“If I wasn’t this strong of a woman, I would have folded by now,” Madeline Fabricant wrote in an email last February addressed to the Fordham University Title IX response team. By then, she was embroiled in a year-long battle with university administrators over her attempts to secure sanctions against an abusive ex-boyfriend. She asked for sanctions to protect her own physical and mental safety on campus – sanctions which Fordham, despite finding her ex-boyfriend guilty in its Title IX proceeding, was unable to provide due to his status as a fellow student.
Fabricant, now a transfer student at Chapman University, is a survivor of sexual assault who reported personal discomfort and difficulty concerning administration’s treatment of her trauma, disabilities and personal safety during her Title IX proceedings. By the end of Spring 2018, growing frustrated with the university’s response, she opened cases with the NYPD and the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) with the hope of acquiring the sanctions Fordham refused to grant her.
Title IX cases at academic institutions exist to protect their members from sexual violence or misconduct, as well as to prosecute those who violate the statute within university boundaries.
Broadly, these cases refer to a ruling from the OCR that states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program.”
Keith Eldredge, dean of students for Lincoln Center and deputy Title IX coordinator, spoke to The Observer about Title IX cases at Fordham and openly acknowledged their sensitive nature. He told The Observer that the trauma and discomfort inherent to the circumstances of such an investigation mean those involved in proceedings are often never “fully satisfied” with the outcome. However, Eldredge also said that “one of the biggest misunderstood pieces of the process is my role needs to be that of an objective decision maker… it’s not designed in our process for me to be that emotional resource person.”
Fabricant’s complaints of bureaucratic insensitivity and inefficiency surrounding her case point to a greater dilemma within Title IX proceedings. The Title IX process requires university councils to remain impartial parties in divisive cases: In Fabricant’s case, it left her emotionally isolated by administrative processes and reliant on peers for support.
Fabricant’s alleged abuser was her ex-boyfriend, a Fordham student. They lived together from June 2016 to January 2017 before, she claimed, he assaulted her by throwing her across the bedroom on a 2016 birthright trip. Fabricant herself was not a Fordham student when the alleged assaults took place off-campus, but she had enrolled for the fall 2017 semester. The two broke up during summer 2017, but both arrived on campus that fall.
In October 2017, Fabricant filed a report against her ex-boyfriend in which she cited a series of aggressive interactions instigated by him on campus. Fabricant told The Observer, “He would do things like walk past me and mutter things under his breath, or he would sit two seats away from me in the library but scream at me that he wants nothing to do with me.” Her claims were corroborated by Al Finan, Fordham College Lincoln Center (FCLC) 20, who said Fabricant was so unnerved by her ex-boyfriend’s presence that she would take photos if he were near to collect physical proof of him following her. Finan also said Fabricant would ask him to walk her to the elevators as a safety precaution, should she run into her ex-boyfriend.
“It was this weird, ‘he’s always on top of me, I’m always seeing him’ thing,” recalled Fabricant. “I was starting to realize that this isn’t okay, and I started telling people, and that’s when they told me to go to Dean Eldredge.”
Fordham’s Title IX proceedings state that in any case presented, the university aims to end the sexual violence, prevent its reoccurrence, and “remedy” any effects. The procedure is conducted by a team of administrators trained in protecting the safety of victims and promoting accountability, the university’s Title IX website states.
“It’s not a process I think anyone wants to go through, it’s not a process that I hope anyone has to go through,” Eldredge told The Observer in reference to the Title IX complaint procedure. “We strive to make it as fair and equitable as possible … it’s really important that we treat everyone with respect and care and compassion, recognizing that there are two perspectives.”
Preliminary steps assured by the Title IX process include a no contact restriction between the parties in question as well as interim accomodations to ensure the victim’s safety that are determined by “the specific needs expressed by the complainant.”
After filing her report, Fabricant was immediately granted a no-contact policy and the aid of an administrative support person (ASP) while her case underwent investigation. Eldredge informed Fabricant that he intended to have a decision before spring classes began.
In the interim, however, Fabricant was not granted her requested accommodations, which mostly consisted of banning her abuser from select spots on campus. While early communications between Fabricant and her ASP, Joe Corcoran, resident director for first year students, attempted to set restrictions on her abuser’s library hours, conflicts between their schedules forced Fabricant to leave for winter break without accommodations in place.
Further conflict arose when Fabricant received a series of emails the week before school resumed that pushed her decision date back from Jan. 12 to Jan. 16, two days after she and her ex-boyfriend returned to campus. According to procedure, Eldredge was required to simultaneously inform both parties in writing of the investigation’s outcome. Prior scheduling conflicts delayed Eldredge’s final meeting with Fabricant’s ex-boyfriend, thus delaying the outcome notification and eventually resulting in Fabricant attending two days of school without protection and without clear knowledge of Eldredge’s ruling.
On Jan 17, 2018, Fabricant received the first set of decisions regarding her case: Eldredge and the Title IX committee found her ex-boyfriend guilty of violating minor sexual misconduct policy and procedures concerning the December 2016 assault. While they could confirm he had expressed anger and behaved aggressively towards her, they stated they were “unable to establish corroborating information” to support the allegations of physical abuse.
In addition to renewing the no-contact policy, Fabricant’s ex-boyfriend was placed on university disciplinary probation, which prohibited him from holding leadership positions on campus, until the end of the semester. In the decision letter, Eldredge cited a lack of evidence other than the complainant and respondent’s verbal testimonies for the mild sentence, writing that establishing the occurrence of Fabricant’s harsher allegations would have resulted in “more serious sanctions.”
“In most instances when a respondent is found in violation of sexual misconduct, they are suspended or expelled. However, some students receive other sanctions and remain as a student, and we have to look at how that impacts their continuing as a student.” Eldredge said as a general response to post-decision Title IX proceedings. He emphasized the necessity of allowing both complainant and respondent to continue their roles as students at Fordham after the investigation, specifically posing the question: “How do we allow someone to continue with their academic experience, the things that they’re entitled to do, while yet trying to provide for someone to have a safe experience?”
Fabricant’s ex-boyfriend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of his investigation, told The Observer he felt his case was mishandled, citing “a poor choice of words over a very minor detail” concerning the alleged aggression as the ruling’s determining factor. He also felt that his position as a PCS, off-campus student posed a serious obstacle to his ability to defend himself. Additionally, Fabricant’s ex-boyfriend believed that the off-campus incident should not have reached Fordham proceedings and claimed “the other party” lied during the case.
More pressingly, Fabricant’s ex-boyfriend’s dissatisfaction with the case seems to stem from the same roots as the complainant’s- they both perceived Fordham’s response as too lenient towards the other party. “Having an attitude of better safe than sorry is not appropriate,” he said. While the respondent felt too many charges had been brought against him in order to appease Fabricant, Fabricant herself felt endangered and disempowered by the lack of sanctions placed against her ex-boyfriend.
Fabricant requested specific sanctions be put in place so she could navigate Fordham without running into her ex-boyfriend- yet, nearly all of them were rejected.
In a general comment, Eldredge told The Observer that determining appropriate sanctions in Title IX cases is especially difficult on the Lincoln Center (LC) campus. While Eldredge said he understood interaction with an abuser is “a traumatic experience every time it happens,” he also said the administration had to keep the “reality of a small campus” in mind. The small size of the Lincoln Center (LC) campus, Eldredge said, complicates creating sanctions that both separated respondents and complainants while giving them access to all campus resources.
The proposed sanctions in Fabricant’s case included banning her ex-boyfriend from the third floor of the library so she could study safely. Eldredge replied to Fabricant in an email that he was unable to restrict any student from the library’s only quiet floor and instead suggested removing Fabricant’s ex-boyfriend from Quinn’s first or second floors. The exchange resolved to give Fabricant exclusive use of Quinn Library’s third floor until 5 p.m., at which point her abuser may also enter the area. Fabricant wrote in an email that Eldredge’s refusal of her sanctions made her feel as though “[her] mental health was second to [her abuser’s] right to use the library.”
Fabricant was also unable to walk around campus without the possibility of running into her abuser. While she had requested the ability to text a Public Safety officer to escort her without interrupting class, she was told that she could only call. This inconvenience resulted in Fabricant having to disrupt class whenever she needed an escort. One of Fabricant’s friends, Eliza Putnam, staff writer at The Observer and FCLC 19, confirmed that this situation led to her having a group chat of almost 60 people on call to walk Fabricant across campus.
“It’s very very challenging to say to a student, ‘you’re never going to see this other student on campus,’” Eldredge said of the complications surrounding enforcing sanctions on the small Lincoln Center campus. “We try to anticipate as much as we can … but as new things come up … we’re going to have to adjust to each new situation.”
A main rule meant to help stop interactions, Eldredge stated, was that it was the responsibility of the respondent to avoid contact with the complainant and “incumbent” on the Title IX team to frequently meet with both parties to ensure they remain satisfied with the sanctions.
Yet, according to Fabricant and her friends, the administration did little to uphold their rulings or grant new sanctions. During this time, Fabricant reported that her abuser continued to corner her in the library and in elevators despite her sanctions and the no-contact order. “I didn’t know what to do because I was all by myself,” she said. “[Dean Eldredge] was ignoring every single sanction that I asked for.” By mid-January 2018, on the advice of her therapist, Fabricant turned to help outside of the university and went to the NYPD where she filed for a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend. He later fought the order, which weakened the order’s efficiency for Fabricant and caused her to drop the case with the NYPD.
In February 2018, Fabricant began to report escalated aggression from her ex-boyfriend that she claimed her given sanctions failed to prevent. In one email to Eldredge, she wrote that he had followed her along the Lowenstein plaza windows, an interaction that Fabricant claims could have been avoided if one of her earlier sanction requests, preventing her abuser from entering through the Lowenstein plaza, had been taken. Fabricant then requested for Fordham to place a public safety officer on her abuser to avoid such conflicts.
Following this incident, Fabricant filed for an appeal regarding her case that passed in her favor. The Student Review Council, a university group organized to review the Dean of Students’ decision on student conduct cases, upheld the verdict that found her ex-boyfriend guilty of abuse, extended his probation until December of 2018, and renewed the no-contact order. The appeal refused to grant Fabricant her proposed sanctions, only recommending “that Dean Eldredge work on additional measures that minimize interactions between [Fabricant] and [her ex-boyfriend].”
After her appeal, Fabricant grew increasingly dissatisfied with the administration’s treatment of her case. She attended school without sanctions, as well as without Public Safety escorts, at a time when she said her abuser continued to violate their no-contact policy and restraining order without witnesses.
Eventually, Fabricant’s distrust of her security led her to take off a week from classes. (While emails from Eldredge stated her ASP would notify her professors of her situation to qualify her for excused absences, Fabricant’s professors wrote to her saying they hadn’t been alerted.) Fabricant was also forced to miss class in order to attend her own appeal review. In two emails concerning this mid-February string of events, she wrote that administrative decisions had “negatively impacted [her] ability to function in school to an endless degree” and “completely impeded with my ability to be a student.”
On Feb 12, Fabricant filed a complaint with the OCR, under the Department of Education, alleging that Fordham had “failed to respond appropriately to a complaint of domestic violence.” Once Fabricant opened the independent investigation into the university’s proceedings, she also elected to pursue mediation to resolve her conflict with the school, which began in mid-April.
Following the OCR report, Fordham granted Fabricant many of her requested sanctions, including a Public Safety escort to class and work, exclusive use of the law library during finals, continued use of Quinn Library’s third floor until 5 pm, limiting her abuser to using one entrance to the university, restricting his use of Lowenstein only to the floors he has classes on (as well as the third and sixth floors) and renewing the no contact policy.
Eldredge stated that, generally, trials and intervention outside of the university’s own procedure may be “impactful,” but ultimately are “separate and independent” from his and the university’s investigations and ultimate decisions regarding the case.
As a result of electing to enter mediation, Fabricant began a series of meetings between herself and Fordham administrators, guided by the OCR, in which she hoped to reform some of Fordham’s practices regarding Title IX procedures. Fabricant said that while filing with the OCR had begun as a means to improve her personal experience at Fordham, she believed her mediations may have campus-wide impact by calling attention to faulty Title IX practices.
“If they [Fordham] don’t follow through on the things we signed off to mediate for, the investigation continues and they get called out on their shit,” Fabricant said of the continuing effort to improve sanctions and security for Title IX cases on campus.
Both Eldredge and Fabricant pointed to the efficiency of student groups, rather than administration, in pushing for rights concerning sexual health and the survivor’s experience on campus. Fabricant herself credited notable events like the instatement of CARS-V and the yearly performance of the Vagina* Monologues in giving her a supportive network and encouraging her to speak out about her experience.
In reference to the lack of administrative action regarding on-campus sexual misconduct and education, Eldredge said “peer to peer influence is much stronger than anything else” and doubted that administrative programs would be “that effective.” Instead, he hopes to expand administrative support and visibility through clubs and residential life. Eldredge said topics like consent workshops or spreading information about the university’s student conduct policies would be best relegated to residential life staff, freshman mentors and United Student government with support and resources provided by administration.
But Fabricant disagrees, saying that administration’s reluctance to engage in conversations about sexual assault is hurting students who don’t have emotional peer support when they undergo proceedings. “This process is made to destroy young women who are brave enough to stand up and say that something is wrong,” Fabricant wrote, referring to the various complications regarding her case. “My ex destroyed me when he beat me up. I didn’t think my school would, too.”
By the end of the year, Fabricant said that she felt safer, not because of administrative aid or sanctions, “but because I had more people surrounding me.” Going forward, she aims to use her case and OCR mediations to incite change in the manner Fordham treats the mental health and personal safety of its Title IX complainants, as well as better the experience of other survivors on campus.
This article was updated on August 25th at 8:11 pm to more accurately reflect the alleged abuse that lead to Title IX proceedings.
This article was updated on September 1st at 12:32 pm to better reflect Dean Eldredge’s comments. His statements are general responses about university Title IX proceedings in general and are not specific to Fabricant’s case.
This article was updated on September 12 at 2:48 pm to accommodate a new, more specific quote from Dean Eldredge concerning post-decision Title IX proceedings.