In survivors' words:

How colleges should better respond to sexual misconduct

Five former Washington students who reported sexual misconduct share the changes they want to see in university Title IX systems.

Published March 6, 2022

Content advisory: This story includes descriptions of sexual assault. Resources for survivors are available here.

Washington state’s six public universities received more than 2,500 reports of sexual misconduct or intimate partner violence in the past five years, according to their data.

The schools investigated about a fifth of these reports through internal systems. Under Title IX, the federal civil rights law, schools must respond to reports of sexual misconduct and ensure survivors have equal access to education. The others cases were not investigated at the reporting party’s request or because they were deemed to fall outside of the schools’ conduct codes, which prohibit sexual activity without a person’s consent.

There were also likely more cases of sexual misconduct that were not reported. Surveys conducted by the state’s public universities, as well as national groups such as the Association of American Universities, have found that most survivors do not report and cite reasons such as not trusting their schools to respond. Marginalized groups — including students of color and those who are trans, nonbinary, queer, bisexual or have disabilities — faced sexual misconduct at disproportionately high rates, and some said they were less confident their reports would be taken seriously.

For students who do report, the process can be lengthy and emotionally taxing. Dozens of people shared their stories with The Seattle Times, including 25 who reported cases to a Washington state college in the past several years. Most said they were frustrated with how their cases were handled. They described being too exhausted at the end of the process, or not having enough information, to formally challenge their college’s response.

Here, five former students talk about their frustrations with the system and how they hope it will change.

The Seattle Times generally does not name survivors of sexual assault without their permission. The people in this story chose how much of their names to use and whether to share their stories through photos, videos or handwritten statements. Their accounts are supported by university records.

Amy McGhee reported her professor to the University of Washington's Title IX office decades after leaving without her Ph.D. She says she wishes she had felt supported to report sooner. "Everyone deserves to live their life without duress, without pressure, without coercion," McGhee said. "It's important to tell the story." This video contains descriptions of sexual misconduct. (Corinne Chin and Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

Amy McGhee was pursuing her Ph.D. on a national fellowship in the ’90s. Her adviser at the University of Washington, William Boltz, was an expert in her field.

McGhee said he asked to see where she lived early on, and she explicitly told him they could not have a physical relationship. But she said Boltz’s behavior escalated. She said he belittled her and once pushed her into a corner in his office, forcing his tongue into her mouth.

“It was wearing me down,” McGhee said. “The only way out was to get as far from academia as I could get, where he had no power.”

McGhee left with her master’s and joined the U.S. Army Reserve. In 2015, after returning to UW to audit classes, she reported Boltz. Administrators spoke to him, noting he “assumed responsibility” and agreed to sexual harassment coaching paid for by the university, according to UW records.

The university offered McGhee a year of free classes, but not as an admitted student, she said. She’d have to retake the GRE and reapply to the program.

That year, Boltz taught classes she wanted to take. The other professors wouldn’t talk to her unless it was about school, she said. McGhee didn’t end up applying.

"I was just trying to find my way back and being minimized the whole way,” she said.

Soon after McGhee left, UW called her. They received another report about Boltz in 2017.

Amy's handwriting "I hope the universities realize their responsibility to their students"

UW’s investigation found that two other women said Boltz trapped them in his arms and tried to kiss them in his office, according to UW records. Two additional women said he groped them. Their accounts ranged from the ’90s to 2011. They said Boltz had the ability to influence their careers. Boltz’ recollection was generally consistent with the women’s, a UW investigator found. Boltz lost the ability to receive merit pay or salary increases for two years after the investigation and was required to participate in further coaching, UW said.

In an email to The Times, Boltz wrote, “I made poor decisions and wrong choices, and I am genuinely sorry for that.” He said coaching showed him “the impact of the kind of imbalance of authority and ‘power’ that exists between teacher and student,” which he hadn’t recognized.

Now in his late 70s, Boltz is a professor emeritus and teaches a class.

By allowing him to teach, McGhee said, UW is still giving him power over students.

Elena was a sophomore at the University of Washington when she reported that another student subjected her to unwanted sexual contact.

Both told investigators that they had dated for a few weeks. They said they had been kissing but there was no verbal consent from Elena for anything more, according to university records.

Elena (her middle name) told UW she cried, then went along with it to speed things up before saying stop, ending the contact, which she found painful. The other student, who blocked a reporter who reached out over social media, told UW they thought kissing implied consent and that Elena would say no if she was uncomfortable.

Elena’s roommates told UW she was distraught afterward. Elena said she was especially confused because the student was a survivors’ advocate.

She reported sexual assault to UW in October 2015, hoping she wouldn’t have to see the student anymore. UW’s investigation and discipline process took nine months.

“It was unnecessarily painful and burdensome,” Elena said. “Being a queer person who had this experience with another queer person made the situation harder. The system didn’t know how to handle my case.”

Elena's handwriting "I want an appeals process facilitated by full-time law professionals or student contuct officers."

UW’s conduct director found the student did not seek and Elena did not give consent, which UW defined as “actual words or conduct indicating freely given agreement” to a specific act. The director suggested a two-quarter suspension. The student appealed.

Elena went before an appeal panel of professors in radiology, molecular neuroscience and history. She said they didn’t seem knowledgeable about sexual assault in queer relationships and that she had to give a detailed account multiple times.

“They were questioning every part of the scenario except, ‘Did you say yes?’” she said.

The faculty overturned the decision, saying the other student was “unusually well informed about issues of sexual violence” and had a reasonable interpretation, as the conduct code didn’t require verbal consent. They vacated Elena’s campus no-contact order against the student. The board was split, as one member told The Times they dissented.

Elena appealed to President Ana Mari Cauce’s office, which sided with the faculty.

A spokesperson said UW cannot comment on specific cases and that it would be inappropriate to re-evaluate the past decision. He said queer students’ cases are treated the same as others.

UW’s volunteer faculty board now conducts paper reviews instead of live hearings to reduce the possibility of retraumatization, he said. The five other public universities in the state said they use faculty boards for live hearings or appeals. Two also have students sit on the boards.

The colleges said members receive training on implicit bias and sexual misconduct.

After Holly Maggard reported that a Western Washington University student sexually assaulted her, the university issued a no-contact order. She said it wasn’t enforced. “I felt rage, and I felt a huge lack of support, and like, ‘Wow — the system is really failing me and probably many other survivors,’” Maggard said. This video contains descriptions of sexual assault. (Ramon Dompor and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

Holly Maggard was a freshman at Western Washington University when she said another student sexually assaulted her in her dorm room. She filed a report in 2015 with the university, feeling unsafe and uncomfortable on campus and hoping the student would be expelled.

WWU conducted an investigation and found the student responsible for sexual misconduct, university records show. The university put him on probation for almost two years. It mandated counseling, issued a no-contact order preventing him from contacting Maggard or coming within 25 feet of her on campus, and banned him from entering the dining hall where she worked.

“I was pretty upset about (the lack of severity of the punishment), but I ended up not going through the appeal process because I was really struggling to even think about it,” she said.

Maggard said the student didn’t follow the no-contact order, and when she told the dean of students’ office, they told her they couldn’t prove that he was within 25 feet of her because she didn’t take a photo. Many student survivors say their schools do not meaningfully enforce campus no-contact orders, which are not court-ordered, according to advocacy group Know Your IX.

“I was extremely anxious and hyper aware of my surroundings,” she said. “I was always on the lookout and it was really exhausting.”

In one instance, the student came to the dining hall while she was working. Maggard said she explained the situation to her supervisor, who called university police, but police said they had no information about the dining hall ban. Maggard said that after the assistant dean of students and the police arrived, they told her they wanted to let the student finish his lunch.

Holly handwriting "I want universities to handle reports of sexual misconduct sensitively, seriously, and with compassion"

A WWU spokesperson said they could not comment on the case for privacy reasons, but the university does not give information on campus no-contact orders to university police because the orders are not criminal in nature. When reached by phone, the student declined to comment.

“I was pretty shocked and disappointed with how I was treated by the university,” Maggard said. “I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did.”

Maggard graduated in 2018 with bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and religion and culture. She’s considering doing advocacy work in the future for sexual assault survivors.

In fall 2016, A.W. left a party at Washington State University feeling too intoxicated to drive and nervous about walking home alone. She called a friend who had offered to let her crash at his fraternity. He planned to sleep on his couch, according to his later statement to the university.

A.W. said she woke up multiple times that night to the man groping her, according to university records. She froze, reminded of a previous trauma.

“He was a friend and violated my trust,” she said.

She texted him the next day. At first, he said nothing sexual occurred. But when she said she remembered him touching her, he apologized.

“Oh I must have been asleep. I’m sorry :/,” he replied.

“Sorry doesn’t excuse what happened,” she said. “Because I remember you asking me if ‘it was okay’ and I don’t think I ever said yes.”

The man declined to comment when contacted by a reporter. In his statement to WSU, he accused A.W. of “setting (him) up” because he didn’t call the next morning.

In 2016, A.W. reported to police and WSU, which found the man subjected her to unwanted sexual contact. The case then went before an administrative law judge to determine discipline.

“It was so overwhelming to have to relive and verbalize every little detail,” A.W. said. “We literally went hour by hour through everything that happened to me that night.”

Seven months after she reported, the man was suspended for a semester. But, as A.W. discovered at the hearing, the man had already withdrawn from WSU.

He attended another university for a semester and graduated from WSU the following year, according to an archive of his personal website. The other university said it doesn’t ask transfer students about ongoing sexual misconduct investigations.

A.W. handwriting "He's innocent until proven guilty and I'm a liar until proven honest"

WSU said it does not comment on specific student cases.

None of the state’s public universities have policies to place holds on students' transcripts during investigations, although some do this at their discretion. None ask applicants about prior investigations, although The Evergreen State College allows for self-disclosure.

WSU does notify other colleges of suspensions or expulsions for sexual misconduct when they request transcripts. This was recommended by a state task force and national associations years ago, but only WSU and Eastern Washington University routinely do this.

Jennette Kachmar was in her first quarter at the University of Washington when she said she was sexually assaulted. "There is a rape culture that exists," Kachmar said of UW. She says she wants campus police officers and the Title IX office to undergo training that allows them to be more sensitive toward survivors of trauma. (Corinne Chin and Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

Jennette Kachmar transferred to the University of Washington from a community college in 2019.

She and another student — one of the first friends she made at school — stopped by her dorm before going to the gym. The man opened the bathroom door while Kachmar was changing and groped her, she said. She repeatedly told him to stop, but she said he didn’t listen.

After processing what happened, Kachmar reported it to the campus police. She said an officer told her the case wouldn't go anywhere because of a lack of evidence, persuading her not to seek charges. The officer said that in general, she wouldn't give her opinion on whether a case would succeed in court.

“I think the biggest issue that I faced was individuals trying to invalidate my experience or saying that it wasn't enough,” Kachmar said.

When she went to the campus counseling center, she said she cried in the lobby for hours waiting for a 15-minute emergency session. She said finding a private therapist was challenging on a low income and state insurance.

Campus counseling centers have told lawmakers for years that the demand for services is far beyond their capacity. A UW spokesperson said crisis services can face delays and that the counseling center provides referrals when long-term support is unavailable.

Kachmar had a class with the man that fall. To get a campus no-contact order, she had to go through a university investigation, which lasted nearly a year.

New Title IX regulations took effect after Kachmar’s report. Advocates are critical of these rules, put in place by the Trump administration, but some say one good aspect is that it's clear students can get mutual no-contact orders without investigations.

In Kachmar’s case, a university hearing officer found the student violated policy against sexual assault and sexual harassment and suspended him for a quarter.

When reached by The Seattle Times, the student denied groping Kachmar, although he said that “there was contact.” When asked to clarify, he said he did not want to dispute details of a closed case but feels he was unfairly punished.

The student appealed, and the UW hearing officer instructed a faculty board to consider his request, noting that “his community service is admirable.” Kachmar said this was irrelevant.

“Taking one quarter off will not impact him (as) much as I have been impacted academically at UW,” she wrote. Kachmar had to take a hardship withdrawal from school after the assault.

The board upheld the student’s discipline in fall 2020.

Jennette handwriting "Proper training should be in place to make sure thats the case (campus police, title 9 office"

Reporting: Asia Fields and Taylor Blatchford

Photography: Erika Schultz

Editing: Jonathan Martin, Laura Gordon and Emily M. Eng

Video: Corinne Chin, Ramon Dompor and Lauren Frohne

Photo editing: Fred Nelson

Design: Jennifer Luxton

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