Someone’s status of being “accomplished in his field” should never be used in an investigation.
***Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault. This post includes information from an actual university investigation. ***
You can walk through the halls at my university and feel like you are in a place of success. The walls are plastered with research posters and stories of accomplishments. For me, it is a dream school for research. I love what I study here, and engineering is one of my passions in life. Unfortunately, choosing to study here came with some unexpected things that I did not want or ask for.
Being a female in engineering, I’ve experienced a fair number of less than favorable encounters that range from awkward peers to sexual harassment. Not all women in engineering experience sexual harassment. Some have been lucky enough to avoid it and some are oblivious, but by graduate school there are a large number of us who have our stories. Most of the time we just roll our eyes and laugh it off. This is part of being a female in a male dominated field. We put up with a lot of obnoxious things and usually don’t report them. (A 2006 study showed that an astounding 69% of women in engineering experienced sexual harassment during their careers).
Yet, when I experienced something on the severe end of sexual harassment, it became necessary to report. Since I had evidence, I thought the case would be fairly straightforward, and that a resolution would be reached. Instead, I came away feeling less safe than I did before reporting.
A group of us gathered at a place just off of campus to celebrate finishing a huge exam. It was early in the evening and constituted more of a mellow dinner gathering among adults than a party. During the dinner, one of my peers that I didn’t know as well started touching my leg under the table, moving his hand under my skirt and up to my crotch. I quickly removed his hand, but he persisted and did this to me two more times. After the third time, I quickly got up and left the gathering for a bit. I was shaken but I decided to go back and confront him about what he did to me. I thought physical and verbal communication would be enough to make a clear point that I wanted no part of his sexual advances. Still, despite removing his hands from me, and verbally confronting him, he persisted in his endeavors. He would later that evening be so bold as to grab my breast and place his hand down the back of my skirt and underwear (which constitutes sexual assault). To top it off, when I tried to go back to my office, he started following me. My only recourse was to run onto a bus and take it half a mile away just to get away from him.
Worrying for my safety, I drafted an email to him after the incident that briefly stated that he inappropriately groped me, and that told him to never touch me again. He left two voice mails on my phone apologizing, though I suspect he wanted me to be quiet about what happened more than apologize to me.
I was really scared to walk through the halls of my department, and I confided in a few people about what happened. They encouraged me to come forward to resolve the problem, especially since my assailant could do the same thing to other women. One person reported it to my university, and soon after that, an investigator from the office of student conduct contacted me.
I agreed to meet with the student conduct investigator to discuss options. A discussion of options turned out to be the investigator jotting down notes as I gave a short synopsis of events. At the end of the meeting the investigator said she would investigate the perpetrator. My meeting had suddenly turned into an investigation. I shared a copy of the email and the voicemails with the investigator, but after that I was never contacted again until the investigation was over.
Soon after the university “investigation” started, I learned from a third party that police have methods for investigating non-rape sexual assaults. Initially, I did not think of going to the police, because criminal punishment seemed extreme when all I wanted was a continued safe academic environment for me and for other students. Generally, women don’t run to the police every time they experience sexual harassment, even in extreme cases.
With encouragement from a third party, I talked to a police detective, who thought I potentially had a case. Unfortunately, the university investigation disrupted the opportunity for a proper police investigation. By the time I had gone to the police, my university had already handed over all of my evidence to my assailant and his attorney.
In the end, the solo university investigator decided that my assailant did not violate any university policy. The investigation was not only an insult to victims of sexual assault, but an insult to women in STEM fields as well.
Often times I hear people ask how perpetrators of sexual violence don’t get found guilty even when there is evidence. To help aid in the understanding of this, I have decided to include some excerpts from the investigative report. It is important to remember that these items are things that the investigator felt were important to the overall investigation. Quotations denote direct quotes that the investigator included in the report.
My assailant has many opportunities in his future
“Respondent loves his field and is accomplished in his field.”
He “does not want to lose the 11 years of work he has put in to get where he is now”
“He thinks there are lots of opportunities in his future.”
“He is concerned about the possibility that professors won’t want to hire him based on these allegations.”
In one of the emails my assailant sent to the investigator, he mentioned the hard work he was doing. While the entire work description was not included, the investigator felt that the following information was relevant to the investigation:
“Respondent proceeds to state how hard he has worked in his field and how dedicated he is to that”
***Note to reader: I am also getting a PhD in engineering, just like my assailant. I am also accomplished in my field. This was never mentioned. The report didn’t mention how having my assailant in my department would affect my research and my leadership opportunities. My safety and learning environment did not appear to be of importance during the investigation either.
What does it say to victims in prestigious fields when perpetrators can use their success in those fields to cover up sexual harassment? What does it say to all the good successful people who would never use their careers as a way to cover up sexual harassment?
My assailant is married
This is apparently very important information to put in the report because we all know that married men never ever cheat. Obviously.
“He and his wife are close and often in communication when they are apart.”
“Respondent and his wife have been married for one and a half years. Their families are very far away so they are very reliant on each other.”
“I asked Respondent if he finds Complainant attractive. He said no, and that he is attracted to women who are physically similar to his wife. Respondent’s wife and Complainant are physically dissimilar.”
“he and his wife are Catholic. They text while apart.”
Furthermore, my assailant was able to use his wife as a witness even though she was not present during the assault at all. She submitted a long statement, which was included in the investigative report.
My assailant was allowed to have an attorney
“He was accompanied by an attorney advisor”
*** Note to reader: I was never ever given this opportunity. I went in to discuss options with the investigator alone, and then the investigator started an investigation during our meeting. There was no follow up, or even an opportunity for me to get a lawyer or have someone present with me.
My assailant was able to change his story
Despite my assailant previously apologizing in response to an email that described some of his sexual actions, my assailant changed his story and called what he did “hand play.” The investigator wrote:
“they had “hand play” which Respondent described as “not sexual in nature””
That term seems like something an attorney would come up with…
The investigator went off of impressions
Regarding my assailant:
“I find his reaction to the email suspect. I am also concerned about the fact that respondent did not tell his wife about the email from Complainant when he received it, since he emphasized the closeness they share. Despite this issue, Respondent gave an overall impression of credibility based in part of his verbal and nonverbal symptoms and attitudes during our interview”
I write this as an educational piece for the public. Sexual harassers and abusers often go free or just get a slap on the wrist.
While CU Boulder continually works on improving the investigative process, some problems still exist with addressing people who perpetrate sexual violence and harassment. Sarah Gilchriese is not alone. There are more victims here, and sometimes our assailants go unpunished.
It is a problem that only one single investigator listened to my story and made a decision about the outcome of the investigation. There were no precautions in place for situations where the investigator is biased towards one person based on their academic credentials, or the investigator does not take thorough notes during the interviews. It creates a frightening situation for victims who come forward about perpetrators who are successful in prestigious fields of study. Furthermore, it was also disturbing that my evidence was handed over to my assailant and his attorney without getting the police involved. In fact, university investigators do not notify the police in these investigations.
My experiences leave me conflicted. I want to know what I should tell young women who would like to study engineering at CU. Do I tell them that they might have my assailant as a TA or a mentor? Do I tell young prospective students that if they get sexually harassed or assaulted to hope that it isn’t by someone who is “accomplished” in their field?
Through the tears and pain and being terrified, I chose to stick with my PhD program because I did not want to throw away all of my work, and because I love what I am doing. It has come with sacrifices, such as not feeling safe on campus, and avoiding any events where my assailant could come into contact with me and repeat his actions. Thankfully, some members of my university have attempted to ensure my safety and to create an academically fair environment for me.
Yet, there is one thing that still very much upsets me. After an investigation like mine, perpetrators learn that they can hide behind their careers and success and no one will believe their victims even if there is evidence. That is wrong.
Editors Note: This story is told from the perspective of a female in engineering. However, sexual harassment and sexual violence affects women and men on college campuses and beyond. According to the CDC, about half of women and 1 in 5 men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. For more resources, you can visit the RAINN website.