like to see students put directly in touch with counselors who are experts in domestic abuse or sexual violence and she’d like to see support groups widely publicized.

However differently the two women view what needs to change to stop violence against women from becoming so commonplace in college, they agree: Something’s got to give.

Caitlin wishes the impetus for the conversation was something other than tragedy and trauma.

“It took a gang rape article to get people mad about this issue,” she said. “It was the same thing with dating violence. It took Yeardley Love being murdered for people to give a shit about it.” But she believes things will change, especially if people speak up. What happened to her was traumatic, but it doesn’t define her, she said. She wants other women to hear that message.

“I have to maintain hope, because if I don’t have that, I don’t know,” she said. “That would be bad for me.”—With reporting by Courteney Stuart