Left in limbo: A student's attempt to return to normal life at Penn
Carissa Lundquist's story reveals the bureaucracy students must navigate after an unexpected break in academic work
March 31, 2014, 11:30 pm · Updated April 1, 2014, 3:02 am·
Amanda Suarez | DP
For the first month of her final semester at Penn, Carissa Lundquist wasn’t sure she was a student.
After an October 2013 encounter with a friend that she believes constituted sexual and physical assault, Carissa, a College senior, did what she thought she was supposed to do: She reported it to the University. But when Penn’s Office of Student Conduct dropped her complaint due to lack of evidence and the restrictions separating Carissa and her alleged attacker were lifted, she broke down and checked herself into a hospital.
When she came back to Penn in January for her last semester, she says it took until mid-February for the University to tell her that she was fully re-enrolled. If the administration hadn’t let her return, she would have considered filing a complaint against the University with the federal Department of Education.
Carissa’s case sheds light on some of the shortcomings with how the University handles students who say they have been victims of sexual assault and who experience mental health issues, and reveals the bureaucracy that students must navigate after an unexpected break in academic work.
The University was unable to comment on Carissa’s specific case due to confidentiality laws. However, University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy offered general explanations on Penn’s policies.
“The staff who handle these issues are highly trained and deeply committed to helping students in times of need,” MacCarthy said in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
But Carissa felt she was caught up in a process that placed unreasonable burdens on her to prove that she was fit to return to the University.
“I feel like Penn wants me to say I’m OK, I’ve moved past it,” she said. “But I’m not going to tell them that things are fine. I’d rather keep throwing it in their face: I’m uncomfortable. Being here is really hard because of the way the whole system seems to have failed me, even though I did the whole process correctly.”
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Carissa said she began to feel like something was wrong when he wouldn’t let her have her pain medication back.
She had knee surgery over fall break to remove scar tissue and realign her kneecap. She missed a week of school and came back with crutches to help her walk and Vicodin to help her get through the pain.
She said she gave her pills to a friend, a current Penn student.
“He said, ‘I don’t trust you to take it responsibly. Let me keep it,’” Carissa said. “I assumed it was because he wanted to see me every day, so it was fine.”
But one night, she had to wait until 3 a.m. for him to finish a meeting before hobbling to his off-campus house, where she stayed overnight. She said that as she got ready to leave in the morning, he hid her medicine and her phone. He demanded a hug, she said.
“I was adamant in the fact that I didn’t want him to touch me,” she said. “But he cornered me and said, ‘See, this isn’t so bad, I’m just touching you.’” She claims he ran his hands up and down her body before getting in the shower and letting her go to class.
“Something about it didn’t sit right with me,” she said. Carissa made an appointment the next day with a female University staff member she trusted and told her the story, without naming the man in question. The staffer suggested trying to talk to him and making an appointment at the Penn Women’s Center.
She said she met with him that night and asked why he hadn’t stopped when she asked him to.
“He said I had two types of ‘no’s,” she said. “I had the no that actually means no, stop, and I have a no where I’m just afraid — I’m afraid based on my past experiences. Since he knows those experiences and he knows he’s not going to hurt me, he knows what’s best.”
Carissa says that during her freshman year, she was sexually assaulted, but never reported it — which her friend knew about.
She said she went with the Penn staffer to the Women’s Center the next day. Even though she and her friend weren’t formally dating, the Women’s Center staff told her it was classic dating violence. Carissa wanted to talk to him one more time, she said, before the Women’s Center would reach out to help her get the pills back. Carissa went to his house again with a promise that she would text the worried staffer the entire time.
The evening devolved quickly, according to Carissa, as he began making comments about a friend of theirs whom Carissa used to be involved with. He said, “I don’t know what you could’ve seen in him.”
She slapped him.
“I know I shouldn’t have,” she said. “But then he grabbed both my wrists. He held them to the point of hurting me. I told him, ‘Please stop — please let go.’”
She said he made her repeat after him: “I promise I won’t hit you again.”
She said he made another comment about the person she used to be involved with and she kneed him. Then, she said, he allegedly flipped her over and got on top of her. She said she pushed against him, begging him to get off.
“He was laughing,” she said. “He’s big on the whole hug thing. He said, ‘Just give me a hug and things will be fine.’”
She did. But, she claims, instead of letting her go, he sexually assaulted her.
The DP is withholding the student’s name, as the Office of Student Conduct found insufficient evidence to bring a case against him for assault. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
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Worried when Carissa stopped answering her texts, the University staffer called Penn Police, who came to the scene. With her close friends’ encouragement, she decided to file a complaint on Oct. 28 with the University’s Office of Student Conduct for both sexual and physical assault — a process she thought would be faster than going through the Philadelphia police.
Carissa ventured back to class after a week of staying home. On the way to a class, she said she was stopped by a friend of the man who she says assaulted her.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘You really should be thinking through these types of decisions,’” she remembered. “It was enough for me to be like, ‘Maybe I should think about it.’” It wouldn’t be the first time someone would make a comment to her about the incident.
Carissa went back to OSC and put the case on hold. On Oct. 31, she told OSC to pick up where it had left off. In a sexual misconduct complaint, OSC has 60 days to go one of two ways: charge the respondent with a violation of Penn’s student conduct code or dismiss the complaint due to a lack of evidence.
As OSC investigated her complaint, Carissa met with Student Intervention Services and Counseling and Psychological Services. SIS, a Vice Provost for University Life team, is designed to manage student crises and coordinate across University departments. A staff member from College academic advising also reached out to help her deal with academics. She considered taking the rest of the semester off. But when she learned that the standard minimum leave of absence in the College is an entire year, instead of just a semester, she balked and decided to stay in school.
And then there was the matter of seeing her alleged attacker around campus.
“It was nerve wracking, walking around and entering spaces and not knowing if I’d see him,” she said.
At a meeting the afternoon after the incident, SIS instituted a no contact order between the two: They could not talk to each other, and there would be no indirect contact through friends. Whoever was in a room first had the right to be there.
Not confident that she would be able to avoid him, Carissa still wasn’t comfortable. Two weeks later, she told the SIS team as much. In response, SIS devised a formal schedule for a campus center that both Carissa and her former friend frequented.
On Monday, Dec. 9, OSC called Carissa into its office and told her that the office didn’t have enough evidence to go forward. Her case was dropped.
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In the year from Aug. 31, 2012, to Aug. 31, 2013, there were only nine cases of sexual or indecent assault and sexual harassment that OSC investigated. The year before that, there were five.
There is no data available on sanctions OSC doles out for sexual assault, or even on how often OSC finds students responsible. OSC denied an October request by the DP to provide data on the outcomes of specific complaints, with identifying information removed. In January, when Columbia University promised to provide aggregate data on sanctions for sexual assault, the DP asked if OSC would consider doing the same. OSC declined again, citing the October letter.
“To comply with your request, we would either have to overly generalize with respect to the nature of each offense, which would be misleading or unhelpful, or we would have to disclose a good deal of additional detail,” the Oct. 8 letter reads. “These explanations would inevitably raise serious privacy concerns.”
In March, Carissa sent an email to OSC requesting “the records regarding my complaint from last semester.” OSC did not provide documents, instead responding with an email.
“Consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and our University’s Policy on the Confidentiality of Student Records, we are providing this email to serve as a written statement regarding the outcome of the investigation,” read the email from OSC. “We explained that our investigation had not found sufficient evidence to warrant charging the respondent with violating any of the University’s codes of conduct.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said OSC should have given Carissa the original documents under FERPA.
“If it involves this student’s own case, not only can they not withhold them under FERPA, but they’re obligated to produce them,” LoMonte said. The only records covered by FERPA in this case, he said, would be if the alleged attacker had any previous disciplinary violations that came up in the course of OSC’s investigation.
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OSC instructed Carissa not to tell anyone about the decision until the office notified the other student of the outcome. She had a meeting with SIS about an hour after the OSC meeting — where SIS told her that it could no longer impose restrictions on him without his consent.
“Sharon and them couldn’t force him to do anything,” Carissa said, referring to SIS Director Sharon Smith. “They said, ‘We can ask him not to talk to you,’ but if he didn’t want to listen they can’t force him to.”
She felt paralyzed. SIS staff walked her to CAPS. She sat in Starbucks. She cried at her friend’s desk for hours, unable to explain what was wrong.
Back in her room that evening, she got the email from OSC saying the other student had been informed of the outcome — meaning she could tell her friends about it.
Hysterical in the aftermath, Carissa doesn’t remember exactly what she told her friends.
“I know I said this whole thing make me feel like I didn’t matter, and my story didn’t matter,” she said. She told them she’d walk to the Schuylkill River, and they may have heard her say she’d jump in, she said.
Instead, she walked west down Baltimore Avenue, past 50th Street. Her phone rang on silent in her pocket, she said — calls from her friends, calls from the CAPS hotline that her friends had called after she left. She made her way back to campus to her friend’s room. The police, called by her friends, came to the room and took her to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
At HUP, Carissa agreed to commit herself voluntarily, and she moved to Belmont Behavioral Health, a mental health center north of Penn. She said the Belmont doctor told her she wasn’t clinically depressed; rather, she was just experiencing a “crisis instant.” Belmont discharged her several days later to the care of her parents.
Soon after, she got an email from SIS telling her that CAPS had to medically evaluate her before she could resume her academics.
“Upon your return to campus from the hospital and before you return to your academic obligations, we expect that you make an appointment to see a professional in our Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) as well as one to speak with my office,” read a Dec. 17 email, provided by Carissa, from Paige Wigginton, at the time a SIS associate director. “Additionally, our office has been in contact with your school to let them know you have had a medical emergency and any academic considerations they can make would be appreciated.”
On Dec. 18, Carissa and her parents returned to campus. She said she met with CAPS for an evaluation and then went with her parents to speak to Smith, the director of SIS, who said she would call CAPS right after the meeting to check on the results.
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In response to questions for this article about the process for students to re-enroll in classes after they have been hospitalized, the University declined to comment on Carissa’s case, but said SIS’ role is generally to support students.
“Our primary concern is to respond in a collaborative way by providing services that meet the needs of our students. SIS’ role is that of support, resources and coordination of effort,” MacCarthy, the University spokesperson, said in an email.
The emailed statement from University Communications came after the DP requested an interview with Smith, who did not respond to the request. In the past, VPUL Communications has declined several requests for interviews with Smith for other articles, citing the confidential nature of SIS’ work.
In the case of an alleged assault, SIS primarily coordinates with other University divisions, convenes meetings and facilitates communication, MacCarthy said.
However, he said, SIS cannot authorize leaves of absence — defined by the College as a year off with the possibility of petitioning to come back after one semester. MacCarthy did not directly respond to questions regarding the procedure for students — like Carissa — who were hospitalized due to mental health issues.
“Students seeking to return from leave must notify their School. If they meet whatever individual criteria the School has set for their return, their School readmits them,” MacCarthy said in the email. “If they need additional support, like Weingarten Learning Resource Center, housing, CAPS, follow-up visits for physical therapy— whatever their particular need might be, SIS helps them arrange for support services.”
Forms on the CAPS website outline the procedure for students seeking to return from a medical leave of absence that pertains to mental health. The form authorizes CAPS to obtain any records from outside clinicians a student saw while on leave. Carissa authorized her social worker at Belmont Behavioral Health to speak to CAPS.
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Carissa spent her winter break finishing her thesis and making up the coursework for the two classes she didn’t complete in the fall. She coordinated a plan with College advising that gave her until Jan. 24 to complete her work, or she would be placed on a mandatory leave of absence from the University. On Jan. 21, Carissa notified the office that she had finished her outstanding work. A College advisor emailed her on Jan. 29 that her grades had been posted and she was “no longer eligible for mandatory leave.”
Carissa said she never heard from anyone on the SIS team.
“I assumed CAPS cleared me,” she said, shrugging. Not certain regarding her status, she emailed SIS to clarify, on the advice of her parents.
“When I met with you all during finals, you suggested that I check in with you when I returned back this semester. I have submitted all the work for my Incomplete classes, and everything’s fine so far,” she wrote in an email to Lauren Rudick, her SIS case manager, on Wednesday, Jan. 22. “Just let me know if you need anything from me.”
Two days later, Rudick replied and set up a meeting with SIS for Monday.
“Sharon was very clear on the fact that I needed to see CAPS ASAP because there were two options,” Carissa said. “She said I could be medically evaluated at CAPS and she’d speak to them and I’d be cleared, or I’d have to leave. I was really confused.”
And so Carissa entered what she perceived as a limbo: She wasn’t confirmed as a student, she wasn’t on leave and she had to go through a procedure she felt she’d already done.
At the meeting, Carissa said, Smith told her that academics weren’t a problem, but because there were no structures in place to separate Carissa and the student she says assaulted her, Smith was worried Carissa was in “too vulnerable a position.”
She went for a CAPS evaluation on Jan. 31 and sent Rudick an email on Feb. 6 — over a week after the College told Carissa she was in good academic standing.
“I just wanted to know if there was anything else that you all needed from me before I’m cleared to continue classes for the rest of the semester,” she wrote.
Rudick replied that day: “Thanks for the update. You should continue with your classes, and we will follow up soon.”
Carissa didn’t meet again with SIS until Feb. 17 — five weeks into the semester — when she felt like the process was finally winding down. She agreed to meet with SIS again in a few weeks and — as per the conditions SIS set — to continue her weekly CAPS meetings. She said SIS also recommended that she go home every weekend. While SIS did not explicitly tell her that she was cleared, she said, it was the first meeting in which SIS did not mention any preconditions she had to meet in order to be fully enrolled.
If Penn had not allowed her to return, Carissa said, she would have considered filing a complaint against Penn with the U.S. Department of Education alleging a violation of Title IX, a 1972 law barring discrimination on the basis of sex in schools. She consulted End Rape on Campus, an organization that advises students filing complaints against their university regarding sexual misconduct, but decided not to pursue it after she was re-enrolled.
“Honestly, this whole ordeal has made me feel like I have had to prove that I should be allowed stay and that I did something wrong,” she said. “I understand they have to be careful. I also know the need to monitor my behavior — especially due to recent circumstances — stems from wanting to make sure I have a happy and healthy semester. But it is still hard to not feel somewhat offended and unsupported.”
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But SIS’s approval didn’t end Carissa’s troubles. As the semester has worn on, she said she has endured continual harassment about the October incident from other students — some she knows, some she doesn’t.
“Just because you don’t perform well, doesn’t mean you have to cry rape about it,” she recalled one person saying to her. She remembered another saying, “I don’t know why people were so hype about you. You don’t live up to expectations.”
In dealing with the alleged harassment, she said, Penn has been at its most supportive. SIS has coordinated meetings with Carissa, her parents and University departments such as the Division of Public Safety. With their help, Carissa filed police reports, which she later closed. The University came up with other plans to ensure her safety, ranging from putting her number on a priority list for the Penn Police to providing walking escorts to class.
Still, her experiences have marred her last semester as an undergraduate at Penn.
“I want things to be better than this semester. I feel like I’ve given up on having a super happy, fantastic senior spring,” Carissa said. She paused. “I just want to graduate.”
Reporter Sarah Smith can be reached at smith@theDP.com.