This is the second of two stories. Read the first here.
Alexis was walking to her car at Thomas College in Waterville in January when she stopped suddenly. A fellow student whom she said repeatedly touched her without her consent sat in the car next to hers, his engine idling. She had gotten a protection from abuse order against him nearly three months ago, but there he was. He appeared to be waiting.
“His car was already cleared off. He could have left at any moment,” said Alexis, which is her middle name. Instead she estimated he stayed 20 minutes, while she stayed outside, nearly in tears, on the other side of her vehicle, seemingly paralyzed. She didn’t have her phone. She was unsure whether to run back inside, fearing he might run her over, she said.
Eventually, another student noticed she was in distress, called the school’s Public Safety Department, and the male student drove away, she said. The experience caused her to have a panic attack, and she missed a class, she said.
The male student, whom the Bangor Daily News is not naming because he hasn’t been charged with a crime, often appeared when Alexis didn’t expect it, she said, ever since she reported him to the school for inappropriately touching her two times and cozying up to her a third time without her permission, during her first few days as a freshman. After she got the no-contact order from the court, he walked toward and past her outside, sat near her in the dining center, and lingered near her in a crowded common area, according to videos she took.
Two other female students also told the school that he touched them on their butt or thighs, according to interviews and documents the students shared with the BDN. But their reports didn’t result in a school investigation or punishment. Instead, similar to Alexis’ experience, one of the women, who will go by the name Crystal, said she continued to be a target, sometimes with him following her in the dark.
Each encounter with the male student seemed potentially minor, perhaps a mistake. But together they created a pattern, said the women, who are studying criminal justice and psychology, and understand criminal thinking and rules of law. That’s one reason why experts say schools should usually investigate reports of sexual misconduct, rather than leaving it up to alleged victims to decide the course of action. Sometimes, the misconduct is not isolated to one, or two or even three incidents. Sometimes it interrupts the lives and education of multiple students.
But Thomas College does not automatically investigate cases unless they are egregious or a student specifically requests an investigation. The approach is intended to give alleged victims a choice, but several female students who spoke to the BDN said they were confused, felt burdened by the decision and didn’t know what to do. Perhaps one of their reports wouldn’t be considered egregious, they said, but what about all of their experiences together?
In addition, schools are supposed to follow federal guidelines, laid out under the federal gender anti-discrimination law Title IX. They say that colleges “must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred” if they know — or even just “reasonably should know of” — sex-based harassment that limits students’ ability to participate in their education. Laurie Lachance, the president of Thomas College, said the school follows federal requirements.
Schools across the nation often struggle with how to hold students accountable for allegations of rape, said Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, with offices in Massachusetts and Oregon. They are even more likely to struggle with other forms of sex discrimination that may be more subtle but that are also more common — and can have significant long-term effects.
“I don’t think that people understand that sexual harassment is often the gateway to sexual assault,” Bruno said.
About 60 percent of female undergraduate students reported being sexually harassed, and 33 percent reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, in a 2015 survey of more than 150,000 students across 27 institutions in the United States. (Nearly 11 percent of undergraduate women reported experiences that would meet the legal definition of rape.)
The rate of sexual harassment — which the study defined as behavior that interfered with people’s academic performance, limited their ability to participate in academic programs, or created an intimidating or hostile environment — is estimated to be higher at smaller private schools than at larger public schools.
At Thomas College, a small, private school with about 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, that would mean a significant number of women are likely to be victims of some type of sexual misconduct during their college career. Most won’t report it.
They especially won’t report it if they don’t think there will be repercussions for the alleged offender or if they don’t think school officials will take them seriously.
School administrators might say, “‘It doesn’t rise to the level,’ or ‘I’m not really sure he meant that,’ or ‘Were you clear about what your boundaries were?’ They will often put it on the victim,” Bruno said.
Lachance, the college president, said that each case “has its own unique facts and circumstances, and we treat them that way. We want to ensure that all students are supported, treated fairly and feel safe, while also protecting the privacy and rights of all involved.”
Thomas College students who report sexual misconduct have a choice between taking no action, pursuing an informal process that results in an administrator speaking with the alleged offender but not an official finding of responsibility, or pursuing a formal process that results in an investigation and hearing.
“Thomas College supports the notion that individuals should have decision making power of their own, access to information and resources to enable them to make informed decisions for themselves,” Lachance said. The school honors a student’s decision about how he or she wants to proceed “in almost every case, unless circumstances present that pose a serious safety risk or threat to the community.”
The school also reviews reports of sexual misconduct against prior reported incidents to determine if there is a pattern of behavior that would warrant an investigation and hearing under the formal disciplinary process, Lachance said.
But, to the female students’ knowledge, the school has not opened an investigation into the patterns that they see between the three of them.
The male student first touched Alexis on Aug. 26, 2018, two days after they met during freshman orientation, she said. They were on an L-shaped couch in a residential hall common area, watching a movie. She wasn’t feeling well and, thinking they were friends, put her head on his lap. He started rubbing her shoulder and then moved his hand lower to feel her back and butt, she said. The BDN is not naming her because she is an alleged victim of sexual misconduct.
She didn’t want him to touch her, but she didn’t want to cause an uproar, she said, so she moved farther down her side of the couch. But he slid down, too, and continued to touch her. She moved two more times, she said, and each time he followed and kept touching her.
“I didn’t know what to do. I internally panicked,” she said.
Her friend Crystal said she witnessed what happened on the couch and saw the male student squeezing and rubbing Alexis’ butt.
After the movie, the male student walked Alexis to her dorm room, even though she told him not to, hugged her and whispered into her ear that maybe next time he could give her a full-body massage. The male student did not respond to a request for comment.
It was creepy, Alexis said, but if that’s all that happened, maybe she would have left it at that.
The next day, Aug. 27, he did it again while she lay on the same couch, waiting for a class, she said. Unable to sleep the night before, she dozed lightly and awoke to him feeling her back and shoulders, moving his hands toward her butt. She jumped up and said she had to go, she said.
Crystal, Alexis’ friend who witnessed the first incident, said the male student also put his hand in the back pocket of her own jeans on Aug. 30 without her permission. The next day, Aug. 31, as he drove Crystal to her home off campus, he moved his hand off the steering wheel and placed it on her left thigh, she said. As he drove, he slowly moved his hand closer and closer to her crotch. The BDN is using a pseudonym because she is an alleged victim of sexual misconduct.
“I didn’t know what to do or say, or how to defend myself,” Crystal said. “All I could think was, ‘What is going on?’”
On Sept. 4, the male student moved closer and closer to Alexis a third time, until his hand was next to her butt, on a couch in the fireplace room of Spann Student Commons, Alexis said. Crystal, who was also present, said she saw how close he had gotten and made up an excuse to leave with Alexis.
The two female students, who had just sat through presentations on Title IX as part of their first-year orientation, knew who to talk to, and both met with Lisa Desautels-Poliquin, the vice president for student affairs, the following day, Sept. 5.
They both recalled Desautels-Poliquin asking them several times if they ever told the male student “no.” They had not and questioned why it should matter.
“If I’m moving away, and you’re trying to touch me, that’s a ‘no,’” Alexis said.
Like many other schools, Thomas College now only considers sexual acts consensual if students “freely and actively” indicate they want sexual contact. A lack of objection isn’t enough. “Silence, in and of itself, cannot be interpreted as consent,” states Thomas College’s sexual misconduct policy.
Outside experts said schools need to investigate reports of sexual touching not just to protect the alleged victim but because they may find that others have been harmed. Title IX officers have to determine whether reported conduct is severe enough to create a hostile environment. A report of rape, for instance, is usually enough to meet that standard. Similarly, a pattern of less physically aggressive behavior could also create a hostile environment.
“Once a school has notice that there is sexual harassment occurring on the campus that’s creating a hostile environment, they’re obligated to act,” said Emma Roth, an attorney with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Under the relevant standards, when you have multiple incidents of sexual harassment there is less of a need to show that any individual incident is very severe.”
A third female student said the same male student put his hand on her thigh, as they sat in a crowded auditorium in the fall, and continued to rub her leg after she told him loudly to stop. She told a resident assistant, who reported it to the Title IX office. The Title IX staff person she spoke to suggested she should make friends with him and talk to him about it, she said.
Fed up, she walked away. “They weren’t going to do anything for me,” the woman said.
The three women said they are concerned the male student’s inappropriate advances will worsen. “If nothing happens, it’s going to escalate,” Alexis said.
As of the spring, following months of reporting him to the Title IX office and public safety, none of the female students are convinced the school will act.
When Alexis and Crystal met with Desautels-Poliquin on Sept. 5, they both left thinking she would put an administrative no-contact order in place to prohibit the male student from coming near them. Indeed, Desautels-Poliquin told them in a Sept. 7 email that she had met with the male student that day.
“He is aware of your request to not have any contact with either of you,” she wrote.
But after Desautels-Poliquin met with him, he started following Alexis and Crystal, they said.
“I feel like it escalated it,” Alexis said. “I felt like I was in danger.”
On Sept. 13, Alexis couldn’t go into her room because she learned he was there with her roommate, according to Alexis and a person who was with her at the time. She began to panic and had an anxiety attack.
Crystal also saw the male student following her on campus around midnight one day in September, she said. Even when she tested him by taking a zig-zag route, he continued to follow her. He followed Crystal again, this time into the library, on Sept. 23, she said. He turned around and left when she fled up the stairs. Then, on Oct. 2, as Crystal sat in a booth in Spann Commons, he sat down on a nearby chair and waited for her to look up. When she did, he “smirked” at her, she said, before quickly getting up and leaving.
On Oct. 3, the man made Alexis feel unsafe by blocking her exit in Spann Commons, and mutual friends called public safety, which told him to return to his dorm, according to Alexis and Crystal. But Crystal said she saw him again that night.
On Oct. 11, Alexis walked into Gaming Club, and he was there, she said. So she walked out and went to Art Club instead. He followed her, she said, and sat at a table facing her. Two students who were present confirmed seeing him staring at her in an intimidating way, describing Alexis as “obviously shaken,” “scared” and “clearly uncomfortable.”
This time when she called public safety, however, she learned there wasn’t a formal no-contact order on file, which would have likely triggered further sanctions when he violated it. Desautels-Poliquin had only verbally told him not to contact the women.
Lachance said Title IX staff attempt to meet students’ individualized requests for protection while balancing the rights of students alleged to have violated the student conduct code. In doing so, the school “has an obligation not to place unnecessary burdens or limitations on either student’s access to their educational opportunities and programs,” she said.
So Alexis started the process of getting a protection from abuse order with Waterville District Court, and, when she met with Desautels-Poliquin on Oct. 17, she decided to secretly record their conversation, so she would have evidence of what was said.
For students to make a decision on whether the school should investigate, they should ideally understand their various options, but Alexis said the school didn’t fully walk her through what she could expect from the formal process.
To show how the school dealt with her case, she agreed to have her Oct. 17 conversation with Desautels-Poliquin published. In the meeting, Desautels-Poliquin told Alexis that, previously, there wasn’t enough to pursue a Title IX case, but now maybe there would be, and she would check with Michelle Joler-Labbe, the chief human resources officer. At the same time, she said it was up to Alexis what she wanted to do.
Desautels-Poliquin shared various avenues for adjudicating the case — under the sexual misconduct policy or the more general code of conduct — in such confusing terms, even describing the process as “vague” and “gray,” that Alexis said she felt like she was “being thrown in circles.”
The BDN shared a transcription of the recording with Lachance, the college president, who said she couldn’t comment on it because it was specific to an individual case. However, she said, Title IX staff always make sure students know their options and have ongoing conversations with them about how they want to proceed.
If inappropriate behavior isn’t gender based or sexual in nature, it may not meet the standard for sexual harassment or fall under Title IX rules, but it may violate other standards set out in the school’s code of conduct and be dealt with through a different process, Lachance said.
Alexis said the male student continued to intimidate her even though she got a court-ordered protection from abuse order Nov. 1 that prohibited him from having “direct or indirect” contact with her. On Nov. 26 he sat by the exit of the dining center, so she’d have to walk by him to get out, she said, prompting her to call public safety and, later, Waterville police. He wasn’t punished to her knowledge, Alexis said.
So, that day, months after the first incidents, she emailed Desautels-Poliquin to say she’d like to pursue the school’s formal process under Title IX.
But neither the investigation nor the protection from abuse order appeared to change the male student’s behavior. On Jan. 22, Alexis went outside to clear her car of snow and move it to a different lot, so the school could plow, she said. That’s when she saw the male student in the vehicle directly next to her, with the engine running, facing out.
Crystal, who had lived off campus, decided to try living in a dorm in January. But she found the man, who lived in a different dorm, frequently in her lobby or on her floor. He never said a word to her, she said, but his presence was frightening. After six weeks, she moved back off campus solely because of him, she said.
When she lived on campus, Crystal frequently found herself walking outside at night because she felt safer out in the open, even though it was freezing cold. One night, a public safety officer found her, she said. She’d been crying and told the officer the male student had been hanging around her dorm. Then the officer asked a question she’d heard before: Did she want to make an official report?
She said no. “I was so tired and exhausted and done with the entire situation. I didn’t want to write another report,” she said.
Alexis still sees him nearly every day, she said, and keeps track of all the times he stays near her or walks toward her. She took three videos of him remaining in her vicinity in February and March, which the BDN reviewed. In one, he continued walking toward her and past her outside, as she moved over to get away from him. She didn’t show the videos to the Title IX office, she said, because she didn’t have faith anything would be done.
“It’s become a thing of him not caring and me going the other way,” she said. He doesn’t seem to bother Alexis and Crystal when they are with male friends, they said. Other friends have spoken to him to no avail.
Thomas College didn’t investigate the male student for stalking or violating the protection from abuse order, but it did look into the allegations of “non-consensual sexual contact.” The man denied touching Alexis’ butt.
During the Title IX hearing March 1, Alexis said the panel called one witness: Crystal, who had seen the man feeling her butt on Aug. 26 and Sept. 4. During the hearing, Crystal described saying what she told the BDN. But the statements apparently didn’t match what the investigator wrote down in his records, which, according to Alexis and Crystal, appeared to confuse the details and dates of Sept. 4 and 5.
Crystal said she believes the investigator got it wrong, but she had signed his summary, not realizing the error. The school found the male student not in violation of unwanted sexual contact because “information provided by the witness who was present was not found to be consistent to support the allegations.”
Alexis appealed the decision, citing the potential error. On April 5, Hannah Gladstone, the Title IX deputy coordinator, notified her that she was denying Alexis’ request for appeal “based on insufficient grounds.” No further appeals were permitted. Gladstone did not say why there were insufficient grounds for appeal.
Alexis is a criminal justice major and said she believes in the importance of having rules, evidence and a system of justice. Investigations may be tough on victims, she said, but she believes colleges have a duty to investigate.
“If they can get away with it once, they can get away with it four times,” she said of alleged offenders. “If someone is assaulted, you shouldn’t just let it go.”
To her, the school’s approach under Title IX — to be “vague” and “gray” — did not result in her feeling safer. Instead, it allowed the male student’s behavior to drag on. She believes that he shouldn’t be allowed to live on campus because he hasn’t obeyed the no-contact order.
But the college has assigned Alexis and her alleged offender to the same class next semester. The college declined to remove him from the class without an amendment to Alexis’ court-issued protection from abuse order, according to a recording Alexis took of a meeting she had with administrators.
Instead, she was the one to move into a new dorm room because he continued to visit her former roommate, she said. She doesn’t go to certain places where she knows he spends time. She avoids certain activities on campus, she said, and will leave a campus event if she sees he’s there.
Initially she had stress-related migraines, she said, and a nurse told her she wasn’t regulating her blood sugar, even though she’s not diabetic. Her anxiety spiked. She always tries to walk on campus with a friend, she said. Even then she finds herself looking over her shoulder.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.