‘Her Own Warrior:’ Former SGA president says she requested Title IX investigation
On May 1, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for a Title IX violation; Frostburg State University (FSU) was named on this list. Following an investigation into the source of the complaint, The Bottom Line contacted Jerica Bennett, a 2013 FSU graduate, who agreed to go on record to tell her story and why she filed the complaint with the OCR.
It is important to note that the following is a detailed account made by Bennett to The Bottom Line. In addition to speaking with Bennett, the staff of The Bottom Line has also made contact with Dr. Thomas Bowling, FSU Vice President for Student and Educational Services, and Cynthia Smith, FSU Chief of Police. Bowling responded to reporters’ questions by stating, “We have been instructed not to comment on any specific case.” Smith echoed Bowling’s response stating, “I’m not at liberty to discuss the issue because it is an open investigation.”
I still love FSU. I love the faculty, staff, and memories I had here. This was not a vengeance thing. My big thing is I don’t want this to happen to another woman.
Throughout her account of the incidents, Bennett reiterated the fact that her coming forward with this information and filing the OCR complaint were not acts of vengeance. “I still love FSU. I love the faculty, staff, and memories I had here. This was not a vengeance thing. My big thing is I don’t want this to happen to another woman,” stated Bennett.
Bennett began her account of the incident from the beginning. According to Bennett, she was sexually assaulted by another FSU student at a “get-together” that took place at a friend’s off-campus house during the early hours of the morning of February 27, 2013. Later that morning, her friend escorted her to Western Maryland Regional Health System where a sexual assault forensic examination was conducted.
According to Bennett, the following day she traveled to Annapolis to speak on Frostburg State’s behalf at Maryland Student Lobby Day, a rally for higher-education funding. “I felt I had a commitment to SGA and the school to be at the rally, and I had to hold true to that commitment,” stated Bennett. Upon return from the rally that evening, she went home to Oakland to tell her parents about the incident. Bennett stated that she felt “embarrassed” and had to have her brother convey the information of the account to her parents. “Until you are in that situation you don’t know what it is like to feel embarrassed and ashamed,” stated Bennett.
On March 2, 2013, Bennett says, her father contacted Dr. Bowling to inform him of the situation and that Bennett would not be in classes for a while as a result. Bennett went on to say Bowling never informed any other agencies of the incident, and no one from the university reached out to her during this time.
After reporting the incident to Bowling, Bennett reported what had happened to the City of Frostburg Police Department and the Allegany County Combined Criminal Investigation unit (C3I) on March 4, five days after the incident. She expressed that she has been repeatedly questioned on why she did not report the incident to the police sooner. “Being in the law and society major I know what the women in those situations go through. I didn’t know if it would be worth it to go through all that. I still don’t know if it was worth it,” stated Bennett.
On March 12, 2013, according to court records, an officer of C3I interviewed the suspect. Court records further show that two days later, on March 14, 2013, the officer asked the county District Court for an arrest warrant, which was granted.
On that same day, March 14, Bennett stated, she met with Dr. Jesse Ketterman, FSU Dean of Students, more than two weeks after the incident. During this meeting, Bennett claims she received no pamphlets on counseling or other support services available to students affected by sexual assault. “I was told to think about it, and my options were to do a student conduct panel hearing or just let it go,” stated Bennett. She explained that she was given until after spring break, which was March 17-24 that year, to make a decision.
Court records show that Trooper 1st Class C. Whitaker of C3I arrested the suspect on March 15 on charges of second-degree rape, a felony with a maximum 20-year sentence, and second-degree assault, a misdemeanor with a maximum 10-year sentence; the suspect also was ordered to stay away from Bennett. According to Bennett, the suspect was released and allowed back on campus because he made bail.
Bennett claims her harassment continued after this point. On April 2, she said another incident occurred with the individual in Lane University Center. Her friend and fellow FSU student, Nicole Wilson, was present during this altercation and verified Bennett’s account. Following the incident, Bennett stated she reported it to the school, and the accused individual was barred from Lane Center during certain hours. Bennett said she later spotted him in Lane Center following the hour restriction to which she reported the incident, and he was allegedly banned from Lane Center.
On April 12, the first student code of conduct panel hearing was conducted according to Bennett. Bennett stated she was allowed to bring one support person with her to the hearing; however, she stated, “I was not informed it could be an attorney until I got there, and he had his.”
According to Bennett, the hearing was nearly five hours long. “It was long and embarrassing,” she stated, “I was asked questions about my GPA and what I was wearing [that night].” According to Bennett, the hearing panel found the student responsible for sexual misconduct 1 (rape), sexual misconduct 2 (assault), and endangering the safety of others and suspended him for the fall 2013 semester, not the current spring 2013 semester.
Bennett stated that throughout the entire event and process, she had to miss several classes and have the vice president of the Student Government Association step in to fulfill her presidential duties. Bennett further alleges no one contacted her professors regarding the incident, and she had to explain the reasons regarding her lack of attendance to all of her professors individually.
Unsatisfied with the result of the hearing, Bennett claims she, her family, and four friends wrote letters to Bowling asking him to appeal the decision. Wilson verified an appeal letter had been written by her in which she said, “I expressed my dissatisfaction with the decision and the fact that I was confused about how something so serious could have such a minor consequence.” Wilson went on to say she had served as a character witness in another sexual assault case her freshman year. According to Wilson, those two students, found responsible, were suspended effective immediately.
Six days after the panel hearing, on April 18, 2013, Bennett stated she contacted Chief Cynthia Smith about the issue. Bennett claims the chief was unaware of what happened as no university officials had contacted her. Bennett further stated that she had to file yet another report with University Police; however, she credits Chief Smith and her lieutenants as being the only people that really helped her throughout the situation.
Bennett stated that later that day, April 18, another incident occurred with the individual outside of Chesapeake Dining Hall. Following the incident, Bennett claims, she and her friend, who Bennett said was present during the incident, went to the SGA Office in Lane Center where she attempted to contact Ketterman, but did not receive an answer. Bennett then said she contacted April Baer, the university wellness coordinator, who allegedly instructed her to document the situation.
The next day, April 19, according to court records, Bennett requested, and received, a temporary peace order from the county District Court, requiring the suspect to cease any contact with Bennett. Bennett went on to say that more than a week later, on April 28, the individual was escorted from campus.
Following these events, Bennett claims, a second student code of conduct panel hearing was scheduled for May 16. However, Bennett states that on May 15, Ketterman emailed her stating the hearing was canceled as the issue had been administratively resolved.
Bennett graduated from FSU on May 18, 2013, completing a double major in political science and law and society in just three years. She also received the President’s Distinguished Service Award. She shared that she felt unsure during her last semester whether she would actually graduate or not, given her trauma. “Actually, if I hadn’t graduated early like I did, I don’t think I would have made it through another year. I probably would have dropped out,” stated Bennett.
According to Bennett, her plan after graduation was to attend law school. However, she chose to take a year off from school because the trial was scheduled for October 2013.
When I left SGA one of my farewell gifts was this beautiful necklace and jewelry box. On the box it says ‘Be The Change That You Wish To See In The World. -Gandhi,’ and it could not be more true. All it takes is one person. You can’t wait around for your knight in shining armor to show up, you have to be your own hero. That is why I want women to be their own warrior. Our schools and our justice systems are letting us down. We don’t need to let ourselves down too.
According to court records, the case never went to trial. At a plea hearing on October 15, 2013, the state dropped the rape charge, and the defendant entered an Alford plea to the lesser charge of second-degree assault. An Alford plea is not an admission of guilt, merely an admission that a guilty verdict is likely. According to the hearing transcript, the defendant conceded only that on Feb. 27, 2013, he “began to kiss Ms. Bennett and Ms. Bennett did not want to be kissed.” His sentence was six months of unsupervised probation while not contacting Bennett; that probation ended April 15, 2014. His lawyer now is seeking to have all records of the case expunged, thus ending what he called in court “a terrible nightmare” for his client.
With her year off coming to a close, Bennett is preparing to move to South Carolina to start law school this coming fall.
Because of the way in which Bennett felt her case was handled by the university, she felt she needed to do something to influence a change at FSU. As such, she said she filed a complaint with the OCR on July 29, 2013. “When I left SGA one of my farewell gifts was this beautiful necklace and jewelry box. On the box it says ‘Be The Change That You Wish To See In The World. -Gandhi,’ and it could not be more true. All it takes is one person. You can’t wait around for your knight in shining armor to show up, you have to be your own hero. That is why I want women to be their own warrior. Our schools and our justice systems are letting us down. We don’t need to let ourselves down too.”
Editor’s Note: An editorial was run alongside this article describing the thoughts of the newsroom prior to publication of this piece. It can be read through the link here. In addition, at article describing a foundation Bennett started can be found through the link here. As we at The Bottom Line advocate for student’s to know what resources are available to them, we have also published a list of procedures students could follow should they be victim to sexual harassment. This information can be found here.
UPDATE: FSU has responded to this article. Read the response here.
Featured Image: Jerica Bennett, FSU Alumna from the class of 2013, proudly shows off her FSU attire for her graduation ceremony in May of 2013. During that same semester, Bennett says she was sexually assaulted and has filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in regards to how the university handled her case.