Tech joins campus rape conversation

Graphic by Valerie Hubert.

PART 1: Jane and Joe

Only Tennessee Tech students Jane and Joe know what really happened in Room 508 of Pinkerton Hall on Aug. 30, 2018.

She says Joe, a 19-year-old she met at band camp, picked her up, kissed her, stripped off their clothes, laid her on the bed and raped her.

He said it never happened.

Jane, a 17-year-old freshman at the time, admittedly lived in denial for months until the friends she confided in encouraged her to report the assault to campus police.

She said university officials’ handling of her rape complaint only frustrated her.

Although officials followed protocol, the process at times appeared confusing, ineffective and contradictory. In the end, her nine-month struggle to seek justice landed her on the wrong side of the law.

Her frustrations escalated into anger and fear which led to her own two-year suspension from school and an assault charge.

Her alleged attacker faced few repercussions.

In fact, officials in the Office of Student Affairs ruled that August encounter was consensual even though Joe told campus police they never had sex, according to a Tech report from the investigation into the encounter.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’ve just made things even harder on me, and want me gone,” Jane said. “I feel hopeless and helpless.”

Jane’s hesitation to recognize her encounter as rape and then to report it, is not uncommon.

More than 90 percent of assaults on college campuses are not reported at all, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Records show Tennessee Tech University police received six reported rapes from 2016-2018 – only a fraction of what some officials believe actually occurred. According to a 2014 campus survey, 25 percent of respondents have experienced an attempted or completed rape.

On June 24, officials ruled Joe did not violate the school’s sexual misconduct policy.

“While the preponderance is sufficient to conclude that Complainant and respondent engaged in sexual intercourse, the evidence does not support the conclusion the intercourse was nonconsensual,” according to documents obtained through an open records request.

When asked how a determination of consensual sex is made when one party says it occurs and the other said there was no physical contact, a Title IX Coordinator replied that an investigator looks for evidence to corroborate and in some cases no evidence is found and no conclusion can be drawn.

PART 2: Clear and Convincing

“Can you imagine being a 19-year-old college freshman and everyone saying, ‘That’s the girl?’ A lot of victims don’t report out of embarrassment or the shame that they feel.”

Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney General Bryant Dunaway said sexual misconduct cases are underreported nationwide and he has yet to prosecute a sexual assault case from Tech since he was elected in 2014.

“One of my big frustrations is there are 12,000 people (at Tech) … and I would prosecute any crime that happened on that campus, and I can’t think of a single sexual assault or rape case that came from Tennessee Tech,” Dunaway said.

“I’ve had many conversations with the university. Many times you’ll have a victim report a case or go over to health services, and they will specifically say that they don’t want to report it to law enforcement.”

Project Coordinator for Project Awaken Jac Ewasyshyn says generally, many survivors of sexual misconduct will not report at all.

“I can say that from a general way that a lot of the folks who I have met will disclose to a confidential resource that they have been victimized, will not report it officially to a university or police,” Ewasyshyn said. “If they don’t know, they can’t do anything about it.”

Project Awaken is a grant program at Tennessee Tech raising awareness of sexual misconduct, stalking and domestic violence.

Jane is not the only person questioning how Tech officials handled sexual assault complaints.

A former student filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 against the university and student affairs officials claiming they violated her due process rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act.

“Defendants’ indifference facilitated a sexually hostile educational environment and prevented Plaintiff from accessing resources provided by the university,” according to court documents.

The student said she was raped off campus by another Tech student in 2015.

Title IX regulates how college administrators handle complaints about sexual harassment, gender, discrimination and sexual misconduct. At Tech, it is Zeva Edmondson’s job to ensure compliance.

Edmondson has 30 years of experience in law enforcement as an investigator in sexual assault and domestic violence cases. She became Tech’s Title IX coordinator in 2017.

Federal privacy laws such as the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, and Title IX prevent Edmondson and other school officials from discussing specific cases or the students involved.

Jane’s report to police set a process in motion. Tech police interviewed Jane, Joe and others, and turned that information over to Edmondson.

Edmondson informed Jane about counseling resources, and notified Joe of the complaint and his rights under Title IX. Her investigation information was then forwarded to the Dean of Students Katherine Williams and then to Vice Presidentof Student Affairs Mark Burnett, who has since retired.

If Dunaway had pursued charges in Jane’s case he would have to prove the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The standard is not the same when university officials attempt to determine whether a student violated conduct codes. Until December, the dean of students and/or the school’s judicial council had to prove a violation by “clear and convincing” evidence. That standard requires the evidence be substantially more probable than not.

Tech’s Board of Trustees changed that standard to “preponderance of evidence” in a unanimous decision in December. The preponderance standard only requires the burden of proof be greater than 50%.

Dean Williams told trustees she recommended the change to be consistent with requirements under Title IX and the standard adopted by other Tennessee universities.

It is unclear whether the new standard would have affected the outcome in Jane’s case.

PART 3: Retaliation

Jane was informed about the verdict of her case via an email.

“They couldn’t even look my daughter in the eyes to tell her,” Jane’s mother said.

Police said they consulted with county prosecutors who determined there was not enough evidence to pursue the case, according to a police report.

An officer explained the situation to Jane, who later admitted she would have had more evidence if she had reported the incident earlier.

“It wasn’t the greatest investigation, but at the same time I understand this stuff is nearly impossible to prove,” Jane said.

A rape kit, bed sheets or even text messages from the accused are examples of evidence that could possibly prove an alleged rape, Dunaway said.

“If there is no physical evidence you have to be honest with the victim and say, ‘You know, it’s a 50/50 chance we get a conviction,” the prosecutor said.

Jane said she felt angry, afraid and alone when she ran into Joe in the Bryan Fine Arts Building. She said she saw him every day because they had the same major and classes.

“He really did take a part of me, he took away my voice,” Jane said.

Jane said she went to Edmondson for a no-contact order in hopes of avoiding seeing Joe on campus.

On Aug. 23, Edmondson issued such an order, limiting interactions that could be perceived as intimidating or harassing.

Even though the order said “violation of this order will likely result in disciplinary consequences,” Jane said she felt as if there were no actions taken to prevent interaction with Joe.

When she contacted Edmondson about whether she would like to stay informed over what accommodations were being made for her, Edmondson replied, “no.”

The student said she repeatedly voiced her concerns to officials about Joe violating the order, but no directives were being enforced.

“She told me it was going to go into effect, and it was going to keep me safe,” Jane said.

Williamstold Jane in an email, “The provisions of the no-contact order are intended to serve as a behavioral guide for both parties to minimize contact.”

Then she took matters into her own hands.

On Oct. 17 in the Bryan Fine Arts lobby, Jane said she saw Joe coming toward her. She said she took out her pepper spray, ordered him to stop and then sprayed him.

A security camera recorded Jane’s actions, but Joe was out of the camera’s view and could not be seen, according to a police report.

Joe, who declined an interview request, filed a criminal complaint against Jane with the Cookeville Police Department. Joe told police he was attempting to catch up with a friend and was walking from the hallway into the lounge when he was sprayed, according to a police report.

Campus police reports say that during interviews with officers, Joe seemed nervous, but also played recordings on his phone with Jane in them, including one where she makes a “short giggle,” and tells Joe that she is sorry and was trying to retaliate.

Jane said she was cornered and coerced by Joe into making recordings that said he was innocent.

Tech officials initially banned Jane from the building. The ban prevented her from attending class and her grades suffered even though she attempted to complete her assignments via email, she said.

Her inability to convince school officials she had been defending herself made her feel helpless, she said.

“It’s disheartening, and it doesn’t help the feeling of victimization,” she said.

The incident lead to formal assault complaint against her for violating the student code of conduct. The process took two weeks, and on Nov. 11, Williams informed Jane via email that she was suspended for two years.

The assault charge against Jane was ultimately dropped in Putnam County General Sessions Court.

Jane hopes her story will encourage other victims to report incidents to authorities sooner and that university officials will consider improving their protocol for better communication with victims.

Now, Jane is not allowed on campus without permission. She only has one regret.

“I would be just fine if I had reported the assault six months earlier,” she said.

PART 4: Project Awaken

On Tech campus, the grant program Project Awaken aims at raising awareness of the dangers of sexual assault, stalking and dating/domestic violence.

“Most of what we’re doing is prevention education,” Project Coordinator Jac Ewasyshyn said. “Going into classrooms (showing) what these things are, what they look like and how to support a friend who’s gone through it. On the flip side, we can provide confidential support and resources since we’re grant funded.”

Project Awaken was supported by a grant through the Office of Violence Against Women in the U.S. Department of Justice. That grant is set to expire during 2020, but Ewasyshyn said they have an option to extend for another year.

Ewasyshyn said some of other responsibilities for the program is working with campus and local law enforcement on how to interview victims, as well as looking at internal policies and how survivors can navigate them.

For sexual assault awareness, Project Awaken officials are working with the Women’s Center on what people have experienced in the community and raise awareness on victim blaming that can occur.

As far as how prevalent sexual misconduct is on Tech campus is a question that doesn’t necessarily have a clear answer.

“I’ve never seen a town where it doesn’t happen and Tech is no exception to that. It’s happening here and it’s happening everywhere,” Ewasyshyn said. “Even if it just happens to one person, that’s too many. It’s hard to get any statistics. We’re actually in the process of doing other (campus climate survey) right now.”

The most recent campus climate survey in 2014 found that roughly 25 percent of students reported experiencing attempted or completed rape. The data from this survey will be compiled throughout the course of the Spring 2020 survey and reviewed over the summer.

“The 2014 rate of about 25 percent is really consistent with other campuses. Most studies you’ll find will say one in four or one in five college women will experience sexual assault while they’re on campus,” Ewasyshyn said. “It’s alarming. Its happening everywhere and we’re no exception.”

Public universities are required to file an annual safety report under the federal Clery Act, a consumer protection law providing transparency about campus crime policy and statistics. The reports released each fall are based upon the previous year’s statistics.

Since 2016, there have been six reported rapes on campus at Tennessee Tech, four in campus housing. In 2018, two rapes on campus were reported, one in student housing.

Ewasyshyn said part of the reason the university went after the grant that started Project Awaken was to address that issue on campus.

Outside of telling a friend first, most students prefer to start with the use of the confidential resources that are available, which Tech offers through Project Awaken, the Counseling Center and Health Services.

As Project Awaken continues its work on campus, Ewasyshyn said continued education and prevention are necessary to remove any social issues that persist among those who may not understand the issues at hand.

“It’s called social norming. What should be expected of every person,” Ewasyshyn said. “The last thing that we’re going to do with Awaken, and I hope to see Awaken get (extended) because this is not something that we’re going to solve in one grant, is supporting survivors. What we know is that if survivors feel supported, then those outcomes if they choose to report it tend to go a lot better.”

“So my hope would be that every survivor would get to work with a resource, whether that is the counseling center, Project Awaken, Genesis (House) or whatever, I would hope that every survivor gets someone that has been trained in crisis intervention, sexual assault and trauma, to work with them so that they can provide … a response on these are your options and I can go with you.”

For more information on resources available on Tech campus, visit