After Cecilia Carreras reported being sexually assaulted by a fellow student at the University of Richmond in Virginia, she expected compassion from Dan Fabian, a dean who serves as the school's deputy Title IX coordinator, and who initially investigated her case. Instead, about two weeks after she first reported an assault to the university, she said Fabian provided a horrifying explanation for letting off the student Carreras accused of assaulting her.
According to Carreras, Fabian suggested that it was “reasonable” for a man to continue penetrating a woman for a few more minutes if he was nearly finished. In other words, the dean seemed to say that it reasonable for the accused student to reach orgasm if he was close to it.
No recordings exist of the conversations between Fabian and Carreras, but emails and other documents provided by Carreras and by a second University of Richmond student who says she also was raped underscore the frustrations both faced in their dealings with the school. Both say the university didn’t do enough to keep the alleged attackers away from the women; both say that administrators responded with insensitivity when dealing with their cases; both say they were left to deal with emotional scars while the accused men went on with their lives.
Carreras told many university administrators in the months that followed about her disgust with Fabian and what she described as the university’s failure to provide her a fair shot at prosecuting her alleged attacker in the school’s adjudication system. A year on, she felt like she was getting nowhere, so Carreras published a blog post about Fabian’s alleged comment, accusing the school of a flawed investigation and a failure to enforce a no-contact order against her alleged assailant.
Carreras hoped that by going public about her experience, she could push the university to take a hard look at how it evaluates these cases. She did not expect the university to email the student body saying she was not telling the truth and calling Carreras’s description of events “inaccurate.”
“My heart was racing,” Carreras told BuzzFeed News. “I was really disappointed for them to say it’s ‘inaccurate’ when they know firsthand how they handled it.”
Carreras’s allegations and the school’s response have evoked widespread outrage on the Richmond campus, where about 4,100 students are enrolled. The university is already one of 212 higher education institutions under federal investigation for its handling of sexual violence cases. At a previously scheduled forum about sexual violence at the university on Thursday, administrators faced a room full of angry students as the university dug in on its defensive stance.
Dozens stormed out as school officials insisted that Fabian had not made the comments Carreras attributed to him. “We know that is not what Dean Fabian said,” Mia Reinoso Genoni, dean of the university’s Westhampton College for undergraduate women, told students present.
Documents obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed News, as well as interviews with students involved in the cases, show that Carreras raised concerns about how the university was handling her case to administrators multiple times in the past year.
A witness who attended a meeting in November between Carreras and several administrators, including Fabian, said Carreras brought up Fabian’s alleged comment at that time. Instead of denying having made it, Fabian said nothing and simply left the room, said the witness, who was a student at the university during the case. The witness, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, also was called to testify at a hearing related to the case. She has since graduated.
Carreras said that only after she went public with her accusations did the university feel inclined to push back. “That comment was never denied until I said it publicly,” Carreras said.
A second Richmond student, Whitney Ralston, has also come forward about her sexual assault case, in which her alleged assailant accepted responsibility for violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy. He was given probation as a punishment, after being accused of rape and stalking, and later joined the football team, she said.
According to Ralston, Fabian said her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression made her an “unreliable witness” for her own sexual assault case. Ralston complained about this statement in a March email to the university’s Title IX coordinator, Maura Smith, documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show.
"You failed me when I reported and now that I’m speaking out publicly, you thought calling me a liar was appropriate. You all should be ashamed of yourselves."
The private university declined to comment or make anyone available for an interview. In response to a list of questions, the school sent back a link to its sexual misconduct policy. Fabian did not answer phone calls at home or respond to an email.
The scandal is roiling the campus; at the school’s football home opener over the weekend, in fact, a player flashed an anti-rape shirt during warm-ups, while students displayed homemade signs in the stands. On a Facebook page, some alumni have declared they will withhold donations and financial support of school athletics until their alma mater makes reforms and apologizes.
“I immediately believed Cecilia — no one would ever make those things up,” said one Richmond alumnus, who told BuzzFeed News she reported a sexual assault in 2012 but had no complaints about the university’s response. Nevertheless, the alumnus, who requested anonymity, said the overall experience “was hell. As much as they give you support, it’s the worst few months of your life.” A privacy agreement restricted her from talking about the outcome of her case, she said, only noting that it was “very favorable” for her.
“Mostly, why I’m so upset is because of how much of a 180-degree flip they did,” she said, noting that Fabian sat with her mother for support during her hearing. “I feel like a lot of girls are not going to come forward because of what they see happening, and that’s the most heartbreaking thing.”
Just as employers must address incidents of sexual harassment under civil rights statutes, the gender equity law Title IX obligates colleges and universities to respond to reports of sexual assault. Even if the police aren’t making an arrest, students like Carreras can ask that their school remove their alleged abusers from where they go to class and study, or from campus altogether if the sexual assault report is deemed more likely than not to be true.
Carreras reported to University of Richmond deans in August 2015 that an acquaintance and classmate at the school had sexually assaulted her a month earlier, continuing to penetrate her after she told him to stop, she said.
Fabian called her into his office a couple of weeks later and recommended against punishing the accused student, Carreras said. At that time, she said Fabian also made his comment about letting the man “finish,” she said.
At that same meeting, Carreras said Fabian showed her his written synopsis of the case, which included material she said was false. For instance, Carreras said Fabian wrote that she had consented to let the sex continue; in reality Carreras said she had told the man to stop.
Carreras voiced her objection to Fabian’s conclusion in emails to him later that day. Throughout the next few months, she voiced her objection to multiple administrators about Fabian’s examination of her case, according to emails and interviews with people present in meetings.
Smith, the school’s top Title IX coordinator, agreed to reopen Carreras’s case, ultimately bringing it to a hearing in October. The hearing board found the accused student not responsible for violating the sexual misconduct policy, documents show. It cited “varying witness testimonies” that made the board unable to “establish a clear timeline of events.”
Carreras appealed the decision on the grounds that some people who testified on the accused’s behalf gave inconsistent statements about who was present on the night of the alleged assault.
The university denied her appeal, according to a letter sent to her from Steve Bisese, a vice president for student development.
The accused student in Carreras’s case did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News. Carreras has declined to name him publicly to avoid retaliation or sanction by the university.
In Ralston’s case, her alleged assailant accepted responsibility for violating the school’s conduct code against sexual misconduct, so there was no hearing, documents show. His punishment was probation.
Ralston also reported her case to University of Richmond police, who she said were helpful, but she decided against pressing charges, fearing that it could result in retaliation from the offender.
The school issued a no-contact order between Carreras and the accused student, and she reported five times that he violated the restriction, Carreras said, starting with a text message he sent her one hour after the school put the no-contact order in place. Though she has witnesses for some violations, the university said all were “unintentional and incidental” incidents, documents show. The accused man also claimed Carreras violated the order by smacking his butt in a bar one night; however, the university found no one witnessed this and dismissed the report.
In June, the university found that the accused violated the no-contact order during an off-campus event a month earlier, which was corroborated by photographic and text message evidence. The school tightened restrictions on where the accused could go on campus but would not tell Carreras what other sanctions were imposed, if any. Documents show he was still allowed to take part in any football-related activity, as a member of the team at the time.
After Carreras published her Sept. 6 essay on the Huffington Post’s contributor platform, the university issued a statement to all students saying it couldn’t speak to specific cases. However, regarding Carreras’s blog, it said: “Many of the assertions of fact are inaccurate and do not reflect the manner in which reports of sexual misconduct have been investigated and adjudicated at the University." (The university did not use the word “inaccurate” in the email sent to faculty.)
“The school’s response is nothing unexpected. I didn’t expect them to actually own up to anything.”
For her part, Carreras responded to the school's statement about her blog being "inaccurate" by publishing some of the documents from her case, and writing, "you failed me when I reported and, now that I'm speaking out publicly, you thought calling me a liar was appropriate. You should all be ashamed of yourselves."
Administrators spent more than hour at a forum Thursday saying they couldn’t provide more context about Carreras’s case — besides denying that Fabian made the comments attributed to him — due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But this use of FERPA has been contested, and schools including Florida State University have shown they can indeed share more details in these cases without violating students' privacy.
The University of Richmond's president, Ronald A. Crutcher, issued a statement Friday saying the school administration is sorry its response to Carreras’s post “has caused pain,” but he did not retract it.
Kamilah Willingham, co-founder of the activist group Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture, said the University of Richmond’s response “defensively portrayed [Carreras] as a liar.” Willingham’s group is currently running a campaign pushing colleges to apologize for mishandling sexual assault cases. “This is exactly what we’re talking about when we say that university administrations model a culture of denial rather than one of accountability,” Willingham said.
“The school’s response is nothing unexpected,” Ralston said. “I didn’t expect them to actually own up to anything.”
Just last week, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights declared that Frostburg State University in Maryland violated Title IX by not addressing violations of no-contact orders. The University of Richmond’s existing federal investigation by the Education Department into how it handles sexual assault cases is due to an unrelated complaint filed in 2014, though Carreras has now filed her own grievance.
“Honestly, I have never seen the alumni community so caught up in a campus issue before,” alumnus Christine Hardenberger told BuzzFeed News. “While there is often discussion about things going on at the university, this is the first time I have seen the alumni come together to effect change on university policy.” Deborah Courtney, an alumnus who started a petition to pledge not to donate until reforms are made, said she believes “there is a strong unity among alumni” on the issue.
“I remain friends with many of the UR faculty to this day and they, like the alumni, are sickened by the absolute callousness of the administration,” said Bartolo Natoli, a 2007 graduate who now teaches at nearby Randolph-Macon College. Natoli planned to give a few hundred dollars this year, but said he will not do so until “significant steps are taken,” such as an external investigation of how these cases are handled.
The response from students and alumni is “very unexpected in a good way,” Carreras said. She’d felt alone fighting the university and didn’t expect many people would even read her blog posts.
“Even if the administration is OK with the way they handled my case, nobody else is OK with the way the administration handled it,” Carreras said. “Knowing that helps me push on.”