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<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

‘I don’t understand who they’re protecting here’: Princeton’s COVID-19 policy frustrated reporting of sexual misconduct allegations, say students

Content Warning: This article includes descriptions of alleged sexual misconduct.

When students returned to campus in January after 10 months away, their excitement was tempered by one looming requirement: signing the Social Contract, a set of University policies that detailed how students should safely interact to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.

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Those who opted to return soon found that the Social Contract — and its litany of restrictions — drastically changed the campus landscape, as the discarded solo cups and jam-packed late-night “drunk meal” at Frist Campus Center remained absent.

Yet the dangers that plague college nightlife hadn’t gone away. One student’s experience shows how the Social Contract hindered reporting of an alleged incident of sexual misconduct — exacerbating an issue of underreporting which already pervades college campuses nationwide.

On a night this spring, five students celebrated the end of a week together. One student, Anna, alleges that she was touched inappropriately by one of the other students while the two of them were briefly alone. (Anna and the other students interviewed for this story were granted anonymity, and are referred to with pseudonyms, so they could speak freely about the incident. The Daily Princetonian could not independently verify Anna’s allegation that she was touched inappropriately.)

Anna texted the other three students to return to help her. They did, and in Anna’s words, “dragged me out.”

“They were coming in to help me, as they should as humans and upstanding bystanders,” Anna recalled in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “But that technically is a Social Contract violation.”

The University Social Contract for spring 2021 mandated that students “not host more than two student guests who also live on-campus in [their] room/suite at a time.” As the five students sat in a room belonging to Katherine, one of Anna’s friends, they violated University policy by having two extra people present.

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Unsure whether she or her friends would receive amnesty for the Social Contract violation, Anna said she chose not to report the incident of alleged sexual misconduct.

“It just seems like you can’t report unless you want to get in trouble,” Anna said. “That’s a really scary place to be as a woman and a survivor, but that’s kind of the reality of what it seems Princeton is perpetuating.”

Although the University recently announced that it would no longer use the Social Contract for the fall 2021 semester, Anna’s story remains an illustration of the unintended — but not unanticipated — effects the policy had on students.

Last summer, prior to the Social Contract’s issuance, staff at the University’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources & Education (SHARE), “expressed concerns that the Social Contract could be perceived as a barrier to reporting sexual misconduct,” SHARE director Jacqueline Deitch-Stackhouse said in an statement to the ‘Prince.’ Deitch-Stackhouse did not elaborate about how administrators responded to SHARE’s concerns. When asked for clarification, she and the Office of Communications declined to comment further.

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Anna chose not to report her allegations to the University, but she said another student reported the alleged incident of sexual misconduct without her consent to an anonymous University tipline. 

Anna and her friends quickly found themselves enmeshed in a University investigation — not into the alleged sexual misconduct, but whether they had violated the Social Contract.

While some peer institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford, eventually offered blanket amnesty policies to protect students reporting sexual misconduct that occurred in violation of residential COVID-19 policies, Anna and her friends encountered a different experience at Princeton. They said they received varying punishments, and Katherine’s will appear on her permanent academic record.

For Anna and her friends, not having access to clear answers about confidentiality and reporting options made their disciplinary process all the more confusing and burdensome. Anna also criticized the University’s investigation of the Social Contract violation for the way it addressed — or chose to ignore — the other circumstances of the night.

“I just feel like the University did everything wrong,” Anna told the ‘Prince.’

Katherine, speaking while the policy was still in place, expressed a similar sentiment and warned of the risks of the University’s approach.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful to University administration, because I know that this is a really hard semester and it’s new for everyone,” she said, “but I think that the Social Contract needs to be a lot clearer because it’s really dangerous right now.”

For its part, the University defended its handling of Social Contract violations that are discovered in connection with allegations of student sexual misconduct, and said it has been working through how to balance students’ safety during the COVID-19 pandemic with the need to encourage survivors of sexual misconduct to come forward.

“The Social Contract is new to the University. As such, our approach to certain issues related to the Social Contract, including reported violations that come to light through reports of sexual misconduct, has evolved as we better understand the situations that may arise,” Deputy Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said in a written statement prior to the recent lifting of restrictions.

Hotchkiss was also clear that a report of sexual misconduct does not by itself mitigate a violation of other University policies, and that the Social Contract was not unique in that respect.

“Leniency is not, nor has ever been, guaranteed with respect to violations that may come to light as a result of reports of sexual misconduct, including with respect to the Social Contract,” Hotchkiss said. “Matters have always and continue to be considered on a case-by-case basis, as circumstances differ in every situation.”

The ‘Prince’ made multiple requests to speak to the University bodies involved in both Social Contract and sexual misconduct proceedings, including the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS), the Residential College Directors of Student Life (DSL), the Department of Public Safety (PSAFE), McCosh Health Center, and the Office of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration. Each deferred comment to Hotchkiss, who provided two written statements that are reported here.

“Really complicated with the Social Contract”: Anna navigates her reporting options

Anna said she spent the days immediately following the alleged incident of sexual misconduct deliberating her options for reporting it to the University.

According to the original, pre-coronavirus University amnesty policy for sexual misconduct, as stated on the Sexual Misconduct Investigations website, “In order to encourage reports of conduct that is prohibited under the Title IX Sexual Harassment policy and the University Sexual Misconduct policy, the University may offer leniency with respect to other violations which may come to light as a result of such reports, depending on the circumstances involved.”

The policy was updated with a 2020–21 Addendum to accommodate the new regulations outlined in the Social Contract.

“Leniency may also be applied in certain situations involving violations of the University’s Social Contract, and/or other health and safety requirements related to COVID-19,” the addendum reads. “However, leniency may not be applicable in situations involving students who host others in violation of the Social Contract and/or other policies, depending on the circumstances.”

Students are encouraged on the website to reach out to SHARE staff for a “confidential consultation.”

SHARE director Deitch-Stackhouse said in her statement that consulting with her office “allow[s] a student to remain confidential while obtaining meaningful information that may inform their decision to pursue or not pursue a Title IX or sexual misconduct process.”

But, under the circumstances of the Social Contract, Anna said that she did not reach out to SHARE at first because she was “scared that they might tell on me.”

Hotchkiss acknowledged that “navigating intersecting University policies and campus resources can be complicated and add stress to already difficult situations.” He added that the University is “open to learning from such experiences as we continue to improve our processes and services.”

Last summer, SHARE proposed one such improvement to avoid deterring student reporting of sexual misconduct. Deitch-Stackhouse wrote that the office “sought to have Social Contract violations considered under the existing amnesty policy.”

SHARE’s concerns proved prescient: although Katherine and Chris (a second friend of Anna’s present that night) told Anna that they would support whatever decision she came to with regards to reporting the incident, she ultimately decided not to report it. When she told a few other friends about the alleged sexual misconduct, she also asked them not to report it for fear of what might happen because of the Social Contract violation.

“My friends could get in trouble; I could get in trouble,” Anna said. “[The University is] making it really difficult to report.”

Anna asked the ‘Prince’ not to contact the student who allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with her because, for her, she told the ‘Prince,’ the story is not about the incident itself, but about shedding light on what she views as the University’s mishandling of the situation.

While the paper has not been able to confirm Anna’s account of the incident, Katherine and Chris corroborated Anna’s statements about the location, timeline, and multiple other details regarding the students’ gathering that evening, and also shared their own experiences with the University’s disciplinary process for Social Contract violations.

“It just spiraled from there”: Anna’s case reaches University ears

Against Anna’s wishes, she says a fellow student she had told about the incident reported the allegation of sexual misconduct to the University’s EthicsPoint hotline, a resource that allows community members to report concerns to the University anonymously. 

Soon after, Anna received a phone call from PSAFE Detective Sergeant Alvan Flanders. Anna said Flanders informed her that PSAFE had received an anonymous report about the alleged incident of sexual misconduct, and that her name, as well as those of Katherine, Chris, Emma (a third friend present that night), and the alleged perpetrator, had come to light over the course of their investigation into the report.

“It just spiraled from there,” Anna said. According to Anna, Flanders said he was obligated to report the allegation of sexual misconduct and the violation of the Social Contract to the Office of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration and ODUS.

Anna stressed to the ‘Prince’ that ODUS was informed of the alleged sexual misconduct without her consent. However, while Hotchkiss did not comment on the specific case, he did emphasize that PSAFE’s policy is that “the victim or survivor decides on whether or not there is a criminal investigation or it is referred to ODUS or the Grad School.” Regardless, Anna’s choice not to report the allegation of sexual misconduct did not prevent the University’s investigation into the related Social Contract violation.

After receiving the call from Flanders on a Sunday, Anna realized that the University was either already aware, or soon to be aware, of both the alleged incident of sexual misconduct and the violation of the Social Contract. That Monday, Anna contacted the SHARE office to explain the situation and ask if they could tell her what to expect when alleged sexual misconduct intersects with Social Contract violations. According to Anna, the SHARE office said they didn’t know.

Deitch-Stackhouse said that the lack of precedent for overlapping claims of sexual misconduct and Social Contract violations had made it difficult to advise students on their options.

“The SHARE staff work diligently to assist students in understanding and navigating University policy, as well as state and federal laws,” Deitch-Stackhouse said in her statement. “Given the newness of the Social Contract policy and the lack of prior cases regarding how situations in which the Social Contract and sexual misconduct reports have overlapped, there were no precedents in terms of how leniency would be applied in Social Contract situations.”

Anna, Katherine, and Chris all said that they were contacted by Thursday of that week for interviews about an investigation by ODUS. Emma, the third friend present at the night of the incident, declined a request to be interviewed.

Feeling “silenced” under investigation: The Social Contract disciplinary proceedings

At first, Anna, Katherine, and Chris assumed that the investigation named in the ODUS emails was about the alleged sexual misconduct. But all told the ‘Prince’ that their interviews made clear that the investigators were examining the potential Social Contract violation, and not the accusations of sexual misconduct.

According to the three students, they were asked by the ODUS investigators not to mention the alleged sexual misconduct, or anything relating to Title IX, as they gave testimony in their individual meetings. The given reason, according to Anna and Katherine, was that their statements about the night could be used against Anna in a future Title IX investigation, should she choose to pursue her misconduct allegations.

“While we cannot comment on specific situations,” Hotchkiss said in his statement, “it is important to remember that very specific rules and processes apply to investigations under the Title IX Sexual Harassment policy and/or the University Sexual Misconduct policy.”

Hotchkiss continued: “The University seeks to ensure that other University disciplinary processes do not impact or infringe on any rules/processes related to sexual misconduct investigations.”

But the students found it difficult to explain the circumstances without including what they felt was one of the prime reasons for the violation.

“All the questions skirted around that instance, which felt very, very wrong,” Anna said. “Because that was why this was reported in the first place. The main instance of the violation was to help me, and they wouldn’t let us talk about that. And that felt like I was being silenced.”

“It just felt really wrong that they got a sexual assault case and turned it completely into a Social Contract violation,” Katherine said. “They kind of re-traumatized all of us through this.”

Anna’s interview with ODUS was delayed because a Title IX coordinator spoke to her first, which she initially viewed with relief.

“I thought I was off the hook,” she recalled. But, she said the coordinator told her that the ODUS interview was just postponed to the following day and that going through with a Title IX case would not prevent the risk of being punished with disciplinary probation. Rather than receiving amnesty, Anna said she was told her position as a victim would be considered a “mitigating circumstance,” which Anna said was never clearly defined.

The students then endured what they said was the most anxiety-inducing part of the process: the wait. A week after the interviews, they each got an email from their Director of Student Life (DSL), explaining that they were being charged with violating the Social Contract, but that the disciplinary board had not yet reached a decision on the consequences.

The search for support: A cycle of self-advocacy, “reliving that night,” and grappling with a “conflict of interest”

In the weeks as the students awaited a conclusion, Anna was determined to argue her case.

“I had contacted the DSL on my own. I contacted another dean. I was just reaching out and Zooming a bunch of people, just trying to advocate for myself,” she said. “How is this allowed? Why would anybody report anything if they’re going to get in trouble? This perpetuates a culture of victim-blaming.”

In his statement to the ‘Prince,’ Hotchkiss expressed the University’s continuing commitment to addressing issues of sexual misconduct under the new circumstances of last semester.

“To provide a safe, inclusive and welcoming educational and working environment for all members of its community, it is critical both for the University to receive and address reports of sexual misconduct and also to ensure that students on our campus are abiding by health and safety requirements,” Hotchkiss wrote.

In recounting these weeks, however, Anna described a learning environment that felt far from safe or healthy. She said she fell behind in her classes, struggling to handle the barrage of meetings with administrators and added stress and anxiety.

“And I had to keep explaining the instance of sexual misconduct and reliving that night, over and over again, to every single person that I spoke to,” she said.

All three students expressed gratitude for the presence of their Residential College Advisors (RCAs) during the process, but said that even the support of their RCAs didn’t come without strings attached.

Chris described how he only felt comfortable talking to his RCA once the investigation was already underway, for fear of incriminating himself. Further, according to Anna, they couldn’t provide anything other than emotional support — they were “just as confused about the policies as everybody else.”

Chris’ RCA described in an interview to the ‘Prince’ how he and other RCAs repeatedly asked members of their residential college teams, as well as University Health Services (UHS) personnel, for more information and never received any.

“We were unable to, at any point, get very clear answers about what circumstances lead to what disciplinary actions,” he said. “We never got those answers.”

The RCA qualified his frustrations by emphasizing how positive his interactions were with the DSL when he met with her to advocate for his advisees — he noted that the DSL was “very responsive, and also very compassionate.” He also argued that administrators should be given the benefit of the doubt as they worked to grapple with difficult issues.

“I think we did not receive clarity because there is not a body of cases that [people] were able to point to and say, ‘These cases lead to these outcomes,’” the RCA said. “And so I do trust my DSL and believe that they are reasonable people, in the college office and at UHS. And I know that they too are trying to figure it out.”

“I don’t understand who they’re protecting here”: Students still look to the administration for answers

Almost a month after Anna was contacted by PSAFE, she and her three friends all received a formal reprimand as punishment.

A formal reprimand does not appear on academic records, but can be taken into consideration in any future disciplinary proceedings in their time as students. Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, the University code of conduct, lists a reprimand as an informal sanction, “intended to signal that the student has committed a minor infraction, conveying that the student must be vigilant against future infractions, and providing a disincentive against future infractions.”

Despite ultimately receiving a punishment, Chris remembered that he and the others “still kind of celebrated because we thought we were all going to be sent home and face lengthy probations.”

Hotchkiss declined to address the specifics of the students’ cases, but said that “[t]o date, leniency has been granted in all disciplinary matters that have been adjudicated in which Social Contract violations arose in relation to a report of sexual misconduct.”

But the reprimands were not the end of the process. To the students’ astonishment, a week following the initial sentencing, Katherine — the student in whose room the infraction took place — said she received an email from ODUS explaining that her original sentence of a reprimand contained an error, and she would instead be receiving three months of disciplinary probation.

Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities categorizes disciplinary probation as a “formal sanction” that will appear on an individual’s permanent record at the University.

Hotchkiss likewise declined to address the specifics of Katherine’s case, but explained that leniency is applied differently based on an individual’s involvement in a case.

“Generally speaking, it is likely that leniency will be applied more flexibly in certain situations (for example, alcohol violations or certain Social Contract violations such as attending a gathering that exceeds the number of permitted guests),” he said. “There may be less flexibility for leniency in other situations (for example, involving distribution of drugs or Social Contract violations such as hosting a gathering that exceeds the number of permitted guests).”

The surprise change in her sentence had a severe impact on Katherine, who chose to leave campus early and return home. “I don’t feel supported or protected here,” she wrote in a text message to the ‘Prince.’

The other students expressed similar sentiments.

“I would think, and I had hoped, that their priority would be to protect the students on their campus, because that’s the whole point of the Social Contract … but I don’t understand who they’re protecting here,” Anna said.

“I was physically harmed, and they were constantly putting me through all of this stress and anxiety and waiting,” she added. “It did not seem like they cared about me or my friends at all; they just wanted to uphold the Social Contract.”

For Chris, even though the University intends to open up campus to full residential life and in-person classes in the fall, the experience has left an irreparable mark.

“I was disappointed,” Chris said. “I chose Princeton for the community. And from my research I understood that it was going to be a place where the kids were going to care about each other and help each other succeed. And also, we’d all be protected and taken care of by the administration.”

“It felt like that dream was kind of shattered.”


If you have information relating to this story or experience that you are willing to share with The Daily Princetonian, please contact us at eic@dailyprincetonian.com. 

If you would like to speak to a confidential University-based resource, please call SHARE at 609-258-3310.