Questions on Money, Influence and Competence

Allegations of mismanaged drug tests and students' questions about the role of money and power lead to scrutiny of a sexual assault investigation at Brown U.

March 16, 2015
Courtesy of Danielle Perelman
Students march silently across Brown campus

Students at Brown University are raising questions about an investigation and hearings involving a reported drugging and sexual assault on campus last fall.

Neither of the accused students -- one man accused of the drugging, and a different man accused of assault -- was found guilty.

Supporters of the two women involved called the investigation “haphazard” and said the university’s hearing process was deeply flawed.

The student accused of drugging the women says he’s innocent. But he, too, said the process was unfair for all involved and that the university’s investigation was “incompetent.”

The investigation has dominated campus discussion in the last several weeks. On Wednesday, more than 400 students marched silently through campus as a show of support to the women.

Taped to their mouths were dollar bills bearing a red IX -- for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 -- as a symbol of the way money and privilege make it difficult for sexual assault victims to seek justice. Many students have questioned whether the family ties of the student accused of drugging the women influenced the investigation. He’s the son of a prominent alumnus and donor.

At a time when colleges are under a spotlight for how they handle sexual assault, the students’ complaints demonstrate the difficulty colleges face when playing both investigator and judge.

Drug Test Confusion

The turmoil stems from October, when two women reported that they were drugged while at a party at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. One of the students said she was raped after she left that night by an individual who was not a member of the fraternity.

The women reported the incident to authorities the following day. They described a significant amount of memory loss and said they became intoxicated quickly after sharing one drink at the party, which was prepared by a member of the fraternity.

One consented to a urine test and the other gave a hair sample. They did everything right, said Katie Byron, a senior who’s helped organize protests against the way the university handled the case.

“They’d gone through all these hoops that the university placed before them and still ended up here,” she said. “It was really astounding.”

Central to both sides’ complaints against the university are the drug tests. In November, the university announced that one of the women -- the one who gave the urine sample -- tested positive for GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, a drug that has been known to be used in sexual assaults.

Several weeks later, the student accused of spiking the drink had his own medical expert review the test, and he raised questions about the time period in which the urine sample was collected. At first, the laboratory that tested the urine used an inaccurate threshold to show that the GHB amount in her system wasn’t naturally occurring.

Brown then had its own outside expert review the results. More than three months after first reporting to the campus that one of the women had been drugged, the university revised its findings.

The results of the urine test don’t prove that GHB was in the student’s system, and the results of the hair test were unreliable from the beginning, according to the university. The laboratory tested an entire strand of hair, which would have revealed routine GHB use and not whether GHB was consumed at a certain time. The lab maintained that elevated levels would still have been present, though outside doctors questioned the results.

The university canceled the disciplinary hearing and dropped its charges against the student at the end of February.

Copies of e-mails about the reports reviewed by Inside Higher Ed show much confusion over the methodology of the hair test and back-and-forth between university officials, doctors and representatives of the laboratories. In some e-mails, there are references to conflicting information from the labs.

The accused student, who spoke on the condition that his name wouldn’t be used, said he understands why the complainants feel upset. For four months, the university told them they’d been drugged. Suddenly, that’s no longer provable.

“Brown didn’t do their due diligence,” he said.

In a list of grievances against the university, the women also say that Brown didn’t adequately investigate the laboratories it hired. The work of one laboratory had been questioned in a few other cases published in the media.

In a lengthy statement explaining the drug test mix-up, administrators said the university regrets that neither of the laboratories it relied on were able to conduct the tests in a professional manner.

“We further regret that the testing in this matter has become a point of controversy and harmful, contentious debate between students and in the media,” the statement reads.

This was the first time the university had a credible report of students being drugged to investigate, according to the statement.

“We have learned a great deal from the investigation of these matters.”  

 Sexual Assault Hearing

In a separate but related investigation, the student accused of sexual assault was found not responsible by the student conduct board.

The woman appealed the decision, but her appeal was denied around the same time as the drugging charges were dropped.

Those two decisions by the university angered a group of friends of the two women, Byron said. They went on to organize as Act4RJ. (The R and the J represent the names of the women, who’ve asked to remain anonymous.)

The hearing on the sexual assault focused on whether the student accused of assault could detect signs of drugged incapacitation rather than whether the woman could given consent, according to the list of grievances.

“Using the logic of the panel, to find justice, she needed to consume enough of the date rape drug to both show and remember showing obvious symptoms of incapacitation,” it read.

In other words, her incapacitation was used against her, Byron said.

Act4RJ is pushing for the use of date rape drugs to be classified as sexual misconduct and for a hearing for the member of Phi Kappa Psi accused of spiking the drink. The group’s demands also include providing legal guidance for all sides in future hearings and providing training on consent for people on conduct boards.

A spokesman for the university said the group’s demands will likely be taken up by the ongoing work of a Sexual Assault Task Force, which has been working since last year to improve the university’s policies. 

Byron, who’s a member of the task force, said that in this case, it seemed the university wasn’t concerned with finding justice as much as it was with following its own narrative -- to discipline fraternities.

That’s something Phi Kappa Psi would likely agree with. The fraternity has vehemently defended its name in letters to The Brown Daily Herald.

“We were presumed guilty from the beginning, my fraternity and myself,” the student accused of the drugging said.

Brown, which is one of more than 90 colleges being investigated by the federal government for its handling of sexual assault, was under pressure to show the world they were doing something, the accused student said. The fraternity took the brunt of that pressure before the university had even finished its investigation, he said.

The university originally sanctioned the fraternity to a four-year campus ban. After the flap with the urine test, Brown revised its sanction to two and a half years off campus. 

Even without the drug tests, the university collected enough evidence to show that Phi Psi created an unsafe environment, according to university statements. The two women consumed enough alcohol or drugs to diminish their ability to function to the point where they were at risk of harm, Brown said.

In response, Phi Psi says the women shared one cup of punch at the party. Anything else was consumed before they arrived.

Privilege and Power

The student accused of drugging the two women heard through friends that he was the one named in the allegation, but he wasn’t notified of his charges until Dec. 10. A hearing was scheduled for Dec. 19.

“I just hoped the truth and evidence would guide the justice process,” he said. “I was let down every step of the way.”

He requested a continuance, because the hearing was on the same day as one of his finals. His request was denied. He said he also requested a new faculty member to lead the panel, since the current chair was a professor of gender studies, and he questioned how impartial the person would be. That was denied, too.

That’s when his lawyers went to the court to get an injunction, which postponed the hearing until the second semester.

The student doesn’t believe he got preferential treatment because of his father’s connections.

His father had to stay out the investigation to avoid a conflict of interest, he said. His dad was furious, though, when the hearing was scheduled without giving the student time to prepare or have medical or legal advisors look over the case, the student said. He wasn’t sure whether his father was in contact with the university at that point.

Brown also denies that the student received special treatment. The university can’t comment on individual cases, but a student’s family connections never influence conduct cases, a Brown spokesman said.

Still, students with Act4RJ point out that access to resources was incredibly unbalanced in this case. Neither of the women had a lawyer at the beginning of the investigation, and so they didn’t have access to all the information about the case.

The university often talks about how students should feel comfortable coming forward to report sexual assault. But the outcomes of the cases often suggest otherwise, said Will Furuyama, a senior who’s worked on sexual assault advocacy.

Access to resources and the ability to negotiate with the university though lawyers clearly played a role in these cases, Furuyama said.

“That’s a frightening possibility for some people considering reporting an assault,” he said.

In a way, the accused student agrees. He acknowledges he was lucky to have a team of lawyers help him, and he’s frightened for other students who don’t. The women should have had access to legal counsel, too, he said.

“I’m scared for every student there who has to go through this and defend themselves against a system that wants to find them guilty and kick them out.”

He lived through five months wondering if he’d be expelled. He had to scrub insulting graffiti off the sidewalk outside his room. He went home on a recent weekend because he didn’t feel safe on campus.

Even though the charges were dropped, he doesn’t feel closure because of the “mud-slinging” he’s still enduring on campus.

The women don’t feel closure, either. They were promised a hearing to consider witness testimony in the drugging case regardless of the toxicology reports. Then, out of the blue, every thing was dropped.

They feel betrayed by Brown. The accused student says he’s lost faith in Brown.

No one feels justice was done.


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