Amid student angst, Johns Hopkins says it missed 18 complaints of sexual misconduct because of website problem

Johns Hopkins University mistakenly blocked 18 complaints of sexual misconduct filed online from reaching its Title IX office from January 2016 to October of this year, the university said Thursday.

A statement from the university’s Office of Institutional Equity, which investigates such complaints, attributed the problem to trouble with its website.

The revelation came amid mounting frustration over the university’s response to sexual misconduct complaints.

More than 100 students rallied on campus Thursday afternoon, protesting what they say have been weak investigations and delayed responses to sexual abuse.

The students held signs saying “We believe her” and chanted “Hopkins silence equals violence” as they marched from one side of campus to the other.

Inside an administration building, students unfurled a petition several yards long that included more than 1,400 signatures from Hopkins students and alumni as well as and students from other universities demanding more transparent and quicker investigations into sexual abuse complaints and improved accountability measures.

Witnesses and survivors of sexual assault spoke out about their experiences with the Office of Institutional Equity.

Madelynn Wellons, a junior, said she was sexually assaulted on campus in 2016 during her freshman year. She said it took a year and a half for the university to complete its investigation. By the time it did earlier this year, and found the accused student guilty of sexual assault, he had transferred to another university, she said.

The Sun typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Wellons, who spoke at the protest, has been telling her story publicly to call on the school to improve its investigations of sexual assault and be more transparent with students.

“He suffered no consequences,” she said. “I believed the system would protect me, and I was so wrong.”

In response to The Baltimore Sun’s inquiries about this alleged sexual assault and other allegations, the university sent a statement saying it does not comment on specific reports or investigations because of privacy concerns. The statement read: “The university takes allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault very seriously and has a comprehensive policy on investigating and resolving such complaints. Because such allegations have serious consequences for everyone involved, the parties to an investigation deserve a careful, thorough and balanced investigation.”

Students at the protest pointed to a complaint of sexual assault in which a visiting graduate student said a university professor sexually assaulted her at Baltimore’s Ottobar one night after a conference in May.

A Johns Hopkins student read a statement from the visiting graduate student, who was not at the protest. She called academia a “safe haven for sexual predators” and urged others to come forward to hold the system accountable. Two witnesses of the alleged incident stood at the protest and accused the university of “deafening institutional silence.”

Witnesses to the alleged incident told The Sun that a professor, who is not teaching this semester, had been trying to flirt with the student all night. Other students worked to block his advances, they said. At one point, the professor grabbed the student from behind and dragged her across the dance floor toward the exit, as she struggled to escape his grasp and flee, according to the students. Johns Hopkins graduate student Marios Falaris was a witness and described it as “one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.”

Two graduate students intervened and pulled the student from his grasp, and then left the bar, according to witness statements and interviews with The Sun.

The accused professor did not respond to email and voicemail messages left this week by The Sun.

According to an online petition, investigators took six months to review the complaints filed by the visiting student and witnesses. They concluded that the professor’s behavior was sexual harassment, but not sexual assault. University sanctions for sexual harassment or sexual misconduct range from a reprimand or warning to suspension or termination.

A group called JHToo has asked the university to reform its investigations and communicate with students in a more timely and transparent manner.

Complaints of sexual misconduct filed with the Office of Institutional Equity nearly doubled, from 153 in 2016 to 275 in 2017, according to the office’s 2017 annual report. The university told The Sun that it has increased staffing and other resources in the office to help speed investigation times and that it is “committed to fostering an environment that is free from sexual misconduct.”

In the statement posted online by the Office of Institutional Equity in reference to the 18 missed complaints, officials wrote that they will be working to fix the website, to respond to students and to correct crime logs and reports the university files with the federal government.

One student who filed a complaint of sexual assault on campus in 2016 posted a message she said she received from the university Wednesday to the JHToo student Facebook group. The university message notified her that the complaint she submitted in 2016 had not reached investigators, she said.

“They never got back to me, and the issue was never addressed by the institution,” she wrote the student group, according to her message, which was forwarded to The Sun.

Hopkins’ acknowledgement that it botched its handling of the complaints of sexual misbehavior comes as other local universities struggle to respond to criticism of their handling of sexual-misconduct allegations. The University of Maryland Medical School announced last week that it was engineering a cultural transformation in the institution, after a recent lawsuit and a letter from female faculty and medical residents alleged failures to create an equitable environment for women. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is defending itself in a lawsuit that alleges UMBC police discouraged a victim from reporting a sexual assault to law enforcement.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated how many witnesses of an alleged sexual assault by a professor were at the protest. There were two witnesses. The Sun regrets the error.
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