Tess Carter is getting impatient.
In January, Carter filed a formal complaint with Portland State University (PSU), accusing a male student of repeatedly raping her. She decided to submit her detailed, 15-page allegation after speaking with five different women—some students, some not—who all said they had been sexually assaulted by the same man. Two of those women, who asked to remain anonymous, joined Carter in filing complaints against the man, submitting their statements in unison to PSU’s Office of the Dean of Student Life, the department that handles student sexual abuse claims.
Not long after, Carter and the other women were interviewed about their complaints by Dana Walton-Macaulay, PSU’s assistant dean of student life and director of conduct. The women were told the university would follow up with them in 60 days after investigating their claims.
Nearly 150 days have passed since Carter and the two other women filed their complaints—and they’ve received no formal response. Meanwhile, they say they’ve encountered their alleged abuser multiple times on campus.
“It is so difficult walking around, knowing there’s somebody out there who would be so violent to you and violated you that deeply,” says Carter.
That’s why, over the past few weeks, PSU students and community members have organized a number of on-campus rallies to bring attention to the university’s silence. Last week, a group called PSU Students Against Sexual Violence delivered a petition with nearly 3,000 signatures to the Office of Student Life. They requested, among other punishments, that PSU put the male student on disciplinary probation until May 2019.
Campus officials aren’t permitted to openly speak about complaints that are involved in a Title IX investigation—the process that’s set into motion whenever a student reports sexual assault or sex discrimination. But they cite the Trump administration’s newly relaxed guidelines for handling sexual assault on campus when explaining the length of their investigation process.
Julie Caron, PSU’s Title IX coordinator, says said that normally, investigations such as these usually take no longer than three weeks. If, following their inquiry, investigators believe a student has violated the school’s student code of conduct, the case generally moves forward to the campus’ student conduct board. That panel makes a final decision about what sanctions, if any, that student should face. The most extreme penalty is expulsion.
PSU isn’t breaking any rules, however, by taking its time to respond to these complaints.
According to Caron, PSU has usually followed federal Title IX standards in cases of alleged sexual assault, which note that any investigations against a student should generally be concluded within 60 days.
But under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was appointed in 2016 by Donald Trump—himself accused of rampant sexual assault—Title IX standards have become remarkably vague. In September 2017, DeVos rescinded the Title IX standards created under the Obama administration, announcing there would no longer be a “fixed time frame” in which a university must complete a Title IX investigation.
Carter believes the delay is a directive from the university’s top brass. “I just think the university doesn’t want to expel a rapist because that would look bad for the university,” she says.
The women involved in the case all have similar accounts of an emotionally manipulative man who forced them into having sex even after they repeatedly told him no. Carter was in a relationship with the man before he began to allegedly abuse her; others say he would wait until they were extremely drunk to rape them. As in most cases of sexual assault, every woman knew the alleged rapist before the assault took place.
“He threatened to tell my mom, or my boyfriend at the time,” says an alleged victim who asked to remain anonymous. “He exiled me from our friend group. I’ve lost many friends.”
Caron says that all campus investigations into sexual assault are “survivor-focused.”
“But we like both parties to be granted an equitable process,” she says. “Both sides are allowed due process.”
Carter, while not a PSU student, is a member of the school’s International Socialist Organization, making her what the university calls a “PSU community member.” It’s a seemingly arbitrary distinction that, in this case, could be working against her.
“When we receive a complaint from a community member, our highest obligation is to the student,” Caron says. If the victim is a student, she adds, they’re given immediate support through campus programs, like counseling, an on-campus advocate, and scheduling changes to guarantee the student doesn’t have to interact with their abuser. But there are fewer institutional protections for a victim who is not enrolled in the university.
One of the three women who has filed a complaint against the male PSU student is enrolled at PSU. According to Carter, PSU helped her get a protective order against her alleged abuser—but he’s broken it several times, like when he recently spit at her as she was walking across campus.
According to Elizabeth Tang, a legal fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, DeVos’ new Title IX standards also roll back university requirements on protecting alleged victims while their cases are investigated.
“When a rape survivor sees a rapist on campus, it takes them back to the time of the assault. It’s retraumatizing,” Tang says. “Without those protections, they’re in constant fight-or-flight mode.”
The victims and their advocates have promised to continue holding rallies until they get an update on the investigation. While they wait, the women say they won’t be surprised if others come forward with allegations against the same man.
“I think it’s obvious what’s going on,” one victim, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Mercury. “There are so many of us coming forward at this point—how can the university ignore it?”