[TW: This article discusses sexual assault and abuse on campus.]
This is a collaborative piece written by various members of Vassar’s Track & Field team and approved by all members. All accounts of abuse are written by the survivors (names are pseudonyms) themselves.
Starting a piece like this seems nearly impossible—where does the situation originate? The public outcry? The abuse itself? The team meetings trying to crack down on a toxic culture that has historically been far too permissive of sexual assault and abuse? Or the culture itself, built by coaching staff and administration long before any current student set foot on campus? There is no visible beginning to the story of sexual assault, only the latest chapter. Our latest chapter exposed the rampant injustices inherent in the Title IX system, presented and promoted by Vassar College.
Within the first months of her first year at Vassar, Grace on the cross country team was assaulted by a teammate. She was worried about potentially being in the same space with her abuser and wanted to let Coach A know that she felt unsafe. However, since she was still processing her emotions and understanding the event as sexual assault, she did not feel comfortable sharing the name of her abuser to the coach just yet. Coach A told her that he wanted to have a discussion with the abuser and pressured Grace to tell him the name; when this wasn’t successful, he went to one of Grace’s friends on the team, demanding the name of the abuser. This made Grace severely uncomfortable. He clearly investigated the case without permission. Furthermore, when Grace was finally ready to come out with the name to Coach B (whom she did not relay any information to prior), he stated he already knew who it was and what had happened. Coach B told her that they would do whatever it took to make survivors feel safe, even if that meant breaking Title IX laws (which the coaches had already done by discussing the case with each other). However, their evasions of the Title IX laws made Grace feel less safe and protected by the coaches. In the end, both of the coaches lost Grace’s trust and created a team culture so toxic she felt she had no choice but to quit.
The social dynamics of the team made it difficult for Grace to feel comfortable speaking up. She felt cut off from the sprinting side of the team. She was worried that if she went to the coaches with the name of her abuser, and the coaches had a conversation with that person, the person would speak up against her. The abuser was an outspoken member of the team, which created a culture that silenced her. She felt unsafe at team events outside of practice. Once the coaches did know who it was, they did nothing to make her feel empowered. They admitted to having conversations concerning the abuse with this person—the exact opposite of what Grace wanted—but did not inform Grace of these conversations or their knowledge of the abuser’s identity.
Months before Grace quit, a second survivor, Delaney, who is on the track team, was harassed and abused by this same teammate, someone whom she previously considered to be a friend. Delaney turned to her primary coach, Coach B, for help and confided in him. She knew she would be too uncomfortable being in the same space with this person and couldn’t stand the thought of having to see him at practice (This is a co-ed team, where both the men and women practice with one another). After opening up to Coach B about the situation, he told her that he would need to have a conversation with the other coach on the team, Coach A, and with the abuser himself, because, “That’s just not the way we do things around here,” (referring to the abusers’ actions). Delaney instantly felt worried and panicked, as her abuser was very well-liked and had a good reputation on the team. She thought that when this conversation took place, the abuser would twist the story to make it seem like Delaney was at fault and in the wrong. Although Coach B said that he would tell Delaney when this conversation took place, he never did.
In the fall, Coach B was initially supportive and responsive, checking in with Delaney and shifting practices around to make her feel more comfortable. But as the year went on, his support and communication with her wavered and diminished until she felt alone and forgotten. She, along with many others, had no idea that there was another survivor (Grace) on the team and that the coaches knew about this. Coach A neglected to even reach out to Delaney until April 17, all while knowing for several months that she had been abused by this person. In addition, Delaney had not heard from Coach B about the matter since November, illustrating his failure to ask how she was doing or check in to see if she was comfortable enough to move into full group practices in the spring (where she would see her abuser every day, as opposed to once or twice a week in the fall). This once safe and stress-free environment was now a panic-inducing space where she frequently had to calm herself down before arriving, constantly feeling anxious and on-edge.
Over the past few months, Delaney has shown up to practices and meets and has seen her abuser smile, laugh and interact with other women on the team, all while receiving support from the coaches. She was struggling. Coach A and B both knew that this person had abused two people on the team and did absolutely nothing to help these women feel more comfortable or discipline the abuser. Feeling like there were no other options or outlets to go to, Delaney took matters into her own hands. She had to teach herself how to pretend as if her abuser wasn’t at practice and standing six feet away from her at times. She had to desensitize herself from instant fear and panic when hearing his voice and seeing his face. She felt like this was her issue, her problem and something that she simply just had to live with. She was worried about the little things too, like how next year she could possibly be a leader for this team and have to stand next to this person during photo day and take a picture with him. She was worried that a serial sexual assaulter and abuser would be a captain and representative for this team, where she would have to stand by his side, feeling silenced, uncomfortable and helpless.
On Friday, April 9, our momentum started to build. Grace courageously shared her story with the men’s team captain, explaining how she had quit the team due to a betrayal of trust by our coach and a desire to separate herself from her assaulter. Her assaulter was still on the team, surrounded by friends unknowing of the abuse. The captain knew of two other survivors, one of which was Delaney. Both had the same abuser. With Grace’s permission, he reached out to his fellow captains to initiate a conversation about what kind of culture our team enables, specifically as a men’s team. His top priority was the safety of his teammates, especially the women’s team, and for the team to stop supporting someone with a serial pattern of sexual misconduct.
Team leadership asked to meet with the coaching staff concerning these serious allegations. Soon afterward, on April 16, a conversation uncovered a fourth survivor who wasn’t on the team. We transitioned from just wanting a conversation with the coaches, to identifying a clear and present danger on the team that needed to be removed. Over the course of that day, the number of survivors we knew of rose to six. It seemed that every couple of hours the team was finding out about another victim.
We have been careful to keep their identities and situations confidential, discussing specifics only in cases where the survivors are willing to share parts of their stories. Fearing for our teammates’ safety, and with the survivors’ permission, those of us who knew of the situation began to speak with those who didn’t, generating support for the survivors and solidarity towards removing the abuser from our team environment. We began calling the rest of the team the night before our mock meet, which was scheduled for April 17. We continued making phone calls the morning of, to make sure that the team was aware of the situation. We could no longer live with ourselves and compete next to a serial abuser with a history of sexual misconduct.
When team leadership arrived at the meet, we met with the coaches and said in no uncertain terms that the team refused to compete with this person. This decision was made with the entire team, many of whom had proactively boycotted the meet. We argued that this individual created a toxic social environment on the team and needed to be removed. To our immense relief, we were successful. The abuser was removed from the team, and we collectively decided to cancel the meet in order to process and support each other. On Saturday night, though many felt unsettled by the day’s events, we knew a step had been taken to address wrongs that had been ignored for far too long.
But if the story had ended there, we wouldn’t be writing this article. On Sunday, April 18, while we were resting, Vassar’s administration did its best to undo our progress. Administrators, interested in covering their asses far more than doing the right thing, gave Coach A an ultimatum—reinstate the abuser or lose your job. Team leadership had been intent on chewing out administration anyways for letting the situation get to this point, but we began scrambling, doing hours of legal research and trying to justify the removal of this obvious cancer. We memorized Title IX codes, read academic papers on the subject and scrutinized the Vassar College guidelines provided on the school’s website. We tried our hardest to keep what small victories we’d achieved in the hope of convincing administration to stand for something other than protecting abusive athletes.
On Monday, April 19, we saw what little gains we had made taken from us. In a meeting with Director of Athletics and Physical Education Michelle Walsh, Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action Rachel Pereira, Director of Case Management Erika Pappas, Associate Athletic Director for Compliance & Student-Athlete Welfare Kaitlin Leach, the coaching staff and the entire track team, we prepared to present our case for removing this athlete from the team on the grounds of both Vassar policy and morality. That afternoon, our coaches sent an email describing the meeting as starting “a restorative justice dialogue about the challenges we are facing right now and the concerns raised this weekend.” They included a trigger warning: “We will discuss the process followed when an allegation of sexual misconduct is disclosed, and the College’s policies and federal law surrounding this.” Their intent was to give a presentation, more or less, on the policies that we already knew and had wanted to push back against. Additionally, without our knowledge, this meeting had become an amalgamation of what we had anticipated to be two separate meetings: one where the coaches would explain to the whole team what had happened over the weekend, and another where a smaller group of team leaders and survivors would meet with Walsh and Leach without the coaches present.
As the meeting began, we were informed of the news—the athlete was reinstated. Pending a Title IX conviction, they would be allowed to participate in team activities indefinitely. We argued, begged, accused, ridiculed and tried every other way we could think of to get administration to understand just how unjust this decision was. We failed. Our protests fell on deaf ears, and no matter what we suggested, or how carefully we explained the nuances of our argument based on the institution’s own policy,and legal study of title IX, we were shut down. Ultimately, we felt we had no choice but to resign en masse—to refuse to practice or compete unless the abuser was removed from the team space. That way, at least we weren’t complicit in his social standing on this campus. At a second meeting on Thursday, we were informed he had quit the team—and while that was a great measure of relief to all of us, many were left wondering what the College would have done had he not. We wondered what it would mean to go back to coaches who allowed this situation to progress until it reached a boiling point; how, after all this, we’re supposed to find meaning in a sport and on a team we all deeply care about.
We’re sharing our story like this because we don’t know where else to turn. As of right now, it’s unclear if Vassar College has a track team or if we will again in any immediate future. What we want is to feel safe—and to make sure our teammates feel safe. We want to end this horrible culture and undertake a serious effort to ensure that female athletes on this campus are equally able to hold space on a team. We want our women’s team to have their own coaching staff, not only because two coaches spread thin between what is effectively four teams is inefficient, but also so that women can feel more comfortable coming forward with concerns about their safety. A new coach does not guarantee that this will be accomplished, but it certainly seems easier to do when one coach is not responsible for both the abuser and the survivor. But what we want most is an administration that cares about the well-being of its athletes, and not the well-being of its pocketbooks. We know this won’t be the last chapter on sexual abuse on campus or in athletics. But we’d like it to be the last one that ends this way.
A Student’s Guide to Policy : How Vassar Can and Should Keep Us Safe
The question obvious on the minds of both the track team and I’m sure the minds of all readers of this article is: How exactly did both Title IX and Vassar policy so utterly fail the Vassar community? The short answer is that the policy didn’t; the coaches did. To better understand this we will examine both Title IX policy as well as Vassar Student Athlete Conduct policy and discuss how they should interact with one another to keep students safe.
To begin, Title IX is a federal civil rights law that applies to all academic institutions that receive federal funding, and it covers gender and sex discrimination as well as cases of sexual assault. If one chooses to read Vassar’s Title IX policy in full they can find it on the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action section of the Vassar College website. Upon delving in for a closer examination, one can see that Title IX’s dedication to non-discrimination extends to every corner of the policy. This includes instances when a student is accused of sexual assault or misconduct. Title IX both affords and requires the protection of the rights and privacy of both the Complainant (victim) and the Respondent (accused). These rights to privacy extend in all instances once an issue is reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) and then deferred to Title IX. This applies even if a Complainant chooses not to move forward with an investigation, a hearing does not take place or a hearing does take place and the Respondent is found not guilty. These privacy protections are covered in a number of different areas but most notably in the “Retaliation” section. This section states, “No person may intimidate, threaten, coerce, or discriminate against any individual for the purpose of interfering with any right or privilege secured by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 or its implementing regulations.” Its purpose is to protect all parties involved in the case, including the Respondent. It prevents any school authorities from taking action (outside of Title IX official sanctions) that may be targeted to specifically affect those involved.
The Student Athlete Code of Conduct is found within the Vassar Student Athlete Handbook and introduces itself with a short paragraph ending with the words, “If your behavior or actions as a Vassar College student-athlete do not reflect the values of the College and the Department, your athletic participation may be compromised.” It’s clear that if anything in this section is breached, removal from teams and competitive opportunities could be imminent. The Code possesses a detailed list of types of conduct violations and the various actions and behaviors that are prohibited. Categories include lewd and obscene conduct, disorderly conduct that interferes with teaching, conduct that interferes with the health and safety of others and many more. Above this list it clearly states, “All Vassar student-athletes must bear responsibility to act in accordance with local, state, and national laws. They may be subject to disciplinary action by the appropriate College authorities for the following actions of personal misconduct in connection with a Department activity or while representing the College” The “disciplinary action by the appropriate College authorities,” does not solely pertain to the Title IX office, but to all Vassar authorities. Should coaches become aware of conduct violations, the expectation is that the grievances will be raised with the athletic department and a decision will be made about the appropriate College authorities to involve.
The claim made to students by coaches in the scenario involving this athlete is that he as the Respondent (in multiple Title IX incidents) had rights, and they could not legally interfere with those rights. Therefore, they would not be removing him from the team. In a way, their statement was true, as we have discerned from the aforementioned retaliation policy that discipline or removal of this athlete from the team by coaches for an ongoing Title IX investigation or case would constitute discrimination, retaliation or harassment and would warrant immediate consequences. Herein lies the problem: The teammates of this athlete, although horrified and sickened by his history regarding Title IX, found their sense of urgency in another history. This athlete’s conduct on the team presented to them a clear and present sense of danger. Even disregarding his multiple Title IX offenses, a laundry list of incidents, some at practice, others at parties, dinners and pre-COVID dorm room gatherings with teammates, had formed over his years on the team. He had yelled obscenities at women, touched team members inappropriately and without consent, described his own sex acts in detail and done countless other things that made teammates uncomfortable, scared and anxious to attend practice. These incidents without a doubt fall into multiple categories of what the Student Athlete Code of Conduct describes as conduct violations. The team expected that, should they express what a clear and present danger to others they felt this individual embodied, the coaches would recognize their fear and discomfort and take immediate action. Instead, their first calls of concern were met with vehement refusal to address anything regarding this team member because “he had rights.” No federal regulation prevented the coaches reporting and addressing concerns of student conduct regarding this individual. Of course there is a larger problem at stake; this individual’s multiple Title IX offenses against his own teammates should have already alerted his coaches of the danger he presented to others on the team. Even if they were prohibited by the retaliation policy from inciting his removal, they should have taken more careful notice of his behavior. It required no breach of confidentiality to listen closely to his teammates the first time they expressed their discomfort. It’s troubling that the coaches’ first impulse was to jump to his defense.
So in short, this athlete’s history with Title IX offenses had little bearing on the coaches and administration’s ability to remove him from the team, because he had already breached Vassar Student Conduct policy with his behavior. The obvious connection between his behavior warranting action from student conduct and the multiple Title IX cases opened against him should be duly noted, and in fact should have long ago constituted clear and present danger to be investigated by school authorities. What we see illustrated here is the federal standing of Title IX used as an excuse by coaches to not involve themselves in clear matters of misconduct. It is well understood, and in fact has been written about in prior Misc articles, that the language of both Title IX and Vassar policy make it nearly impossible for the administering of athletics-based punishment by the sole authority of the Athletic Department in incidences of sexual assault or misconduct once they have been reported to the EOAA and deferred to Title IX. Until Vassar College puts in the effort and research to institute a non-contingency policy for the department this will always be the case. But this incident was not just about Title IX. This was about a horrifying pattern of behavior that persisted until it made its presence known beyond just the context of Title IX reports. This was an instance that had no legal excuse for a lack of action by the coaches and the department at large. This is where failure occurred.