Here’s what happened when Maryland students forced colleges to confront sexual assault

UMBC students march to the administration building last year to protest the university's handling of sexual assault claims. There were similar protests  at Johns Hopkins.

In a decisive move, Johns Hopkins University drove out two professors this summer for violating sexual misconduct policies — and did not let them go quietly. An email sent to their departments named both men and and made clear why they were leaving.

Hopkins ensured the allegations would not go unnoticed, a rare occurrence in the cloistered academic world where violators often have been allowed to slink away with little fanfare to other jobs.


The action shows how universities in Maryland and nationally are sometimes responding more forcefully to reports of sexual assault, often spurred by student activism.

“We’re absolutely seeing more schools be willing to do investigations against professors,” said Tanyka Barber, an associate with TNG Consulting, which works with colleges on such issues. “With MeToo and TimesUp, they have no choice but to at least do the investigation, whereas in the past they may have been less likely to even do that.”


But while activists who rallied on Hopkins and other campuses in Maryland agree some progress has been made, they believe universities are still moving too slowly and leaving students vulnerable as administrators catch up to a changing culture.

“It’s been such a difficult and such an important struggle,” said Heba Islam, a Hopkins graduate student who says the university took more than a year to dismiss a professor who she saw grabbing a student in a bar in May 2018.

The Hopkins action in July followed accusations last year of sexual misconduct at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where staff and faculty described an intolerable work environment in the vascular surgery department that drove women away. And the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is now defending itself in a lawsuit filed on behalf of students who allege that Baltimore County Police and university authorities intimidated and deceived them in an attempt to cover up credible accounts of sexual assault.

“We’re absolutely seeing more schools be willing to do investigations against professors,” said Tanyka Barber,

—  Tanyka Barber

At each of these institutions, students and staff have raised their voices to demand change.

More reporting

Even before the MeToo movement began two years ago, Maryland’s colleges and universities say they were getting more complaints of sexual assault and harassment, an increase they attribute to their efforts to focus on the problem. They have trained staff, faculty and students about what is inappropriate behavior, where to go for counseling and how to report cases of sexual harassment and assault.

Higher education institutions are required to file reports of sexual assault and harassment on campuses. A Maryland Higher Education Commission analysis reported a statewide annual average of 1,344 incidents for 2017 and 2018, a 27 percent increase over 2016. About three incidents a year are being reported for every 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the state’s 48 private, public and community colleges.

Only about a third of the incidents were reported by the victims, with many more being reported by employees who are required under law to report incidents when a student or staff member confides in them.

When students were victims, the vast majority — 70 percent — were offered counseling and health services, the commission’s report said.


Despite these steps, students say institutional responses still fall short.

Broken trust in Baltimore

Critics at Hopkins say the cases involving the two professors dragged on for months and were resolved only after petitions and protests. The university counters that it must maintain high standards for investigations.

Less high profile cases also can languish in bureaucracy, Hopkins students say. Last year, the school revealed that a website problem resulted in officials misplacing more than a dozen reports that students had attempted to file online over two years.

Kennedy McDaniel, 22, says she was sexually assaulted in a Hopkins dorm room in the summer of 2015, after her freshman year. The man who assaulted her, she says, enrolled in one of her classes in the fall.

“I didn’t want to be in that kind of space when I was trying to get an education,” she said. That’s when she reported the assault, she said.

She didn’t hear back for two years. It seemed to her like the university had determined her assault didn’t matter. She felt naive for assuming she would get help or that the person who assaulted her would face consequences.


Then, in the winter of 2018, she got an email from university officials apologizing for misplacing her report and offering to help.

“For me, it was like, years have gone by,” McDaniel said. “For them to even bring it up years later, it just brought me back to this stressful, emotional place. I understand there are website glitches. But when it comes to sexual misconduct, for you to lose 18 cases is horrifying.”

Hopkins says all the cases have since been addressed.

Other women at Hopkins say their cases have been marked by delay, even without a website blunder to blame.

Of the 148 cases closed in 2017 — including those first reported in 2016 — the average time to close was 128 days, according to university data. School policy aims for 60 days.

University officials say they continue to strive to meet that goal. “The timeliness of investigations and disposition of complaints is a key component of a strong climate,” spokeswoman Karen Lancaster said in a statement.


It took roughly a year and a half for Hopkins to resolve Madelynn Wellons’ report of being sexually assaulted by another student in 2016. Her experience launched her activism on behalf of other sexual assault survivors.

Throughout her ordeal, she says, she found university officials to be unresponsive and slow. She frequently had to be the one reaching out for information. In many ways, she says the process was re-traumatizing. On one occasion, she says an investigator instructed her to re-enact the assault.

For those months between reporting and resolution, she checked her email constantly, desperate for news on her case.

“It was horrible,” she said. “Knowing that every week I had this hanging over my head, that I had to be the one checking in, had to make an active choice to re-remember what happened because I wanted justice.”

More than 100 Hopkins students rallied on campus last winter to criticize the university’s Office of Institutional Equity for what they saw as weak investigations and delayed responses to accusations of assault and harassment.

A university spokeswoman said the university has added staff in the office that receives and investigates the reports, cleared a backlog of pending cases and introduced new protocols.


“The university heard the concerns of our community about these issues and undertook an initiative to streamline our process, reduce wait times, and improve communications,” Karen Lancaster wrote in a statement. “These efforts are already beginning to show positive results.”

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III responds to student demands after they marched on the administration building. The students were protesting after a lawsuit alleged that the university and Baltimore County covered up complaints of sexual assault.

From anger, progress

Eleven miles southwest of Hopkins’ Homewood campus, student protesters stormed the UMBC administration building in Catonsville last September to confront University President Freeman Hrabowski about a lawsuit claiming the school covered up complaints of sexual assault. The students demanded the administration take action.

Autumn Cook was among the students who met with administrators to work on changes. She says they were responsive. For instance, every student and staff identification badge now includes phone numbers for police, health services, the counseling center, a national suicide hotline and a hotline for sexual assault and violence.

Students also recommended in-depth sexual assault prevention training. As a result, beginning last December 3,000 faculty, staff, graduate assistants, student leaders, and residential assistants were assigned to mandatory, in-person training. The university also added two new staff positions to provide more support for students and do prevention education.

“I think what has happened here is a broad and deep process of working together as a campus community to review and assess our processes and what is working well and what could be working better,” said Lisa Akchin, an associate vice president and assistant to the president.

The sexual misconduct issue has also struck a chord in the medical community, where activists have put their own spin on the rallying cry: #MeTooMedicine. A civil suit filed by former research coordinator Carly Goldstein against the University of Maryland, Baltimore and its medical school alleges she was sexually harassed and assaulted over a three-year period by a prominent vascular surgeon she reported to.


An investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that three other women complained to the university about Dr. Robert Crawford’s behavior, saying he harassed them or other women and that superiors failed to take action. Those women and three others described an atmosphere where inappropriate comments were accepted as part of the male-dominated vascular surgery department. Two female surgeons told The Sun they eventually left because of the climate. Crawford left the university in 2017 and later declined to comment through his lawyer.

UMB, which has seen a 50 percent increase in complaints in the past couple of years, created a task force that has spent months looking at what changes the university might make to change the culture of the institution, said Susan Buskirk, deputy accountability officer. Buskirk said there is no date for the task force to complete its work but said it would be months not years.

While sexual assault is a clear violation of policies, more subtle behaviors also adversely affect the environment in medical institutions and research labs, said Kyle Cavagnini, a Hopkins graduate student in biological chemistry. The American Association of Medical Colleges now recognizes that a whole host of behaviors — such as publicly humiliating a graduate student or requiring them to do favors — also qualify as mistreatment and abuse. Students working in the field often feel isolated in research silos and unable to fight back, he said.

“These types of behaviors, micro-aggressions or outright discrimination, contribute to that loss of talent. It is endemic within science and it is something that absolutely needs to change,” Cavagnini said. The Hopkins community has had a much more “vigorous" conversation about sexual assault and mistreatment in recent years that he believes will help treat the problem.

A national problem

At schools across the country, similar stories are unfolding.

Universities are grappling with how to ensure due process for the accused and justice for the victim. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed last year a sweeping revision of regulations for colleges under Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs.


The rules would, if finalized, allow for cross-examination at hearings and a higher standard of evidence in sexual misconduct cases.

DeVos’ office was inundated with comments on the proposed regulations, including from schools in the Baltimore region. Many advocates for sexual assault survivors view the draft rules as a devastating step backward, while those in support of DeVos’ proposed changes see them as a way to better protect the wrongly accused.

“Johns Hopkins University objects strongly to the Department’s proposed requirement for live hearings,” officials wrote in a letter to the administration. “If the Department remains insistent that live hearings must be a part of the grievance process for Title IX cases, we strongly urge that live questioning with cross-examination by advisors should be prohibited.” Many advocates believe the threat of cross-examination will intimidate victims and deter them from coming forward.

Meanwhile, universities across the country are drafting policies aimed at limiting relationships between staff and students, recognizing the potential danger posed by inherent power differentials.

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Hopkins issued a personal relationships policy, effective July 1, which prohibits faculty and staff “from having academic or professional influence over a trainee with whom they have a personal relationship.” Relationships between faculty and undergraduate students are not permitted at all.

“Where one individual has power over another individual, freely given consent may be illusory,” the policy states.


In 2017, roughly one-third of sexual misconducts reports at Hopkins were made against faculty and staff members, according to a university report.

A Michigan State professor has since 2016 methodically assembled a database of nearly 1,000 publicly documented cases of sexual misconduct by faculty, staff and administrators. The professor, Julie Libarkin, has already updated it to include the two Hopkins professors: Juan Obarrio, who was fired, and Sinisa Urban, who resigned under pressure from the university. Neither could be reached by The Sun for comment.

“Institutions don’t tend to ever announce this stuff,” Libarkin said. “Only a tiny percentage of cases get into the media or the court or the public view."

Libarkin sees campus activism as the way to disrupt campus cultures that have long failed victims of sexual misconduct.

“Victims and survivors are the ones who have to push institutions to think about how they have to change,” she said.