Are College Sexual Assault Policies Fair to the Accused?

The danger of lowering the threshold needed to launch a sexual assault investigation is demonstrated by the case of a Brown University student.

On the heels of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights mandate requiring colleges to lower the minimum requirement needed to launch a sexual assault investigation, generally known as the “Dear Colleague Letter,” Brown University’s official newspaper, The Spectator outlines how the mandate could weaken the position of those accused of rape, in a system that was already considered too friendly to those lodging the accusation.

The paper focuses on a recent case of William McCormick, who was accused of both sexually harassing and subsequently sexually assaulting another Brown student who happened to have been a daughter of one of the university’s biggest donors. The paper’s editor Ryan Fleming used publicly available information collected by the university’s administrators to figure out if the case was mishandled by the school officials looking to placate someone with a significant financial stake in Brown.

Fleming’s article uses Brown’s own reports to show that Marcella Dresdale’s story dramatically changed over the course of a week–from an allegation that McCormick was stalking her and behaving creepily to a claim of a violent rape. Dresdale did not seek medical attention after the alleged rape, nor did she file a report with either the campus police or the local police. The Spectator also uncovered fascinating e-mails from students who allegedly witnessed exchanges between Dresdale and McCormick–e-mails that “evolved” in such an awkward fashion that a representative who believed in McCormick’s innocence would have had a field day in cross-examination. (One student, Julie Siwicki, simply inserted a damning portrayal of McCormick in between two paragraphs of a previously submitted e-mail that didn’t seem to help Dresdale’s case.) Perhaps such awkwardness was why Dresdale’s father worked so hard, as he told Brown president Ruth Simmons in an e-mail, to avoid a hearing and thereby enable his daughter “and the other students to avoid having to . . . face questioning from [McCormick's] advocate.”

Especially damning were the emails between the student residential adviser Shane Reil and the accuser’s father. Reil, who is a scholarship student, freely admitted in the emails that he could no longer maintain his objectivity in this case because of his relationship to the man’s daughter. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that since the father was a prominent businessman exactly in the field that Reil hoped to enter upon graduation, he couldn’t allow an opportunity to form a closer relationship with him to pass.

In a subsequent e-mail to Richard Dresdale, who he described as a “mentor,” Reil expressed eagerness to get together again–he’d even, he said, be happy to cook. (Did he make similar offers to less wealthy parents?) Marcella Dresdale had told him, he wrote, that her father “would not mind helping me to straighten out a path for my future.” Richard Dresdale quickly replied–to an undergraduate he had first met only days before–that he would be “happy” to consult with Reil later in the semester.

None of this would have been an issue except that had McCormick not transferred to Bucknell University before a judicial hearing could take place, Reil would have been in a position that would have allowed him to testify at the hearing as a supposedly objective and neutral witness. Most outrageous of all, the kind of contact between Reil and Dresdale wasn’t against any regulations that guided the sexual assault investigations at Brown.

And remember: the Dresdale case preceded the OCR mandate that universities lower their threshold for finding students responsible for sexual assault.

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