Students Claim Bad Note-Taking Sabotaged Sexual Assault Investigations

The One Dumb Problem That's Sabotaging College Sexual Assault Investigations

As the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights pursues investigations into the sexual assault policies of a number of colleges and universities across the country, several women whose complaints prompted inquiries tell HuffPost that their cases were compromised by campus authorities' mistakes in note-taking.

In at least five cases reported on by The Huffington Post, the young women who reported sexual assault say a lack of documentation or discrepancies between their accounts of events and what was recorded by campus police and other school investigators.

"I would think on a college campus, there would be a proper appreciation for taking notes," said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women.

After Joanna Espinosa reported a former boyfriend for sexual abuse at the University of Texas-Pan American in March 2013, it took the school more than 5 months to decide there wasn't enough evidence to conclude he was responsible. Espinosa told HuffPost that she believes poor note-taking practices contributed to the delays and required investigators to ask the same questions multiple times.

The school granted her appeal of the decision in September, and after a review of the case, found the ex-boyfriend guilty of "conduct that is inappropriate for members of an academic institution" and "[u]nauthorized entry to University facilities." His punishment prohibited him from any employment with the school, as well as barring him from graduate or teaching assistantships, according to documents Espinosa provided to HuffPost. He was not removed from campus.

Knowing that the student she had accused of assaulting her would be nearby every day, Espinosa said she abandoned her plan for a second degree and left the university altogether.

Espinosa told HuffPost that what bothered her about the school's initial determination of insufficient evidence was that during her first hour-long interview with three administrators, they only wrote down three paragraphs and misspelled her name. She also said that when she reported the incident to campus police, their account of her abuse did not reflect what she told them. She complained of the discrepancy and was told by police they would make a note and put it in her file, Espinosa said.

Espinosa characterized the handling of her case as "inexcusable."

In addition to what she considers shoddy note-taking, Espinosa said she was uncomfortable with some of the administrators' questions: was there a promise of marriage? was the relationship "Facebook official"? and others about the logistics of the alleged abuse.

"That was incredibly uncomfortable," Espinosa said. "I didn't want to cause problems for myself early on so I just answered the questions."

All of these concerns were included in a complaint Espinosa filed against UTPA with the Department of Education last week.

UTPA told HuffPost that the administration has not seen the complaint, but did say that in fall 2013 the university hired an outside risk management group, NCHERM Group, LLC, to review Espinosa's case and conduct a second investigation. "The University's conclusions in this matter were based on that report, which we believe was both thorough and unbiased," UTPA spokeswoman Kimberly Selber said. "We are confident that the University's final decision on Ms. Espinosa's complaint was an appropriate one."

Despite UTPA's confidence, NCHERM Group's confidential report, provided to HuffPost by Espinosa, identified a number of issues in the university's policies. The report concludes that the university had an obligation to address sexual violence complaints "promptly, thoroughly and impartially," but that the "initial investigation into [Espinosa's] complaint dragged on for months and the investigators often did not respond to the complainant's legitimate inquiries and concerns." NCHERM also noted some of UTPA's policies may not be in compliance with Title IX requirements and could potentially violate the First Amendment.

The lack of thorough paperwork has hampered sexual assault investigations at universities elsewhere, as well.

Two women at Columbia University who accused the same male student of sexual assault in April 2013 both cited shoddy note-taking by the university investigator who interviewed them. The women told HuffPost that they had found major chronological inaccuracies in the reports about their assaults, and that some items included in one case file simply didn't make sense, like a claim that one of the women had become tipsy after a sip of a mixed drink.

The man accused in both of cases was given the opportunity to provide his account of the incident to investigators as a prepared written statement -- something the women say they were not allowed to do.

One of the female Columbia students said she asked university investigators if she could have time to think and write out what happened, but was told, "We think it's best if we get this over with quickly as possible."

"I entered the process knowing it wouldn't be easy, but I thought it would be hard for different reasons," the student said. "I went to the university because I thought they would be able to help. It was clear to me towards the end of the semester this wasn't going anywhere and my efforts hadn't done anything. I started to question why I went through this effort in the first place."

The male was found not responsible for sexual misconduct in both cases. One of the students appealed unsuccessfully, citing errors in the investigation, such as a report on her assault noting "minutes" instead of "seconds." The other woman told HuffPost that she decided an appeal would only cause her further stress in the wake of what she considered a lackluster investigation.

Columbia declined to comment, except to note a student senator announced this week that two investigators, rather than one, will be present to take notes in future interviews with sexual assault victims.

Students at other campuses have also criticized the quality of investigations.

When University of Indianapolis student Amanda Tripp reported a sexual assault to campus police in November 2012, she said the responding officer made errors in taking down her account of the incident. Based on that report, the city police told campus officers there had been no crime, and the case was closed less than an hour after Tripp reported it.

Ari Mostov said the University of Southern California campus security officers did not accurately record her report, and subsequently dropped the case believing no rape had taken place. The police report about her rape was labeled "injury response."

"Victim states she was sexually assaulted by subject" was all the University of Akron campus police wrote down when Julia Dixon reported her attack in September 2008. Dixon said she waited 20 months for the result of her rape kit before the university would consider adjudicating her assailant, who by then had dropped out. Prior to the results of the rape kit, a school official allegedly suggested Dixon would struggle in a judicial proceeding without evidence.

In most of these cases, the women made their initial report of a sexual assault weeks or months -- in some instances years -- after the incident took place. Absent of physical evidence, the victim's statement becomes much more crucial, and there's no room for shorthand in such cases, said Maatz of AAUW. She suggested the lack of appropriate training can potentially fail both the alleged victim and the accused when notes are subpar.

"I'm not expecting 'CSI,'" said Maatz, "but I am expecting thorough note-taking."

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