Title IX investigation calls future of Vassar Track Team into question

[TW: This article discusses sexual assault and abuse on campus.]

Additional reporting for this article was done by Lucy Brewster and Annabelle Wang.

 

On Saturday, April 17, Vassar’s Track and Field team was scheduled for an intrasquad mock meet. It never happened. After alleged mishandling of sexual misconduct on the team, athletes protested their intrasquad event by boycotting competition. 

According to multiple athletes, momentum towards a boycott began building Friday, April 9, when a former cross country and track athlete named Grace (a pseudonym) revealed to team captain Josh Lacoste ’21 that she had been sexually assaulted by a teammate. At the time of publication, both Grace and Delaney (also a pseudonym) of the Vassar Track team had shared accusations of sexual assault against the same teammate with The Miscellany News. 

The alleged misconduct goes back as far as 2019. In the fall of that year, Grace, a long-distance runner, was assaulted. She eventually quit the team, citing an alleged mishandling of her sexual assault accusations. 

Both the Vassar administration and Head Coach James McCowan shared that they could not comment on open Title IX investigations or specific incidents. “While we cannot discuss specifics of any case, all students are entitled to a just process, which includes due process for all parties and a fair investigation,” commented Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Caroll via email. 

“We cannot discuss confidential matters regarding specific students,” said Head Coach McCowan. “We are committed to working together with the students, administrators, fellow coaches and other members of the college community to provide a healthy and inclusive environment for all members of the cross-country and track and field programs,” he added. 

Ryan Mazurkiewicz ’22, a team member, shared his experience with the boycott. As the team began to grasp what had transpired, the boycott took form. “That was a decision made by first years,” he said. “It wasn’t an organized boycott as much as a ‘I’m not running next to this person [the accused] today’—my guess is around 15 people started doing that Friday night, and everyone else was open to it by Saturday morning [the day of the boycott],” he added. 

The upperclassmen on the team soon realized the boycott would disrupt the event. “By the time we actually got to the meet Saturday morning, the entire team knew, and the authors of [our team’s Miscellany News] article went to meet with [Coach] James [McCowan] and [Coach] Justin [Harris] to discuss how the team would move forward,” Mazurkiewicz said.

According to several members of the team, the coaches suspended the alleged abuser indefinitely after the boycott. The Student Athlete Handbook’s code of conduct states that an athlete can be kicked off a team for any number of “personal misconduct” behaviors. But once a Title IX case opens, the language in section 106.71 makes it so the accused are essentially immune to these standards because actions taken can be interpreted as retaliatory. 

According to Delaney, by Monday, April 19, Vassar’s administration had told the coaches to reinstate the alleged abuser or face discipline themselves. Practice that day was cancelled, and a meeting led by Director of Athletics Michelle Walsh and the coaches was held instead. When the team found out that the accused had been reinstated, they were furious. “We were so angry,” Mazurkiewicz explained. “This person is not going to be running. Either because you kick him off the team or because there is no team.” Delaney echoed this sentiment: “we were trying to plead our case … it wasn’t getting through to the administration, so that was a very frustrating meeting.”

Practices were then cancelled indefinitely, although the team organized informal workouts without the coaches present. Finally, the team had a meeting with some of the College’s deans and Director Walsh on Thursday April 22. “Is he on the team?,” was the students’ first question. To the athletes’ relief, the Deans said that no, he had quit. “It makes this conversation possible … We no longer have to worry about women on the team being in contact with a serial predator,” Mazurkiewicz said. 

But the team still had a lot of questions, Delaney explained. “Are the coaches going to be punished? Because we felt like they didn’t do everything in their power … that meeting was a little frustrating.” She continued, “But [at least] it seems like there are more policies being instilled from our concerns…about communicating more about no-contact orders between the coaches, administration and Athletic Director as well.”

Vassar’s Title IX policy notes another removal option labelled “Emergency Removal” procedures. Emergency Removal gives the College “the authority to remove a Respondent from any program on an emergency basis, where Vassar (1) undertakes an individualized safety and risk analysis and (2) determines that an immediate threat to the physical health or safety of any student or other individual arising from the allegations of covered sexual harassment justifies a removal.” When asked for comment, Duga-Carroll responded, on behalf of the College: “Without a finding of responsibility via a Title IX investigation and proper hearing, no student may be disciplined. Suspension from an athletic team is discipline.”

Mazurkiewicz lambasted these regulations and the decisions of the College: “Simultaneously, everyone was wrong here,” he said. “It’s not too much to ask for the College to have authority at least on repeat offenses to remove abusers from the space.”

Delaney agreed: “I’m very frustrated with the Title IX system … If someone is accused of sexual assault, they should be kicked off the team. Being on the team is a privilege, not a right.”

As things stand, the future of the Track team is up in the air. When asked what could be done to ensure her return, Grace brought up the need for separate coaches for the women’s and men’s teams: “I know we can’t hire someone based on whether they’re a woman, but it would make me more comfortable to have someone I could go to that’s more understanding of women’s issues … I would like a separate coach.” Delaney concurred, saying “there are coed teams on this campus…How can we keep teams safe when something like this happens?” And rethinking traditional coaching models is definitely part of the equation, Delaney elaborated: “The coaches need to go through training about how to better handle the situation…Sexual assault does happen a lot here, [so] there needs to be change and more support for survivors in my opinion.”

3 Comments

  1. It’s ridiculous that if students are in the process of a Title IX report they could be pressured or even required to participate in athletic activities with their abuser. When the complaint is within a team or an org the accused-member should be temporarily suspended until a preliminary investigation is completed. Why are we concerned about suspension from a sports team being considered retaliation? Isn’t making the victim/reporter be in a space (possibly enclosed/private spaces such as locker rooms) with their abuser [who has been notified of the investigation] MORE likely to lead to retaliation?

  2. Legally, Vassar’s hands are tied by the Title IX regulations that went into affect August, 2020. Any student going through a Title IX process cannot be punished until a hearing is held. That includes being suspended from an athletic team. This isn’t a “Vassar” decision, it is a decision made by the Department of Education.

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