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Report faults Wheaton on sexual assaults

A student crossed a footbridge on the campus of Wheaton College.
A student crossed a footbridge on the campus of Wheaton College.Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe/file 2016/Globe Freelance

Wheaton College in Norton failed to respond to a report of student-on-student rape, did little to prevent an alleged rapist from continuing to contact the victim, and neglected to prevent retaliation against a different victim, according to a recent report by the Department of Justice.

The findings are detailed in a 19-page letter sent to the small liberal arts school in July by federal attorneys who spent a year investigating the college. The investigation found five areas where Wheaton fell short of its legal obligations, and the school on Wednesday signed an agreement with the Justice Department to reform its practices.

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The Wheaton report is an example of how schools around the country struggle to adequately address sexual assault under a rigorous set of federal guidelines and a reminder of how rapes continue to occur despite increasing awareness.

There are more than 275 open sexual violence investigations at 214 colleges across the country, including 17 in Massachusetts, according to federal education and justice officials.

The Justice Department began its investigation of Wheaton in 2015 after a student filed a complaint with the department that said the school was lax in its duty to help her pursue action against the alleged rapist.

The student, in a recent interview, said she hopes that public conversations about sexual assault will drive colleges to better educate students so fewer assaults occur in the first place.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the system,” the student said in a phone interview. “I hope it can get better, but I really think that the best way to tackle it now is kind of through social change.”

The Globe does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their permission.

For the student, the issue became personal in October of her freshman year, when she said she was raped by a classmate who lived next door. At first, she didn’t want to report the incident.

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“You kind of automatically go to that point of ‘I was friends with this person, they wouldn’t do something malicious,’ ” the student said.

But five months later, as she began to suffer from nightmares and health problems and began to isolate herself in her room to avoid seeing him, she decided to consider taking legal action.

At that point, the student said, administrators became unhelpful and vague, her friends shunned her, and the alleged perpetrator began to antagonize her.

“Again and again it has kind of been backlash against me from Wheaton, rather than against him,” said the student, who transferred to a university in a different state.

The Justice Department’s report described not only this student’s circumstances, but others that were similar, all anonymously.

In one case, school officials’ misunderstanding about their roles and responsibilities led to an inequitable grievance process in a sexual assault case, the report found.

In a different situation, the school did not adequately investigate an alleged violation of a no-contact order by an alleged perpetrator even after the alleged victim told the school she had evidence that he intentionally tried to contact her.

In one instance, the Justice Department found that in 2014, the school failed to respond to a student’s report of rape by another student who had since graduated until the student made a second complaint, but even then did not investigate why the first complaint was ignored.

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The report also noted that Wheaton has improved its response to sexual assault since 2012, when it received a grant to do so. It said some students told investigators they generally feel safe on campus and administrators were willing to work with them on issues related to sexual assault.

The ripple effect of campus sexual assault can be more jolting at small schools like Wheaton, which has 1,600 students, of whom two-thirds are women.

When someone files a complaint, “everyone is going to know instantly,” one student told the Justice Department investigators. Another student said she feared backlash from the alleged perpetrator’s athletic teammates, were she to make a report.

“Particularly because Wheaton’s campus community is so small, the college must take steps to ensure that it responds promptly and appropriately,” the report said.

On Wednesday, after a version of this story ran on the Globe website, Wheaton signed a settlement agreement that details how the school will improve its handling of assault reports.

In the meantime, it had already made some changes, including converting the position that deals with sexual assault complaints to a full-time job.

The college has also revised a number of other policies, educational materials, and training practices, and informed students and staff about the changes, said university spokesman Michael Graca.

For example, the school explains to students what a no-contact order means and how they are supposed to comply. Another new policy requires that responsible employees must report disclosures of sexual assault within 24 to 48 hours to the sexual assault report coordinator.

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With greater attention on the issue, many schools have seen the number of reports increase, said Alison Kiss, executive director at the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a nonprofit that aims to reduce campus assaults.

“Sometimes it takes a complaint or it takes a student speaking out to have things change,” Kiss said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.