Student decries conduct process in sexual assault case
Clara Ell is a freshman at the University of Portland. Photo courtesy of Clara Ell.
A University of Portland freshman who reported being sexually assaulted by another student in her dorm room in September is now sharing her story publicly because she believes the University’s conduct process failed her.
Clara Ell sent an email to family and friends Wednesday saying that the University “has not supported me or followed their own claims and mission to be a safe environment where violence is not tolerated.” She posted a similar statement on her Facebook page. Ell went through the University’s formal conduct hearing process, which found the alleged assailant “not responsible.”
She then appealed the ruling, which was upheld by Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. John Donato. Ell told The Beacon the alleged perpetrator is still attending UP.
“It’s really difficult to know he’s still on campus,” Ell told The Beacon. “I’ve seen him a few times and I get equally angry and afraid and have to remove myself from the area and from all social interaction to calm down and compose myself. It’s hard to feel safe on the campus when, everytime I leave my dorm, I know there’s a chance I’ll bump into him.”
Several hours after her initial email, Clara Ell’s father Pat Ell – who is also the Assistant Director for Leadership at UP’s Moreau Center and a UP alumnus (‘89) – sent out a more detailed email to almost two dozen members of the UP community criticizing the way the disciplinary process handled his daughter’s case. The issue at the center of his criticism is whether Clara was capable of giving consent because she was drunk.
He laid out the timeline of the reported incident and said that even though his daughter and several witnesses testified to her drinking excessively, “the hearing process concluded that Clara was not intoxicated to the point of incapacitation.”
The night of the alleged assault, Sept. 30, Clara says she and several friends, who testified during the hearing, had gone to a party. Pat Ell’s email states that Clara remembered, “drinking several beers, 3 shots of tequila, chugging several times from a wine bag, and drinking more beer. One of her friends/witnesses also reported that Clara chugged from a whiskey bottle a few times … Clara weighs about 150 pounds, was 18 years-old on that date, and drank from 9:30 p.m. until about 1:30 a.m.”
Clara said that her roommate and friend walked her back to her dorm room in Corrado Hall and gave her some water and food because “there was really no way that I could be out and about because I was so drunk.” After her friends left, her alleged attacker texted her and asked to come over, Clara said. She responded no.
“Tonight is not the best idea,” Clara said in a text message to her alleged assailant. Clara provided screenshots of the text conversation to The Beacon.
“Haha why’s that?” he replied. “Because I’m drunk haha and who knows what I’ll say or do,” she responded.
Several messages later: “If you let me in we can talk about it. Where are you?” he texted Clara.
“Where are you?” she replied.
“Outside,” he texted. He was waiting outside of Corrado.
“(After the assault, my friends) took me over to Mehling so that I might be a little safer or something,” Clara said. “I woke up the next morning not feeling super great physically and especially feeling very hurt mentally. I slept the rest of the day and then decided to file (an anonymous Title IX) report through the school on Sunday.”
Clara took issue with the decision letter from the hearing committee, which she says stated that the “behavior” that night was consistent with her past physical contact with the other student.
“This is not true,” Clara wrote in her appeal to Donato. “The perpetrator and I had never engaged in sexual intercourse prior to the incident. We did have a brief, romantic relationship, and it definitely did not include sexual intercourse … I categorically reject that we were ‘friends with benefits.’”
Late Wednesday afternoon, Donato responded to The Beacon's request for comment. In an email he said, "I am not able to share the results of student conduct hearings with you due to confidentiality concerns for the parties involved, but both the reporting party and the responding party receive notice of the outcome of each case in accordance with federal law and University policy." Full text of email here.
Pat Ell was not only concerned with the outcome of the hearing and appeal of his daughter’s case. He was alarmed that it took so long for Clara to get a response when she initially requested a student conduct hearing. According to his email, Clara filed two official requests for a student conduct hearing during the week of Oct. 9 and did not get a response until Oct. 25, after going to Title IX Coordinator Lauretta Frederking for additional help.
The Title IX process is based on a federal law that requires universities to follow certain procedures when it comes to sex discrimination and sexual violence.
It is separate from the Student Conduct Process.
In contrast to her experience with the Student Conduct Process, Clara is grateful for the support she received from Frederking.
“Dr. Frederking has been incredibly supportive this entire time and she is supposed to very much be a neutral party,” Clara said. “So it must be very difficult for her to sit there and not really be able to do anything while I was told that it was my fault. But she’s been extremely supportive and she’s reached out to me to make sure that I was aware of all my resources. She’s been really important in having a little bit of faith left in the University after all that has happened.”
Pat Ell’s email also states, “Public Safety responded by interviewing Clara and her witnesses, and the accused perpetrator during the week of Oct. 9.”
However, the incident is not listed anywhere in the Department of Public Safety’s Daily Fire and Crime Log during Oct. or Nov. It is not clear why, though Public Safety Communications Officer Michael McNerney told The Beacon it may be due to “clerical error” on the part of the department.
“We strive for 100 percent accuracy,” McNerney said. “(I am) not making excuses, but (it could be) holiday, illness, short staffing.”
The Department of Public Safety is required by federal law to list all crimes reported to the department in the daily log, which must be easily accessible to community members either online or as a hard copy in the office. Departments have two business days to add reported crimes to the log.
According to the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting: “You may temporarily withhold information only if there is clear and convincing evidence that the release of information would: jeopardize an ongoing investigation, jeopardize the safety of an individual, cause a suspect to flee or evade detection; or result in the destruction of evidence,” while a case is ongoing. However, after a case is closed, departments are required to update the log within two business days.
Clara’s Facebook post had received 345 likes and 72 comments as of noon on Thursday.
“First and foremost our goal was to alert our family and close friends,” Clara told the Beacon on Wednesday. “Also very much a part of that was to bring attention to what has happened, because as much as it’s been something that has affected us, it’s something that we fear the rest of the community is in danger of because it’s really rough to be sexually assaulted and that’s something that should never have to happen to someone. But then to turn to the University that I trust and that I love and have them tell me, ‘No, this didn’t really happen to you.’ It’s scary.”
Although sexual assault is a felony, Clara says she did not go to police because she trusted that the University would handle it. Pat Ell also says the family was unsure of how much the police could do because Clara did not receive a medical examination immediately following the incident.
“I didn’t consider (going to the police) really until after the (student conduct hearing),” Clara told The Beacon. “Because it took a really long time and so I just thought that was them going slowly and taking care of things. Being meticulous … I really trusted and hoped that the University would take care of it. So I didn’t think it was necessary for the police to be involved.”
At many other schools, student conduct processes have been under fire in recent years for their handling of sexual assault. And an increasing number of sexual assault survivors are going public with the stories of their assault and their disillusionment with the conduct process at their universities. Among the more prominent was a Columbia University student who carried her mattress around campus to draw attention to her case.
As word of Clara’s case has circulated across campus, a group of students has organized an event to offer support and solidarity to survivors of sexual violence in the UP community. The event is scheduled for Sunday at 9 p.m. in St. Mary’s.