Editor’s Note: Readers should be aware that this letter contains strong language describing a sexual assault and violence. The Observer interviewed Emma Bardwell regarding this column prior to its publishing.
Dear Case Western Reserve University,
I write to you today to share my story and to challenge this university’s administration to better uphold their sexual misconduct policy and support survivors of sexual assault and violence.
Last April, John Doe sexually assaulted me in my own room. When I said no, he physically attacked me—hitting, biting, scratching, slamming me against the wall again and again. The night ended with his hands around my neck and the feeling of my fragile pulse fluttering under his grip. I was trapped and alone. After that night I lost who I used to be. I woke up with bruises all over my body and scratches on my arms and back. I felt empty and numb. That summer I developed an eating disorder, suffered from panic attacks and could not sleep without dreaming of his cold eyes looking down at me. I kept trying to find the enthusiastic girl who walked onto your campus her first-year, but I could not find her.
When I returned to campus this past fall of 2016, I was afraid to leave my suite. Every time I walked across campus my heart was in my throat, and every time I saw him I wanted to throw up. I quit my activities, I avoided parts of campus and I struggled to go to class. To survive I adopted a glare as I walked, and used my headphones as a shield from the rest of the world.
With the help of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women’s victim advocate, I began to gather the courage to do something about what had happened to me. So I reported it to Title IX that November. When I stated what had happened to me, it was the first time that I told my story from start to finish. That same night, the University interim suspended John Doe after seeing the video evidence I had kept. Two months later, the day of my sexual misconduct hearing was one of the most difficult days of my life, but it came and went. John Doe was found responsible for three violations of the policy (including non-consensual sexual intercourse) and was suspended for one year, until January 2018. Throughout this process the Title IX office mostly did right by me. The sanctions were low for such egregious violations, but it was a win. Some complainants don’t even get that. I started calling myself a survivor and finally started believing what had happened to me was not my fault.
After the close of my hearing, I could finally breathe again on campus. I walked through the Tinkham Veale University Center and I didn’t have to fear seeing his face. I thought I could finally begin to heal and appreciate the end of my senior year.
One month later I saw your true priorities, CWRU administration, and that feeling of safety was shattered. Your legal counsel called me to inform me that I was Jane Roe in the impending lawsuit against your university. My respondent, John Doe, was suing CWRU in an effort to return to campus this semester. I have served on the sexual misconduct board for three semesters for this university, and I remember hearing your Title IX office saying, “let them sue—we have a legal team ready to go to bat.” I was so proud to be part of a university that valued justice for survivors over the threat of a public lawsuit. But that’s not true. One girl’s story is not worth the attention a lawsuit would bring.
I had spent the past year of my life slowly picking up the pieces of my broken self and rearranging them into something I could begin to value again. I came to your general counsel’s office and you told me that a settlement was not only in your best interest, but mine as well. Without it, the whole case could be overturned, and he could return to campus this semester. I had thought you were confident enough in your procedure to stand behind it, but I learned that that was less true than I had hoped. You told me I likely wanted to put this behind me and move on. When I disagreed with your decision, you told me it didn’t matter; I wasn’t party to the suit, and it no longer involved me. I am just Jane Roe. In an hour you shattered everything I had built.
You took away my control, and you used what he did to my body and my soul as a bargaining chip. The lawsuit was about the trauma I endured, yet I was not allowed a say in the reduction of sanctions. The case in front of you was about what he did to me, yet you were willing to compromise with him and decrease his Title IX sanction in order to save face for your university. I wrote to you, President Snyder, and begged you to stand with me, but I guess you decided not to. I may seem fragile, but you should know that underneath the skin that he once left bruised is a survivor-turned-advocate.
So today I take my control back. This is your public call to action, because I expected so much more. I have always been proud of how much you encourage students to stand up for what is right and the effort you put towards being forward-thinking. CWRU claims to be supportive, as the first line of your sexual misconduct policy states that this campus, “is a community based upon trust and respect for its constituent members. Sexual misconduct is a violation of that trust and respect and will not be tolerated.” So now it is time to back up your words with actions. It is time to stand with survivors.
Change your sexual misconduct policy to one you can confidently defend in court, and train your legal team to support victims. Ask advocates on campus and from the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center for a better model for helping survivors. Do not violate your own policy by failing to follow the proper procedures, and do not tell a survivor what you think they want. A student who breaks the policy three times over at once should be expelled, and their lawsuit not tolerated. If a respondent then breaks their ban from campus and knowingly attends Senior Week events, hold them accountable instead of letting them off with a warning. Listen to us when we speak, and take our input seriously. When someone rapes a fellow student—expel them; don’t let them represent this university and allow them to attend their prestigious graduate school. Alumni are students you are supposed to be proud of, and I don’t think that includes rapists.
Defend your students. We are the ones who make your school beautiful, and we are the ones who you should be proud to call alumni. Not the people who hurt us. Celebrate the ones who are willing to fight. We are the ones with the passion to change the world, and we are the ones who are not afraid to do so. I used to be afraid, and sometimes I still am. But every day I fight, and I should expect nothing less of the institution I have called home for the past four years.
We are worth fighting for, so it’s time to step up.
Emma Bardwell is a graduating fourth-year computer science and political science major. For anyone reading this who is going through a similar situation or knows someone who is, she encourages them to reach out to the confidential victim advocates through the Center for Women and the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, or other counseling resources on campus. Their support has been instrumental to her.