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Alleged assault, official silence at Roxbury college

Failure to report 2003 case part of wider pattern at Roxbury college

Second of two parts

The complaint, handwritten like a diary entry, unspools across six pages of notepaper. “I was a student” at Roxbury Community College, it begins, “and Orikaye Brown-West was my instructor.”

Then: “He kept calling me.” “He would leave notes on my car asking ‘if we could date?’ ” “He said, ‘I know where you live. … No one is going to believe anything that you say.’ ”

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One night in 2003, Brown-West found the student on campus and grabbed her from behind, the complaint says. She remembers his cologne, then his hands: one gripping her breast, the other between her legs. He stopped, according to the student, only when he heard the nearby jangle of a janitor’s keys.

The student, now 49 and living in Dorchester, told the Globe she fogged up on antidepressants after the alleged assault. A single mother, she struggled to care for her son. She flunked her classes and dropped out.

“I was at RCC,” said the woman, who did not want her name used. “But I was invisible.”

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On Aug. 26, 2010, she decided to change that. She hand-delivered the complaint to the college and later discussed the issue in person with RCC officials.

Under the federal Clery Act, RCC should have included her accusation in a tally of serious criminal allegations at the college, which is required to report crime statistics annually to the US Department of Education. The law is designed to protect students and victims by preventing schools from hiding evidence of potential crimes.

But the school did not report any sex-crime allegations that year. The student remained invisible.

RCC’s failure to respond appropriately was not an isolated incident. Recently, college employees approached the Department of Education with suspicions that it might represent a pattern. The department is now investigating the school for potential lapses in crime reporting.

The education department does not comment on ongoing probes. Brown-West died in January. All of RCC’s administrators have repeatedly declined requests for public comment on almost all questions related to the federal investigation.

But through dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of documents, the Globe has uncovered details of the probe, troubling stories, and evidence of a culture of secrecy and recrimination at the college.

Government documents show the Department of Education has specifically requested information on five RCC employees accused of sexual transgressions, including Brown-West. The accusations and circumstances surrounding those employees vary widely, and it is extremely unlikely that all the cases rise to the level of reporting under the Clery Act. But questions have been raised by others about how the college responded to the accusations, and the education department is including some of those questions as part of its wide ranging investigation of potential concerns regarding compliance with its crime reporting rules.

RCC has not reported a single sex-crime allegation to the government in the past 11 years — including the entire tenure of president Terrence Gomes, who stepped down in June under scrutiny from not just the federal government but also the state auditor’s office, which is investigating a morass of issues.

Personnel papers regarding three of the accused employees have gone missing and may have been destroyed. A college official has resigned over what he alleged was an administrative attempt to inappropriately influence an investigation. Several other employees who have tried to act as whistleblowers say they have been fired or threatened with the possibility of job loss, been pressured to quit, or received suspiciously timed negative performance evaluations.

The other four cases of interest to the Department of Education involve:

 A professor who was accused by a student of sexual harassment.

 A laboratory technician who allegedly rubbed his genitals against another employee.

 A staffer at the college’s Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center accused of fondling a former student.

 Another Reggie Lewis employee accused — wrongly, it turned out — of statutory rape.

An internal audit recently commissioned by the college also notes problems with RCC’s general Clery Act implementation. The school has failed to distribute an annual campus-wide report on its crime policies, as required by law. When asked by its auditors, it could not produce crime logs for the academic years 2003-04, 2004-05, and 2006-07.

RCC may have violated the Clery Act in recent interactions with the Globe. In August, the vice president of administration and finance, Chuks Okoli, instructed the college’s security office to refuse to show crime logs to a reporter, contrary to Clery Act requirements — although Okoli had just been to a Clery training session arranged by the state’s community colleges. Okoli, who declined to explain his behavior or otherwise comment, complied after the Globe complained to the Department of Education.

The Clery Act is little-known outside higher education, but violating it is no technicality.

The government can fine schools many thousands of dollars per violation. In recent years, it has stepped up enforcement, and in 2005 it gave colleges a handbook that lays out its expectations.

“Ignorance can no longer be a defense,” said S. Daniel Carter, a contributor to the handbook and a director at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, which advocates for campus safety.

Because of its unusually large scope and complexity, Carter added, the investigation at RCC could be a legal test for the Clery Act, clarifying such points as the definition of “forcible fondling” (a reportable crime) and “good faith” (the standard under which an allegation must be reported). That might make it “a precedent-setting case that has ramifications for every college in the country,” Carter said.

Complaints filled 2 folders

RCC’s alleged missteps in the Brown-West case appear to be especially egregious.

Brown-West, who taught at the college, also tutored students one-on-one in a windowless room. That is how he met the student who made the 2010 allegation. According to the school’s internal audit, he racked up so many complaints of sexual harassment during his time at RCC that they filled two folders.

But his primary job was not academic. It was serving as the college’s director of facilities and public safety — the official in charge of reporting campus crime statistics under the Clery Act. RCC gave Brown-West that task despite the fact that in 2002 he served six months’ probation for violating a restraining order taken out by his estranged wife.

In 2006, according to a witness, a student marched into Gomes’s office and said Brown-West had committed a sex offense against her.

Administrators took the charge seriously enough to fire Brown-West, according to the college’s internal audit. Alane Shanks, then the college’s vice president of administration and finance, told the Globe that Brown-West admitted the incident had occurred. She further said campus security was properly notified of his firing and that Brown-West was thereafter “prohibited from being on campus without an escort.”

However, the logs kept by campus security include no indication that Brown-West had been accused of a crime.

Brown-West was seen on campus, alone, by several people after he was fired. And the 2006 allegation was never reported to the education department, although, according to the college’s audit, it should have been.

So should the other student’s allegation in 2010. According to the audit, campus security did not receive documentation of her story until Nov. 30 of that year, when she delivered her complaint to security chief Thomas Galvin. But documents show other RCC officials — including some who were likely required under the Clery Act to report complaints to security — were aware of it before then.

Two administrators told the Globe they did not find the 2010 allegation credible because, they said, the student confused or forgot facts as she recounted her story.

The student in turn said those administrators had treated her so coldly when she met with them that she became flustered.

Clery guidelines say administrators are mandated to report allegations — not to determine whether a crime has actually taken place. Only sworn law enforcement officials can do the latter definitively. No law enforcement officials investigated the 2010 allegation.

According to documents produced by the college’s auditors, RCC financial aid director Raymond O’Rourke offered to help the student report her allegation to police. But, he told the auditors, a dean then threatened his job, saying that Gomes and vice president of enrollment and student affairs Stephanie Janey did not view O’Rourke’s offer of help as “good for the team.” A document written by an auditor says the firm interviewed a witness who confirmed he heard the dean make those statements.

The dean passed away in 2011. In the only comments they were willing to make on the record to the Globe, Gomes and Janey denied discussing the issue with the dean.

Other documents that might shed light on the Brown-West cases are apparently missing. According to the internal audit, Brown-West’s personnel file can no longer be found at the school. The Clery Act and the Massachusetts public records law require such personnel papers to be kept for seven and six years, respectively.

An administrative assistant told the college’s auditors that “she gave the aforementioned personnel file to Dr. Shanks during Dr. Shanks’ time as interim Human Resources Director, and it was never returned to her.”

Shanks, now president of Pine Manor College, said she did not know “why the report hasn’t been located.”

The student who filed the 2010 complaint against Brown-West said she has not given up on RCC and wants to complete her degree. “The problem is still there,” she said. “But I’ve stayed away long enough thinking I was the problem. I’m not the problem.”

Private meetings

The Department of Education has also requested information from RCC regarding another professor. But the circumstances around his case appear to be very different. The professor, who still teaches at the college, spoke with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

In the fall of 2008, he said, he asked a female student who was failing his class to withdraw. She became upset, he said. On Oct. 10, documents show, the student filed a complaint with the college alleging sexual harassment — which is not a crime, and thus would not have to be reported under the Clery Act.

The college investigated, and Shanks and academic affairs vice president Brenda Mercomes met with the professor, he said. On Jan. 5, 2009, Gomes sent the student a letter saying that “it cannot be concluded that [the professor] violated the College’s Affirmative Action policy on sexual harassment.” The letter added, however, that the professor was to have “no contact or communication” with the student after that.

Several college officials with limited but direct knowledge of some of the events told the Globe a slightly different, if consistent, story. Three of them said the meeting with the vice presidents occurred. But two, interviewed independently, cited a different impetus for the investigation. They said the student had placed hair clippings — an apparent threat of retaliation by witchcraft — outside the professor’s door. The two officials said they saw the clippings themselves.

The professor, however, denied seeing any hair clippings.

Last July, a few days before Shanks left RCC for Pine Manor, an administrative assistant complained in a statement that the professor’s human resources file — like Brown-West’s — was missing.

According to the statement, the assistant advised Shanks of the anomaly. The next day, the file reappeared in the HR office, but, per the statement, it was “apparent that pages were removed.”

The assistant’s statement also said yet another human resources file — one belonging to the laboratory technician who is the third subject of the education department’s investigation — seemed to be missing papers. She told Shanks as much, according to the statement.

Shanks told the Globe she “wasn’t aware that anyone ever considered [either file] ‘missing.’ ”

The Globe has obtained legal documentation of the lab technician’s case from sources outside the school.

In 2004, the college investigated a student’s complaint against the technician as a case of sexual harassment. Its findings were inconclusive. Four years later, according to the legal papers, an RCC cafeteria cashier accused the technician of grinding his genitals against her — an action that could qualify under the Clery Act as “forcible fondling.”

The school fired the technician, who was also under investigation for poor job performance. But it never reported the cashier’s allegation to the federal government.

Although Shanks told the Globe that campus security was notified and the technician was banned from campus — as in the Brown-West case — there are no entries to suggest that in the school’s crime logs.

The college’s director of human resources quit after the technician was fired. E-mails and legal documents show he accused Shanks of pressuring him to change his findings on the case in ways that could have made it easier for the school to terminate the technician. Shanks denied that allegation to the Globe.

An arbiter later overturned the technician’s firing. He wrote that he had “serious but unanswered questions” about the school’s motives — and cited the HR director’s allegation about changing his aspects of findings on the case.

In good faith

The remaining cases in the education department’s investigation involve two employees at the Reggie Lewis Center who were accused last year of sex crimes.

The college still has time to notify the federal government of the allegations before the reporting deadline of Oct. 1, 2012. And reporting may not be necessary. Colleges are exempt from reporting allegations that have been found by sworn law enforcement officials to be “false or baseless.”

Although Boston police would not release any findings to the Globe — they do not comment on sex-crime investigations as a rule — there is evidence that both accusations against the Reggie Lewis employees may have been found to be baseless. The employees remain on staff, and in one case, the crime in question could not have occurred.

However, both cases still raise questions about the college’s handling of sex-crime allegations.

In the first case, documents show, a 22-year-old former student accused a Reggie Lewis employee of kissing her, slapping her on the buttocks, and fondling her breast. She wrote up her allegations in a signed statement, which the Globe has obtained.

Last December, RCC put the accused employee on leave while it investigated alongside police. In January, the college reinstated him.

Yet the former student, who now lives in Jamaica, said she was not aware the probe was over until a reporter told her in August. She and her brother, an RCC graduate who is helping her handle the case, said college personnel and police had been in touch only briefly and had not returned phone calls.

The second case at the athletic center is a labyrinthine tale of suspected statutory rape.

On the night of Feb. 5, 2002, a facilities manager named Bill Polk came across a fellow employee crouching over a young woman in a back room of the Reggie Lewis. Polk knew the girl and believed her to be around his son’s age — 15. He wrote a memo on what he had seen and gave it to his supervisor. He also reported it to Reggie Lewis director Keith McDermott, with whom he had a contentious relationship. But he did not describe the incident as statutory rape. “I couldn’t,” Polk told the Globe, “because that’s not what I witnessed.”

Within weeks, legal documents show, McDermott eliminated Polk’s job at the center, citing budget cuts. Polk’s supervisor and a manager who had also complained about the girl and the employee left the Reggie Lewis shortly thereafter.

The Department of Education has requested that the college provide it with information on Polk, his supervisor, and the manager.

McDermott ultimately reprimanded the accused employee for inappropriate behavior of a non-sexual nature, but let him keep his job.

McDermott declined to speak on the record to the Globe.

For years afterward, RCC staffers gossiped about the incident. One described slipping a pseudonymous letter under administrators’ doors in 2006, alleging “child molestation.”

But the college does not appear to have reinvestigated the case until last winter, when Rose Green — an ex-girlfriend of the employee in question — sent a memo to college and government officials asserting that the employee had told her he slept with the girl. Green also produced what appeared to be a love letter from the girl to the employee, with a signature matching one on the girl’s driver’s license.

The girl and the employee, however, denied sexual involvement — which in any case would not have constituted a crime.

That is because, according to the driver’s license, on Feb. 5, 2002, the girl was 17. The age of consent in Massachusetts is 16.

Galvin, the security chief, advised RCC administrators several months ago that he planned to report both allegations against the Reggie Lewis staffers to the federal government anyway because he considered them to have been made in good faith. But interim president Linda Turner fired Galvin in August, citing wide-ranging security concerns raised in the college’s audit.

It is unclear how the college will proceed.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Globe correspondent Colin Young contributed to this report. Young can be reached at colin.young@globe.com.
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