Vanderbilt examines its response in wake of rape case

(THE TENNESSEAN) David Williams has had to ask himself some troubling questions in the past two months.

Could he and the Vanderbilt University athletics department have done something to prevent the sexual assault of a student on campus in June? Did his coaches miss warning signs when they recruited the four former football players who now stand indicted on rape charges?

The easier question, said Williams, vice chancellor of university affairs and athletics, was deciding what to do with the four student-athletes after he heard what they were accused of doing.

"There's nothing bad about the program. Is there something about those four kids who made a bad decision, a terrible decision? Absolutely. And based on that, we immediately separated them from this department," Williams said.

Four former players are charged in the rape of a 21-year-old student, and one suspended player and two men in California were charged for what police said was an attempt to cover up the assault. All four accused of rape have pleaded not guilty, and differences in their bond amounts suggest their circumstances may not be identical.

Suspended player Chris Boyd pleaded guilty Friday to a misdemeanor charge of trying to help cover up the crime after it happened. Authorities said he helped carry the victim from a hallway to a dorm room, and exchanged text messages with the men charged with rape in which he encouraged them to conceal what happened. He remained suspended after the hearing but is still allowed to attend classes on athletic scholarship.

In the aftermath, Williams has examined recruiting practices and the athletics department's assault prevention programs for student-athletes. While defending what was already in place, he has scheduled new presentations, invited recent graduates to give talks about decision-making, and sat down with leaders of other sexual assault prevention programs on campus and in the city.

"You hope and you search your soul to make sure that there was nothing in the background that you missed. And we've done that. We don't see anything we've missed," Williams said. "You always question whether or not you've done enough, and whether or not you've set in motion the education process so that people learn how they should behave."

Williams said he first heard about an incident in Gillette House late on Monday, June 24, as part of his staff's usual checks on what student-athletes did over the weekend. He said early information didn't involve the men eventually charged.

By the next morning, more sinister details were beginning to emerge. Williams said Coach James Franklin had decided to suspend the players from the team, but Williams, with broader authority, had already taken that a step further, banning them from campus.

Williams hasn't gathered the coaches to discuss the rape case in detail. But he has reminded many of them of their responsibility to lead, and to remember "what our values are."

He also went back over the mountain of notes and records pertaining to the four players' recruitment in an effort to find anything he might have missed.

"We looked back at these four kids, and we didn't have any indications," he said.

Williams' message to coaches has been to "keep digging" for information with all recruits.

"We don't stand for thugs and criminals to be part of this program," he said. "And if we make a mistake and a kid comes in here and they are of that type, we are basically going to put them out. And that has not changed."

A Vanderbilt spokeswoman said about two students each year, from among a student-athlete population of about 340, have been dismissed from the athletics department because of misconduct, for reasons that include repeat alcohol violations, drug violations and fights.

Indicted tight end Brandon Vandenburg, who police said lived in the dorm room where the assault took place — and who faces five counts of rape and additional charges of unlawful pornography and tampering with evidence — transferred to Vanderbilt from College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif.

The California college's team is currently barred from play by the Southern California Football Association for violations of rules on giving perks to players. That finding followed an investigation by The Desert Sun newspaper into a string of player arrests and incidents. Those included the fatal shooting of a player by a sheriff's deputy during a burglary, a near-fatal stabbing of one player by another and dozens of other crimes.

Williams said Vanderbilt does not often recruit from junior colleges like College of the Desert, but that Vandenburg cleared Vanderbilt's screening process. He hasn't advised Franklin one way or the other on recruiting there.

"We'd be more interested in what the kid did or did not do," he said.

Wearing green dots

As the department has regrouped, Williams has warned athletes that what they do going forward will be watched and questioned. But they'll also have a platform to raise awareness about sexual assault.

"You want to get the message out about how bad this is, how this is not what we do in a caring community — a caring society — and that we want to do all we can to make sure this is a safe campus."

The most visible display took place during the football team's home opener, when players and coaches wore green dot stickers during a nationally televised game as a show of support for Vanderbilt's sexual assault prevention program.

The Green Dot program, in place at more than 100 colleges and universities, tries to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault, and then methodically convince students and staff to take responsibility for defending against it. That can mean speaking up when someone says something demeaning, or intervening in a volatile situation.

Williams said every student-athlete and all athletics department staffers, himself included, will go through the Green Dot training.

That's an unusual move among participating colleges — and the presence of the green dots on national television was also unprecedented — said Jennifer Messina, director of training for Green Dot Inc.

"Anybody who has some natural social influence, with influence comes responsibility," she said. "This is a fabulous opportunity to lead on an issue."

Group disbanded

The athletics department has mobilized in other ways as well.

In the past week, Williams met with the new director of the university's Margaret Cuninggim Women's Center. Next week, he'll meet with the YWCA of Nashville & Middle Tennessee about its anti-violence campaign aimed specifically at men.

Those efforts would be in addition to annual leadership retreats for student-athletes and periodic talks by guest speakers. In 2011, a convicted rapist spoke to students about his life-changing conviction and life after prison.

But one effort has fallen away.

Athletes Against Assault, formed in 2007 amid much fanfare, paired Vanderbilt athletes with the women's center to host and participate in assault awareness events. The group disbanded two years later, leaving some of the founding members — now alumni — to wonder why.

"You'd think you wouldn't want to stop an effort to raise that kind of awareness," said professional golfer and 2008 graduate Leibelei Lawrence.

Lawrence, a founding member of Athletes Against Assault, said the student-athletes wanted to use their prominent positions on campus to teach students how to recognize sexual misconduct, spread ideas for preventing assault and create an atmosphere that would support victims who come forward.

She said the message was one athletes need to hear.

"A lot of athletes, especially male athletes, are more confident, they're more arrogant, they might joke around more," she said. "Words turn into actions, and they need to change the way they think about certain things. I think this applies to athletes, but it applies to everybody."

Athletes Against Assault put on a play about sex trafficking, asked peers to sign pledges and walked with sexual assault survivors during a Take Back the Night event. Jessica Smith, a lacrosse player and group member who graduated in 2009, remembers hearing survivors share their stories that night.

"Knowledge is power," she said, "and really being able to understand what it was like for these people and giving them a venue to speak out about it was just really powerful."

Williams, the athletics director, said he doesn't expect the conversation about sexual assault to die down anytime soon. But he also knows this: The questions he's been asking himself about what he and the university can be doing aren't about to go away, either.


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