“The message I took from this whole process was this: They know he’s guilty, but they’re letting him off the hook because they don’t want to ruin his life. What about the fact that he almost ruined mine?”
These are the words of a master’s student describing the investigation the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) conducted after she reported her sexual assault. The News-Letter granted her anonymity to protect her privacy; she requested the pseudonym Zhang.
Zhang filed her complaint in the fall of 2020. Although OIE’s investigation eventually found the perpetrator guilty of sexual assault, the resolution panel decided not the punish the perpetrator. External review panels are composed of two trained University faculty or administrators and one additional retired judge or legal professional chosen by the Title IX coordinator.
The perpetrator of her assault, Zhang said, was someone she knew.
“Early last semester, someone who I thought was my friend attempted to sexually assault me while we were both inebriated,” she said. “I had been training in self-defense for a while and was luckily able to get away unscathed.”
Zhang was unsure what to do in the aftermath of the attempted assault. She was hesitant to file a report with the police, noting that she did not think there would be enough physical evidence in a criminal case given that she had escaped the perpetrator.
According to Zhang, OIE’s preponderance of evidence standard led her to file a report through OIE instead of the police because this standard only requires a chance greater than 50% that the claim is true for the burden of proof to be established.
Despite deciding to file a report through OIE, Zhang was not fully confident in the office’s ability to help her.
“I wanted to give OIE and the resolution panel a chance to prove me wrong,” she said. “Collectively, they failed.”
Zhang is not the first to call an OIE investigation ineffective. In 2018, multiple students reported that their OIE investigations took too long, were unprofessional and were unproductive. Although annual OIE reports and Climate Surveys have reported some improvement in student perceptions of OIE, students have expressed reluctance to file complaints with the office as recently as 2020.
In 2019, the University participated in the Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey about sexual misconduct, in which data collected at Hopkins was compared with those of 32 other universities. The survey found that 43% of respondents believed Hopkins would conduct a fair investigation into sexual misconduct cases; this was down from 63% in 2018 and eight percentage points lower than the 2019 AAU average.
In an email to The News-Letter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity Shanon Shumpert and Assistant Vice Provost and Title IX Coordinator Linda Boyd noted that OIE’s investigative time frame has improved since 2018. According to them, it took an average of 130 days to close a case in 2018; in 2019, that number was 102.
They highlighted that this average includes cases resolved by informal resolution or assessment, which take less time than formal investigations. Formal investigations, like the one Zhang completed, involve both OIE’s investigation into the incident as well as an analysis of the evidence by an external panel that determines the appropriate sanctions.
Shumpert and Boyd noted that in fall of 2020, when Zhang filed her report, it took OIE an average of 122 days to formally investigate claims and an average of 49 additional days for the external decision-makers to draw conclusions from the investigation.
Shumpert and Boyd emphasized that OIE is continuing to work on decreasing its investigative timeline.
“While the full investigation process can be time consuming, OIE is continuing to streamline its intake, fact-gathering and report-writing phases to enhance efficiency without forgoing a comprehensive, accurate investigation of the allegations at issue,” they wrote.
They added that students can learn more about OIE’s investigative processes on its website.
In addition to contacting OIE, Zhang called the Sexual Assault Resource Unit’s (SARU) 24/7 peer-run hotline twice this fall, but did not receive a response from the group.
In an email to The News-Letter, SARU Co-Directors Padmini Balaji and Michael Vidal explained that hotline shift lengths were extended as a result of COVID-19. They are working to make sure hotline responders are prioritizing the hotline for the entirety of their shifts going forward.
“We first would like to acknowledge and apologize for the difficult feelings that can arise when a call is missed,” they wrote. “We are actively working with hotline members to ensure situations like this do not happen in the future.”
Balaji and Vidal encouraged people to contact them directly if they have any issues with the hotline or need additional support.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Vidal highlighted some of SARU’s goals for the University.
“We’re hoping to set a good framework for future survivors on campus,” Vidal said. “Our school isn't perfect.”
When OIE completed its investigation, Zhang was content with its findings.
“I was satisfied with the findings of its report,” she said. “OIE did find the perpetrator guilty on multiple charges, including sexual assault.”
Given OIE’s findings, however, Zhang was surprised when the resolution panel for her case chose not to suspend the perpetrator.
“If you as the resolution panel agree with OIE that someone is guilty of an infraction, you should punish them according to the severity,” she said. “If you know someone can do jail time if found guilty in a court of law for a charge that you also find them guilty on, I think you can afford a suspension.”
Zhang was also upset by the length of time it took for OIE to investigate her case, noting that the investigation took almost three months longer than she was originally promised.
Additionally, she argued that OIE failed to follow the protocols it told her it it would.
In an email to Zhang, OIE claimed that all organizations in which both the student and the perpetrator of her assault were involved would be told about the investigation. According to Zhang, however, the leaders of one of the clubs both parties were a part of did not know about the allegations until she told them herself.
Zhang expressed concerns about how resolutions like hers will influence campus culture.
“In my opinion, he basically got off the hook for something that would have been punishable by jail time if he were found guilty in a court of law. For him to be able to walk away from this with only a slap on the wrist worries me,” she said. “I’m worried that it sends the message to him and other people that they can sexually harass and assault people and get away with it.”
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can seek help from the following Hopkins-specific, local or national confidential resources: JHU Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU) 24/7 Peer Crisis Support Hotline — (410) 516-7887; JHU 24/7 Sexual Assault Helpline — (410) 516-7333; TurnAround Inc 24/7 Helpline — (443) 279-0379; Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 24/7 Sexual Assault Hotline — 1 (800) 656-4673.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly implied that no punitive measures were taken against the perpetrator.
The News-Letter regrets these errors.