#metoo started flooding social media following the news about film producer Harvey Weinstein. Now the campaign has extended beyond women in Hollywood — inspiring millions of people to speak out about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. But what happens when students come forward at the University of Wyoming? This is the third story in a series looking at Title IX and schools’ responsibility to respond to sexual misconduct.
Halloween is a holiday Sarah Jackson Weber wishes she could forget. In 2015, Weber was a freshman looking forward to four years as a Kinesiology major and a future in medicine. But that all shifted, Weber said, when she was assaulted following a Halloween party.
“I kind of knew what I wanted to do before, and now I’m kind of unsure as to what career path to take,” said Weber. “But I just chose the degree that would get me out the fastest.”
Weber’s right to pursue an education is protected by a Federal Guideline called Title IX. If sexual harassment or violence interferes with a student’s ability to learn, schools are expected to intervene. But Weber doesn’t feel the University of Wyoming met its obligation to support her.
She said she spent the day following the assault alone in her room feeling in shock.
“I was just sitting there being like, oh it was fine,” Weber said. “Trying to say, oh he would never purposefully hurt me like that, and it was probably just a misunderstanding and I’m just blowing things out of the water.”
But the bruises on her legs, and her ripped underwear and tights, made the reality of what happened hard to ignore. She texted him hoping he’d listen, and acknowledge the harm he’d done.
“And he lashed out.” According to Weber, he responded to her messages saying: “It was your fault. You wanted it.” She said, “That’s why I decided to report because it was obvious that he felt no remorse.”
Given the fact that we’ve heard from droves of women over the last few weeks who waited years to come forward about sexual abuse, it would seem that Weber acted impressively fast. Less than two weeks after the assault, she went to see Megan Selheim at Stop Violence — the office on campus that supports sexual assault survivors.
“And she strongly encouraged me to report to the university, instead of reporting to the Laramie police,” said Weber. “So I took her advice.”
Weber made a report to the Dean of Students Office, but she said Sean Blackburn, who was the Dean of Students at the time, and Assistant Dean, Nycole Courtney, made her feel like an inconvenience.
Weber described feeling like, “They didn’t want to have to deal with it, like they were kind of brushing it under the rug and putting it off.”
Weber said after the initial interviews in November and December, she stopped hearing from the Dean of Students Office. Finally on February 26, 2016, she said she heard from Dean Blackburn again.
“And that’s because my parents didn’t complain about how long it was taking until February 8.”
When asked about those gaps in communication, Blackburn, who is now the Vice President of Student Affairs, said he can’t speak to specifics on individual cases.
One of Weber’s biggest complaints is with the report she received from the Dean of Students at the conclusion of the investigation.
The document lays out testimony from Weber, the accused and five witnesses — only one of whom was actually at the party where the incident occurred.
Flipping through the document, Weber pointed out the conclusion:
“Based on a preponderance of the evidence, there is no violation of UW Regulation 1-256, Policies and Procedures Governing Sexual Misconduct.”
In other words, Nycole Courtney, the investigator, didn’t find enough evidence to say with certainty what happened. Weber felt like that sent the message that what happened was ok.
“So that’s obviously hard to read.”
And there was no warning that the summary contained disrespectful and degrading material, according to Weber. She read a statement from one of the witnesses relaying a comment made by the perpetrator.
“If Sarah was to wear a slut outfit he would have to make a move.”
But what really floored Weber was the unprofessional nature of the document composed by Nycole Courtney. Pointing to the document, Weber said, “That is not how you spell that kid's name and she spells my name wrong a bunch of times.”
She added, “I just think that that’s another way of showing lack of care, is that they just threw it all together.”
Sometimes her name is misspelled within the same paragraph. Quotes in the report are also confusing because it’s unclear who is saying them.
Even when investigations go well, though, it’s still a hard process. “There were things that I didn’t love about it obviously,” said Emily Alexander. “I was so sick of it and I felt like it was a long time. But I got that closure.”
We spoke to Alexander in a previous story on sexual assault prevention. When her perpetrator was finally expelled, she said feeling like UW had her back renewed her sense of safety and self-confidence.
“I wish everyone could feel it, and I wish everyone could have that like relief, because I know it’s not like that for most people that I’ve heard their situation.”
Megan Selheim from Stop Violence said it’s important what students are saying to each other about these cases.
“A survivor might talk to their roommate and say this thing happened to me last week and say I don’t know what to do.” And Selheim said, “That roommate can either say oh my gosh that same thing happened to me last year. They told the school and the school took care of them. Or that roommate can so oh my gosh that same thing happened to a friend of mine last year. They told the school and it was terrible,” said Selheim.
Selheim said the more consistent and supportive the process, the more likely survivors are to report. But going by Alexander and Weber’s perceptions, UW isn’t consistent.
But what do the numbers say? In late September I asked Sean Blackburn for data on how many reports lead to investigations, how many result in hearings, and how many end up in violations. He provided that information in late October.
In 2014 there were 13 reports of sexual misconduct resulting in four violations. Since then reports have gone up, jumping to 77 in 2016 but there were still just four violations.
And the more nuanced data, on how many victims decided not to pursue an investigation or how many times the Dean of Students Office said there was not enough evidence, will take more time to pull together Blackburn said, but he agreed it’s needed.
“So there’s a ton more data that we will continue to need to work that will help us make decisions about how we move forward,” said Blackburn.
But Weber — who is now a math major — doesn’t need to see the numbers. What she’s lived through is evidence enough that the process needs improvements.