Student: GVSU not protecting rape victims

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – Target 8 normally wouldn’t identify an alleged rape victim, but Grand Valley State University student Sara Chittenden reached out to 24 Hour News 8 wanting to tell her story.

The GVSU senior says a student raped her at an off-campus apartment.

“He’s significantly heavier than I am, so the weight on my chest… it was hard for me to even speak because I couldn’t breathe,” Chittenden said, adding she had to relive the experience several times while telling the story to university staff.

Target 8 title IX GVSU 112414
(Chittenden speaks to Target 8 investigator Marlee Ginter.)

Statistics show one in five students are sexually assaulted while in college. Most never report it, but recent reports have seen a growing number of universities and colleges across the country under scrutiny for how they handle sexual assault cases, many questioning universities sweeping them under the rug to avoid bad publicity.

Chittenden said she knew the student through friends. She never went to police, and the student was never criminally charged. Chittenden said she had no evidence, making it her word versus his.

Instead, Chittenden turned to the university, hoping the student would be expelled or at least suspended so she wouldn’t be afraid on campus. That didn’t happen, and they still had classes in the same building. The case went to trial on campus, handled by university staff.

Chittenden showed Target 8 an email from the university. It states the following:

“The Hearing Office found the student responsible for violating Section 206.02: Sexual Assault.

The Hearing Coordinator has assigned the following sanctions:

  1. [Student] is prohibited from contacting you either directly or directly, though electronic media, phone, etc.
  2. [Student] is to remain on probation during the remainder of his student status.
  3. [Student] is required to meet with the coordinator of the Men in Action Group to discuss consent and the role of men in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence towards women; and
  4. [Student] must write a 3 page paper at the conclusion of the meeting with the coordinator of the Men in Action Group to confirm his understanding of his meeting with the Men in Action Group. This paper must be completed no later than April 21, 2014.

Further violations of the student code will result in more sanctions as will failure to fulfill his obligations.”

“You’re accommodating the rapists, you’re not accommodating me, you’re not trying to make my experience easier. They’re not going to care if I drop out, they don’t really care if I’m struggling to get through class.” -Sara Chittenden, GVSU student

“It’s insulting,” Chittenden said. “For like a year’s worth of work, having to tell the story in excruciating detail to so many people… and he has to write a paper? It doesn’t even feel like a slap on the hand, it’s like, ‘Oh, we dealt with it.'”

Left to right: GVSU Title IX Coordinator Dwight Hamilton and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Bart Merkle. (Nov. 24, 2014)
(Left to right: GVSU Title IX Coordinator Dwight Hamilton and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Bart Merkle.)

Target 8 sat down with GVSU Title IX Coordinator Dwight Hamilton and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Bart Merkle. They wouldn’t talk specifically about Chittenden’s or any other case, but they did talk about how they handle such complaints.

Hamilton says the university has always followed Title IX guidelines.

“The Department of Education, when they issue their audit letter they state very clearly that just because they’re conducting an audit doesn’t mean that there’s a compliance issue at the university,” he said.

Hamilton explained each case takes thorough investigation to be fair to both the victim and the suspect, and that that takes time. However, he says they are making changes to speed up the process and they just hired an investigator.

“We believe at the end of the audit period the Department will find that we were following their guidelines in good faith.” -Dwight Hamilton, GVSU Title IX coordinator

Merkle told Target 8 many people want a sanction that is absolute, but said each case is unique and requires different levels of punishment. He said staff and faculty who handle the trials on campus are trained in sexual violence cases and that he has all the confidence in their abilities.

“The people who are directly involved in all of the information have to make a fair and reasonable decision that they believe is appropriate,” Merkle said.

Not getting the outcome she’d hoped for, Chittenden filed a complaint with the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, saying the university failed to uphold Title IX. The law is best known for ensuring equal treatment of student athletes, but it also requires prompt and thorough handling of sexual assault complaints.

Chittenden told Target 8 that GVSU took 230 days to process her complaint when Title IX recommends 60 days.

When asked about the time frame of cases, Hamilton said the 60 days is a Title IX recommendation for the length of the investigation, not the entire process.

“Nobody on this campus is supporting sexual assault, nobody,” -Bart Merkle, GVSU vice provost of student affairs

GVSU is one of nearly 100 universities and colleges under federal investigation, including two other large universities in Michigan, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

Target 8 discovered federal officials have added roughly 30 more to that list since they first released it in May 2014. Updated lists are available by request and updated every Wednesday. The most recent list was created on Nov. 19.

“I think that it shows this isn’t going to be swept under the rug anymore,” said Chittenden, who told Target 8 the ordeal had such an impact on her studies that she failed one of her classes and is graduating a semester late. “People are watching you and watching what you do.”

There are currently 87 post-secondary institutions under Title IX investigation. That’s out of more than 7,000 colleges and universities across the country.

There is one thing Chittenden and GVSU officials agree on: This doesn’t mean necessarily there are more sexual assaults, but more people are willing to report them.

To file a Title IX investigation or see if your school is under Title IX investigation find your local OCR office here or contact OCR Headquarters. The list of schools currently under investigation is available by request and it is updated every Wednesday.


On the web:

GVSU guidelines/sanctions on sexual misconduct

GVSU President Thomas Haas’ op-ed on sexual misconduct

University of Michigan’s sexual misconduct policy

Michigan State University’s policy on relationship violence and sexual misconduct

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