Campuses struggle to combat cases of sexual assault

Alumna Aeriel White stands in front of Niccolls Hall at Lindenwood, where she was raped in 2010 during her freshman year.
Photo by Lindsey Fiala

ASHLEY HIGGINBOTHAM Reporter

Aeriel White has been watching the national debate about campus sexual assault closely, because during her time as a resident at Lindenwood University, she was raped.

It was 2010, her freshman year. She waited a week before reporting it because she blamed herself, she said.

She had flirted with him. She had invited him in.

“When he got there, I changed my mind,” White said. “Even though I had told him ‘no’ over and over, I still felt like it was my fault.”

White eventually told her Niccolls resident director, who then contacted police. But her rapist was never charged. He later left the university for what White heard were financial reasons.

White’s case is one of the many sexual offenses that have occurred at Lindenwood over the years. A dozen have been reported since 2011, according to statistics given in several years of the Clery Report, an annual security report required of all colleges and universities that receive federal funding. But many other sexual assaults likely have gone unreported, since only about a third are reported to police, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

It’s scary when you put it in terms of 1,100. And unfortunately it’s correct.

Paula Stewart

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women is sexually assaulted at some point in her college career. If that number were to be applied to Lindenwood, more than 1,100 of the 5,694 female students studying at the St. Charles campus will be assaulted.

Similarly, 1 in 16 men is sexually assaulted in college, which means 232 of the 3,719 male students studying at the St. Charles campus will be assaulted.

“It’s scary when you put it in terms of 1,100,” Lindenwood’s Clery Compliance Coordinator Paula Stewart said. “And unfortunately it’s correct.”

Prosecuting such cases can be difficult, like one of the most highly publicized cases of alleged rape at Lindenwood involving three basketball players last fall.

A police report obtained by the Legacy gave this account of the incident: The woman who reported the rape and former Lindenwood basketball player Ermias Nega had been seeing each other.

On Sept. 18, the woman and Nega were having consensual sex, but Nega left to use the bathroom. A different student, Tylan Birts, walked in and resumed having sex with the woman in the dark. A third student, Bradley Newman, also was partially nude and in the room.

Former basketball players Nega and Birts were charged with felony rape, and Newman was charged with misdemeanor invasion of privacy. However, a few months later, charges were dropped against Nega and Newman. Birts pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and got two years’ probation.

The woman, who had been working as a nanny in St. Louis County, is now back in her home country of Austria.

Reached via Facebook in September, she declined to comment about the outcome of her case, saying it was too upsetting.

I don’t want to talk about what happened and how it happened. Even thinking about it makes me shake.

Anonymous victim

“I don’t want to talk about what happened and how it happened,” she wrote in a message. “Even thinking about it makes me shake.”

St. Charles County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar said the evidence in the case simply wasn’t strong enough to go to trial.

“I’m not going to move forward with a case if I cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” Lohmar said.

This decision is not unusual. Findings by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network show for every 1,000 rapes committed, 310 are reported to the police, 57 lead to an arrest, 11 are referred to prosecutors and seven lead to a felony conviction.

Shortly after Newman was cleared of any wrongdoing, he was back at Lindenwood playing basketball. Newman and head coach Lance Randall declined to be interviewed but Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Brad Wachler issued the following statement:

“After the charges against Brad Newman were dropped and he was cleared of any wrongdoing, he subsequently re-enrolled at Lindenwood University for the current semester. The men’s basketball team is providing Mr. Newman with an extended tryout.”

It is unclear what Birts is doing now. However, Nega is playing basketball at the University of the Virgin Islands, according to his Twitter page.

Although false reporting of sexual assault is rare, it does happen. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 and 10 percent. A case at Lindenwood happened in 2014, when a student, Joanna Newberry, made a false police report that she was attacked in a bathroom at Butler Library. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in November 2016 and was placed on two years’ probation.

One of the most recent cases of sexual assault on Lindenwood’s campus happened in September 2017, when a female student reported she was attacked in Guffey Hall. The case is currently under investigation by the St. Charles Police Department.

A NATIONWIDE ISSUE

The debate about campus sexual assault has been increasing as reports have surfaced about universities not taking cases seriously.

A former University of Miami student filed a lawsuit against the university in mid-September after she claimed the school violated Title IX laws after she reported a sexual assault.

According to Lindenwood Title IX coordinator Kelly Moyich, the federal law requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding to combat gender-based violence and harassment and respond to survivors’ needs to ensure that all students have equal access to education.

The former Miami student claimed she went to the school after she said she was sexually assaulted at an off-campus apartment in August 2013. According to CrimeOnline.com, she claimed her RA program supervisor failed to make her aware of her Title IX rights. She went to the school again after her alleged rapist started stalking her, to which the school replied to “avoid those situations” where she could come into contact with her rapist, according to CrimeOnline.com.

In another case at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the school’s president was removed and the football coach was fired after an investigation found the school had failed to respond effectively to reports of sexual assault involving football players and others. A lawsuit filed late March of this year alleged that at least 31 football players committed at least 52 sexual offenses between 2011 -2014.

According to the New York Post, at Stanford University in Stanford, California, in 2015, a student athlete accused of felony rape was sentenced to six months in prison, but was released after serving three months.

According to the St. Louis police, on Sept. 24, three women reported they were sexually assaulted by Saint Louis University basketball players. St. Louis police are currently investigating it as a non-criminal case, but the school is conducting an official Title IX investigation.

CHANGING THE STANDARD

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released new guidance for Title IX after she said she was reviewing the federal law and wanted to toughen the standard of proof. Currently, schools must decide the outcome of the case by looking at more convincing evidence and how accurate it is, not the quantity of evidence. In this type of case, one knowledgeable witness provides more insight rather than multiple questionable witnesses.

When I told my story, a lot of my friends started coming forward.

Aeriel White

DeVos wants to change that standard back to clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing is when evidence must point in one direction beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that no other logical explanation can arise from the evidence. In contrast, the standard for all criminal cases is higher, so it requires proof that leaves you firmly convinced.

White believes this would ruin Title IX and result in more cases being acquitted.

“If you change the framework now, sexual assault survivors will lose,” she said. “Clear and convincing evidence is never going to happen. Not when it’s his word against hers, or hers against hers.”

‘I WANTED TO DO MORE’

White did not get to face her rapist in court, but she didn’t remain silent about what happened to her, either.

“When I told my story, a lot of my friends started coming forward,” White said.

This is when her passion for helping sexual assault victims blossomed, she said. In 2012, Jennifer Lorentz asked White to assist with a project called Still Standing. It was a platform for survivors to tell their stories. However, White wanted to do more.

When you go through something that demeaning and that degrading to the base nature of your body and your bodily autonomy, it’s important to look for the things you’re doing to take your power back

Aeriel White

She said one of her greatest accomplishments was being an exhibitor at the National Sexual Assault Conference in Washington D.C. in August 2016. The conference is a two-day event that provides advanced training opportunities and information regarding sexual assault.

Today, the website has reached more than 150 countries through Facebook.

White said Still Standing celebrates every survivor and his or her daily accomplishments.

“When you go through something that demeaning and that degrading to the base nature of your body and your bodily autonomy, it’s important to look for the things you’re doing to take your power back,” White said.

Back at Lindenwood, Lindenwood’s Campus Organization Against Sexual Assault was formed in 2016. President Haley Holman vowed to raise awareness of sexual and domestic violence on campus. Members are collecting used cellphones and phone accessories for the Verizon Hopeline.

Through Verizon, victims of sexual or domestic violence are given cellphones to use if the violence escalates again. The group also gives dating violence workshops on campus.

Stewart gives presentations in all dorms about sexual assault every fall, and this year, they started at the end of September.

“We go over what consent is, what to do if you’re the victim of sexual assault, how to get resources on campus, resources off campus, and reporting,” Stewart said.

During the half-hour presentation, Stewart also covers ways to notify campus security and how to file a report with the police. If the victim decides to involve the police department, the police notify Moyich and the Public Safety and Security office.

According to the Clery Report 2017, new student programs regarding sexual assault prevention were held at Lindenwood in the spring and fall of 2016.

For instance, a presentation called Sexual Assault and Bystander Intervention was about “reducing the impact and incidence of relationship violence and sexual assault through education, crisis intervention, counseling and support services.” Students also were required to watch a video about consent.

LOOKING AHEAD

White continues to fight sexual assault and works to empower victims, and she said she always relies on her nationwide team at Still Standing to stay current.

“We’re working on a collaborative piece in response to DeVos’ decision,” White said.

She graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in criminal justice and in 2017 with a master’s in nonprofit administration. She and her husband Roy are expecting their first child. She works as part of the asset protection team at Academy Sports + Outdoors.

White said her assault is always in the back of her mind when it comes to her unborn child and trust is a value White and her husband want to set as soon as possible.

“I know definitely, gal or guy, we’re definitely going to stress boundaries and consent super early on,” White said.

With the winds of change blowing on Title IX and the incidents of sexual assault continuing, she said she will carry on the battle for those who have gone through the same ordeal.

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