By George Prentice
For Boise Weekly
The party was off campus, at a home rented by a group of North Idaho College students. The weather was getting cold in mid-November, but a young woman, then a 17-year-old freshman, thought the house was a short walk from the community college west of downtown Coeur d’Alene.
The young woman, now a Boise resident, admits to having too much to drink at the Nov. 16, 2013 party—so drunk she blacked out. One thing she does remember, though, is coming-to in a bathroom where she said she was gang raped by three male students.
Three years later, she’s still struggling to come to terms with what happened. Making matters worse, she said, NIC officials did nothing did help her and instead “revictimized” her by scrutinizing her every move for months—all the while never investigating her assault.
“Try to imagine being on-edge every minute of every day. That was my life. There were times where I thought I would kill myself,” she said. “I never even thought of a second year at college because I thought I would kill myself as a freshman.”
Through her attorney Rebecca Rainey, of Boise law office Fisher Rainey Hudson, the young woman filed a lawsuit Sept. 22 against NIC alleging the college violated federal Title IX requirements when officials “ignored the situation entirely”; “refused to investigate or take corrective action”; and conducted “willful, knowing and intentional discrimination,” according to the suit.
“Even if that school catches wind of a Title IX flag—even confidentially—they’re required to follow up. And there is no evidence of any investigation into this incident,” Rainey said. “Title IX is designed to protect a student’s educational opportunities. If a student is suffering because of sexual violence, you better believe that it will impact that student’s educational opportunities in a million different ways.””
The young woman said she tried to share her story “with nearly every media outlet in Idaho, but nobody would listen.”
When she first contacted Boise Weekly in June, she said “this would be my final effort.”
Per her request, BW waited for the young woman’s complaint to be filed in federal court before publishing her story. To protect her identity, we refer to her as “R.”
Nov. 16, 2013
R remembers the optimism of her first year at NIC in the fall of 2013. She had hoped to be a lawyer someday and thought the publicly funded community college—which offers classes to more than 6,000 students in the picturesque north Idaho resort town—would be a good first step on her path to law school.
“I was hoping to do so much more with my life,” she said.
That all changed on the night of Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. She said a few hours after she was assaulted, she texted a friend.
“My body hurts,” she wrote.
The recipient of the text—which went on to include some graphic descriptions of the particulars of the assault—was not only a friend of R’s, but an NIC resident assistant in her dorm. The text prompted the RA to arrange a face-to-face conversation with R and, soon after, the situation was reported to NIC Resident Life Director Paula Czirr.
The day after the incident, R walked to downtown Coeur d’Alene where she received treatment and underwent several tests at an urgent care clinic. By Nov. 18, 2013, two days after the alleged rape, records confirm that the assault had been reported to Vice President of Student Services Graydon Stanley and NIC Counseling Specialist Deborah Ferguson.
Instead of launching an investigation into the alleged assault, emails sent to and from NIC officials indicate they were puzzled over how to proceed with the case.
“I’m not sure what we can do with this information,” Czirr wrote to Stanley and Ferguson on Nov. 18, 2013. “Is this something we need to contact the mother about? Do we just let the therapist help her work through it? I would appreciate some guidance on how to proceed. Her behaviors have escalated, to say the least.”
Instead of addressing the report that she had been raped, the focus on R’s own behaviors intensified. Her behaviors were, by her own admission, “spiraling.” Heavy drinking, drug abuse, emotional breakdowns at parties—R fell apart after her assault.
“I think the first time I took another drink was on Dec. 7, ,” R said. “I had gone to a party, had too much and people told me that I was crying a lot.”
A note in NIC’s security logs for the night of Dec. 7, 2013 indicated R’s roommate made a point of contacting an RA, saying R “was crying about what happened on [Nov.] 16th.” Another entry in NIC security logs for the night of Dec. 14, 2013 included notes, again from an RA, that R “was talking about suicide,” adding, “What happened in November on the 16th is really getting to her still.”
Regardless of the mounting concerns over R’s mental health, the 2013 fall semester ended and students headed home for the holidays with no indication that NIC had launched a Title IX investigation into her reported assault. When R returned to campus in January 2014 she was summoned to a formal meeting regarding her behavior.
“My assault was never mentioned in that meeting,” she said, referring to Jan. 27, 2014, when R sat in front of Czirr, Stanley, Ferguson and NIC Director of Student Development Alex Harris, who also serves as the college’s Title IX coordinator.
“They all decided that it would be best to come up with a contract that I would not drink while living at the resident hall,” she said.
That’s when NIC officials put a document in front of R, reading that she was not to consume drugs or alcohol and if she had any suicidal ideation, that she would contact a staff person immediately.
“That contract made me feel like my drinking was their only concern,” said R. “There was no mention of the assault ever being related to my drinking problem.”
R’s roommate—who requested not to be named for privacy reasons—said she became increasingly concerned for R’s physical and mental wellbeing.
“I think NIC handled it very poorly. Instead of being supported, she was scrutinized. She was being victimized again,” the roommate said. “And when the resident assistants ever talked about her, they never wanted to talk about what happened on Nov. 16. …
“To be honest, sometimes I was afraid of what I might find when I returned to our room,” she said. “Yes, I was afraid of her committing suicide.”
NIC was intent on monitoring R’s comings and goings, making detailed notes in security logs to the exact time of day or night that R would walk in or out of her dormitory.
“Saw [R] leaving the building at 10 p.m.” wrote one RA on March 17, 2014.
“[R] had her bag checked around 9:30,” wrote another RA on April 21, 2014.
Dozens of NIC security notes, obtained by R following a records request, detailed her movements for months in the spring semester of 2014, each logging the exact time and even the doors that she would walk in or out of the building.
In late April, R fired off an angry email to Czirr and her staff of RAs, venting her frustration.
“Here’s what really makes me mad. You’d rather have some college rapists in the dorm than an ‘alcoholic’ that has been victimized by them,” she wrote on April 21, 2014. “Did anyone ever question why I was getting high every day or why I was coming back drunk and crying? No, you didn’t.”
R wrote that she was particularly angered that it was she, rather than her attackers, who suffered consequences for destructive behavior.
“Now look at me. I’m going to AA and considered an alcoholic. Nobody stood up for me,” she wrote.
Three years later, the trauma is still fresh.
“I’m not sure how best to describe my life as it is now. It’s…” she said, pausing in thought. “It’s surreal. You see, I’m sitting here with you now… or I may be sitting at work… or I may be sitting with friends… but my head is somewhere else. I feel out of place. I just don’t have a lot to offer when people have conversations, especially about fun things.”
Reliving the details of her attack in court will also present emotional risks.
“My role as a legal counsel to someone who goes through something like this is to help them manage that retraumatization,” said Rainey. “I can’t prevent it, because it will definitely happen. And it will happen no matter how someone chooses to respond. If they remain totally quiet about it, they’ll remain retraumatized. If they speak out, they’re retraumatized. It’s a horrible thing for anyone to go through, no matter how they choose to deal with it. Yes, there’s a very high certainty of retraumatization.”
U.S. Court Case No. 1:16-cv-430
In July 2014, R decided to directly contact the college’s Title IX coordinator, Alex Harris.
“Do I qualify for a Title IX complaint?” she wrote to Harris, who, on July 28, 2014, responded:
“Gender/Sex based incidents fall under Title IX regulations. As Title IX officer for NIC, it is my job to investigate and remedy these situations when notified of them. So when you say ‘do you qualify for a complaint?’ I don’t really understand that.”
“I’m appalled by that comment,” said Rebecca Rainey, R’s attorney. “And I look forward to speaking with him regarding that statement. Here’s a student: confused, looking for answers. And that’s the response she receives regarding Title IX? He says he ‘doesn’t really understand’?”
Harris forwarded a copy of his response to R to his boss, NIC VP of Student Services Graydon Stanley, who wrote back: “Good response. Could put you in line for a little merit increase!”
Looking back at the email she received from Harris in July 2014, R said, “At the time, I didn’t know that a Title IX complaint would be detrimental to the college’s reputation. I was simply asking a question, and it seems that they had kind of manipulated me into not learning more about it or even considering my complaint.”
NIC officials declined to comment to Boise Weekly on R’s case, other than to refer to the college’s policies and procedures regarding Title IX—the very rules NIC is accused of ignoring.
“All college employees must, in the exercise of reasonable care, promptly report information they have about actual or suspected discrimination, harassment, or misconduct to the Title IX coordinator, a Title IX investigator, or other appropriate employee of the college such as the director of Human Resources or the vice president of Student Services,” NIC’s policy reads. “Employees who fail to report this information in a prompt manner may be subject to disciplinary action.”
According to a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., there have not been “any previous or current investigations” at NIC related to Title IX.
Meanwhile, R dropped out of NIC. Today, she says it’s too difficult to walk onto any college campus. When people ask, “Where do you go to school?” or “What’s your major?” she said it stirs up too many emotions.
“The truth is, it’s taken me this long to find my voice in this,” she said.
In her lawsuit—case No. 1:16-cv-430—R is seeking a jury trial in federal court.
“Why a jury trial? This is an important conversation that our community—our nation—has to have. That’s why jury trials exist in our nation,” said Rainey. “This is a conversation that we need to have about a culture that exists, not just on college campuses, but throughout the nation. And when you look at the rape culture that has existed for years, it has been accepted because people have found the conversation to be too difficult to have. They pretend it doesn’t happen and that’s unacceptable. Yes, it’s a very difficult conversation. And this is a particularly difficult lawsuit to pursue for someone brave enough to pursue it.”
NIC officials will be required to have that “difficult conversation” if R’s case ends up in a courtroom but, for now, the official statement is: “The College cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Regardless of whether the case goes to trial, it is possible NIC’s Title IX practices could be reviewed. Though investigators at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights have not been informed of the allegations against NIC, agency spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said, “The Office of Civil Rights also has the ability to open a compliance review in cases where a complaint has not been filed. There’s a growing awareness across the country that sexual violence is a problem and filing a complaint with OCR is a way to seek justice for survivors.”
Nolt went on to share some staggering statistics on current reports of sexual violence on American college campuses.
“The department currently has 277 sexual violence cases under investigation at 214 postsecondary institutions,” she said.
The data indicate a sharp increase in nationwide postsecondary education sexual violence complaints, jumping from 11 in 2010 to 165 in 2015. More than 160 were already filed by the end of September 2016.
“I don’t know if what happened to me happened to anyone else at NIC,” R said. “I was just one student; but the way the administration handled my case has altered my life dramatically. The college shouldn’t look at their students as problems. They made me feel like such a problem to everyone. … I don’t think that’s how a college administration should see its students under any circumstance.”
This story was originally published in the Boise Weekly.