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My name is Madeline Wilson and I'm a senior at St. Olaf College. While my friends are applying for jobs and going to interviews, I'm working with a team of lawyers to change St. Olaf's legacy of failing to address rape on campus. I’m also working with a group of students to bring awareness to St. Olaf’s cowardice in dealing with rapists. It isn’t easy to constantly be talking about my rape, and it sucks to have people think of rape when they see my face. This isn't fun for me, but it’s the only way to get St. Olaf’s administration to take survivors of sexual assault seriously.
I reported the rape in September. At first, I didn't want anyone to know, so I didn’t tell anyone what had really happened. I also didn't want to report because I had heard horror stories about our administration’s treatment of people who had been sexually assaulted. But I was falling apart internally. I couldn't focus on anything, especially because my assailant was on campus. I would run into him in our cafeteria, in between classes, at the gym...everywhere I went, he was there. I realized that to process what had happened and to really start my recovery, I needed to openly address the fact that I had been sexually assaulted. And that meant reporting my rape to college administrators.
When I left the Dean's office after reporting, I felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my chest. I thought the administration would do the right thing. I go to a small Lutheran liberal arts college, and a big reason that I chose to go here rather than a bigger state school is that I was assured multiple times that I would be a person here — not just another number. I was aware that other campuses handled sexual assault poorly, and although I had heard murmurs of that happening here, I still thought that maybe, just maybe, my case would be different.
At first, everything was fine. They took testimonies, and I thought I communicated what had happened pretty well in my interview. A couple weeks into the process I found out my assailant had hired a high-powered lawyer, which I thought was weird, but the college assured me that the lawyer could only act as an advisor to him and not really actively be a part of the case so I didn’t think I needed to find a lawyer of my own. Of course, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford one — I’m on scholarship and serious financial aid. I figured that, regardless of any lawyer’s involvement, the truth would be enough and my assailant would be found guilty.
The truth was not enough. Things got much worse very quickly.
Within weeks after reporting my rape, I got a phone call from my ex-boyfriend who told me he had gotten strange phone calls from private investigators working on behalf of my assailant, asking about my character and clearly attempting to portray me as as sexually promiscuous, dishonest person. I was shocked. I later found out that the private investigators also called my boss and coworkers back in Colorado, my ex-boyfriend’s parents and several other friends both on and off my campus, asking if I was sexually aggressive, if I wore provocative clothing, and informing them of my allegations.
Though my school’s sexual misconduct policy explicitly forbids hiring a private investigator to investigate another student, the administration didn’t tell my rapist to stop. Each time I heard of another person being contacted, I notified the school again. I told several different administrators that this was happening on four separate occasions. They did nothing but send him a weakly worded email suggesting that he might want to be careful with his investigation. Maybe this should have been a red flag, indicating that my school was not going to stand up to my assailant, his lawyer, or the investigators. But I wanted so badly to believe that they were going to do a good job, and I didn’t feel like I had any other options.
As the case progressed, I learned that my rapist had hired yet another lawyer and a forensic toxicologist to try to prove himself innocent. The forensic toxicologist was allowed to act as an “expert witness” and claimed that I invented false memories of the rape, and that it was possible to consent even when I was blackout drunk — I just might not remember it the next day. Of course, I didn’t consent. I said no, I fought back, and by state law I legally couldn’t consent if I was intoxicated. I told the school all of this.
There were four witnesses from the night of my assault and every single one of those four people reported that I was drunk, including my rapist’s friends. The only person who claimed that I wasn't drunk was the perpetrator. Notably, our school policy states that you can't give consent while you're incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. That alone should have been enough for the college to rule that he was guilty of sexual assault. But in addition to that, I told him, "I'm not going to have sex with you." He even admitted this in the investigation report! Although he remembered me saying "I don't plan on having sex with you," it's still a verbal no and absolutely not affirmative consent. I took all the right steps. Reading the investigation report, I thought that there was no way the school would ignore the clear evidence of rape. I was too intoxicated, I said no.
In the end, the school failed to find my rapist guilty. Though the school is mandated by Title IX to operate on a preponderance of evidence standard (meaning if the adjudicator thought it was “more likely than not” that sexual assault occurred, they would deem the respondent guilty), despite my state of intoxication that was confirmed by witnesses and my clear ‘no’, my rapist had been cleared. I was told that the my assailant’s version of events was clearer than mine. I was told that I was an unreliable witness, because of my memory loss. According to the school, I was too drunk to be a reliable witness, but apparently not too drunk to consent.
When I received the decision, I was devastated. I knew there were several procedural errors throughout my case, ranging from the extended time line (cases are only supposed to take 60 days — mine took 77), to the unreasonable participation from the private investigators, forensic toxicologists, and lawyers — the lawyers even threatened an injunction if the school prohibited him from conducting his own investigation. So, I filed an appeal. I asked them to reopen the case because they had broken several school policies and allowed my rapist to harass and retaliate against me throughout the process with his private investigators, and include several irrelevant witness testimonies from the forensic toxicologist and character witnesses provided by my assailant who weren’t even present the night of the assault. Despite all of this, the college's Title IX coordinator denied my appeal.
I had to do something. I started calling lawyers. Eventually, I found a nonprofit law firm that agreed to take me on. For several months I worked with them to put together a complaint for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This has now been officially filed with and received by the OCR, and you can read it here. To be clear: This not a lawsuit. I will not receive money or benefits from it. But it will publicly address the failures of St. Olaf’s administration and compel them to improve.
When I decided to speak out about the injustices in the sexual assault case my “support dean”, the person who knew about the rape before my own parents did, abruptly turned on me, saying: “You want to come at the college? Come at the college.” He was willing to comfort me throughout the process, but he wasn’t willing to hear any criticism. And he certainly wasn’t supportive of an open dialogue about St. Olaf’s failings.
Losing the support of the dean I trusted was heartbreaking, but I refused to be silenced. I knew that if the way that St. Olaf administration actively disregarded and mistreated sexual assault on their campus was not exposed, then they would continue to fail other students like me who had been sexually assaulted.
I also wanted to take back my narrative. I felt so helpless when my rapist used his private investigators to unilaterally inform my friends and coworkers of my allegations. I had no intention of informing my boss or my ex-boyfriend’s parents that I had been raped, let alone have them be dragged into the administrative proceedings. When I came up with the idea of wearing a t-shirt that said “ASK ME HOW MY COLLEGE IS PROTECTING MY RAPIST,” I knew that not only would I be reclaiming the story that was taken from me, but I would be making the college I loved a better place.
I started talking to friends and acquaintances and found ten others who wanted to wear similar shirts and get involved with asking St. Olaf for change. Some were survivors of sexual assault themselves, others were allies. When put on our t-shirts, the community was shocked. Students and faculty alike stared, dumbfounded, at what we were wearing. The administrators refused to look at us.
But then, other students and alumni began coming forward and sharing their stories about how St. Olaf had mishandled or ignored their rape allegations too. Some of these rapes happened as far back as forty years ago. Some happened as recently as last month. We began to uncover a pattern that extends back decades of administrators ignoring sexual assault victims and protecting the perpetrator at all costs. Students, faculty and alumni alike thanked us for our honesty, our transparency, our bravery. Most importantly, people started having conversations about the presence of sexual assault on our campus and what it means to handle them appropriately and how to protect survivors. Though the response has been overwhelmingly positive, some people posted nasty rumors and hateful comments on anonymous forums saying I was lying or I wanted attention, which hurt. Although speaking out has opened so many doors and allowed me to connect with so many people, I want to be clear: speaking out is not easy, and every day I put on my t-shirt and I am terrified all over again. But the truth has to come out.
I’ve shared my experience with a few local publications, but writing this is my chance to share my story in my own words. I hope that the actions taken by myself and my fellow students will leave an impact on St. Olaf College. A dialogue has been opened about the college’s long history of neglecting survivors of sexual assault. The federal investigation will continue on after I graduate. Other students will be protected. Hopefully, other survivors will feel free to discuss their experiences publicly. St. Olaf College has a legacy of protecting rapists. I want to leave a different kind of legacy behind me.
Read more from Madeline: Since March 30, I've been leading what we call the "Ask Me" Movement with other survivors and allies. We seek to break up the culture of silence around sexual assault, protest St. Olaf College administrations' failure to adhere to the standards mandated by Title IX and advocate for policy change in the sexual misconduct process. You can find out more about our work here.