Huffpost College

Did Brown Force Out An Innocent Freshman, Or Let A Rapist Go Free?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — William McCormick III crossed the wrought-iron gates of Brown University on a full scholarship, a champion wrestler from Wisconsin who expected four years at an Ivy League institution known for educating generations of bright and enterprising minds.

He lasted mere weeks.

In September 2006, he was accused of stalking, harassing and ultimately raping a female acquaintance – allegations he says are false. The accuser was a third-generation legacy student who, when first reporting trouble with McCormick, also mentioned that her father was an "alum and a big supporter of Brown."

The day after the rape allegations were made, McCormick was called into a meeting with administrators, barred from campus and put on a flight home pending a disciplinary hearing.

The following month, McCormick was gone for good.

Before the hearing, he signed a confidential agreement – under pressure, he says, from a lawyer for the accuser's family – in which he agreed to withdraw from Brown. In exchange, the accuser agreed to let the matter drop.

A Brown administrator agreed to reflect on his transcript that he had withdrawn for "medical reasons" but also told him he was ineligible for readmission, even though he had never been found responsible for rape. McCormick transferred to Bucknell University, which says he's a student in good standing.

The school allowed the matter to be closed through a private contract instead of a traditional fact-finding hearing that could have vindicated McCormick or established that an assault had actually occurred. The arrangement was meant to provide a tidy outcome to a dispute fraught with emotion and wildly divergent accounts.

Brown insists it acted properly. But a federal lawsuit from McCormick and e-mails reviewed by The Associated Press raise messy questions about the handling of the case.

The lawsuit alleges that administrators failed to adequately investigate the accusations, and permitted a blameless student to be railroaded from campus to placate a major donor.

There is another possibility, though – that Brown administrators deemed the allegations credible but allowed the complaint to be quietly disposed of, freeing someone accused of rape to wipe the slate clean as he transferred to another school.

___

Will McCormick is, by all accounts, a physically imposing man.

Six-foot-five, more than 250 pounds and a force on the wrestling mat, he went 43-0 and was a state champion in his senior year at Milwaukee's Heritage Christian School. He was bulky but also bookish, more focused on making the honor roll than on partying or flirting with girls, recalled teammate J.P. Janik.

The Waukesha, Wis., native was accepted early decision at Brown. Among his early residence hall acquaintances was a freshman from an affluent, suburban New York City background – an accomplished student who in high school helped establish a charity. Her father was in finance, a Brown alumnus and generous donor to and fundraiser for the school.

The AP generally does not identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, and is not naming the family to avoid identifying the woman.

His lawyer says the relationship was friendly, though not romantic. It soured quickly.

On Sept. 5, 2006, the first day of classes and one week after orientation, the woman and her roommate approached their resident adviser – a fellow student – to complain that McCormick was acting "creepy" and following her around. At 2 the next morning, the adviser spoke with Carla Hansen, an associate dean of student life.

The young woman said McCormick was telling people they were dating when they weren't, calling her up to 20 times a day and once punched a wall in anger and made a threatening remark – "I could have hurt you" – after seeing her hug another guy, Hansen wrote administrators in a Sept. 6 e-mail recapping the allegations.

In court papers, McCormick's lawyer, J. Scott Kilpatrick, calls the accusations "exaggerations and half-truths" without responding to specific allegations. McCormick, himself, refused to be interviewed for this story.

The student spoke with Hansen later in the morning of Sept. 6, refusing to name her alleged stalker for fear of getting him into trouble. She also referenced her father, though it's unclear why.

"She said that her father was an alum and a big supporter of Brown, and that she wanted to love Brown, too, and did not want to have anything bad happen to this other student," Hansen wrote in the e-mail.

Conversations between Hansen, the accuser and the resident adviser continued throughout the day.

The student spoke that afternoon with a campus victim rights' advocate, and later that evening, asked to temporarily drop the matter so she could study and attend a friend's birthday party.

That night, she spoke to her father, who urged her to identify her alleged stalker – which she did. At 10 p.m., the father also called the home of Brown administrator Russell Carey, according to an e-mail from Carey.

The following day, McCormick was formally barred from contacting her. She was directed to avoid him, as well.

Soon new problems arose.

A Sept. 13 e-mail to administrators from the student's resident adviser accuses McCormick of having violated the no-contact order by visiting the woman's room and trying to speak with her.

But for the first time, the e-mail – sent to various administrators – also describes an encounter the woman said had occurred on Sept. 6. the day after she first complained to her RA.

On that evening, she said, William McCormick entered her room as her friends were at dinner. As she tried to study, she said, he forced her onto the bed, pushed her up against a wall, tore through her boxer shorts and raped her.

She complained of bruising and sore ribs.

After word of the e-mail circulated, Michael Burch, the then-assistant wrestling coach who acted as McCormick's adviser throughout the process, was told by the head coach to pick McCormick up at his dorm and host him for the night.

Burch served him a glass of orange juice, told him they would straighten out the matter in the morning and gave up his bed so McCormick – who would tell Burch he was never even alone in the same room with the woman – could rest for what figured to be a difficult day ahead.

"I remember walking by my room and just seeing him laying in my bed, with his eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling," Burch said. "He was really scared, really terrified."

On Sept. 14, Burch accompanied McCormick to a meeting with administrators, where he was told he was accused of "sexual misconduct" – on top of earlier harassment charges. A letter from Margaret Klawunn, dean of student life, said he was barred from campus, effective immediately and until further notice.

"This action has been taken for your best interests and that of the community," Klawunn wrote.

Brown administrators involved in the case either didn't return messages or declined comment.

University spokeswoman Marisa Quinn wouldn't discuss specifics but cited Brown policy allowing for students to be immediately suspended if they're considered a danger. She said the university is obligated to act when there's evidence of potential harm to a student.

Brown says students are presumed not responsible for disciplinary violations until their hearing. But Burch said McCormick was denied a chance to explain himself. An administrator pulled out a plane ticket, and Burch accompanied McCormick in a van to the airport.

He was put on a plane to Wisconsin.

___

Brown faced national scrutiny nearly 15 years ago in its handling of another sexual dispute that roiled the campus.

Two students had sex after a party. The female student, a freshman, later said she was too drunk to consent and accused the young man of rape. She spoke out at a rally, while his supporters said he was unfairly branded a rapist over unsubstantiated allegations. Critics accused the Brown disciplinary process of bias against men.

The accused student was put on probation and temporarily left school, later suing his accuser and Brown and reaching a confidential settlement.

Accusations of sexual assault on college campuses, historically, pose thorny issues for administrators. The accuser and accused can present irreconcilable versions; alleged victims often don't want to involve police or pursue a campus complaint; and a civil disciplinary hearing can be an ill-suited forum for dealing with criminal accusations.

In McCormick's case, Brown considered the allegations credible enough to immediately suspend him but says it followed the accuser's wishes in not calling the police. Though college administrators say they routinely defer to self-identified victims on involving law enforcement, the judge hearing McCormick's lawsuit said he was troubled police weren't called.

"The thought that with all of the people involved in this matter at different levels, a determination is made to not tell law enforcement, even the Brown Police – I'm having trouble getting that," U.S. District Judge William Smith said at an April hearing.

Brown, like most colleges, affords disciplinary hearings for students accused of campus violations. But the agreement McCormick reached with his accuser short-circuited the traditional disciplinary process.

Gary Pavela, academic integrity director at Syracuse University who consults with colleges on disciplinary issues, says such agreements shouldn't be the end of an accusation. He said regardless of police involvement, and even independent of the wishes of the accuser and the accused, universities must get to the bottom of sexual assault allegations to determine if a crime occurred on campus or, conversely, if a student has been falsely accused.

A hearing could even be conducted after a student has left campus.

A college's philosophy, Pavela said, should be, "Once you brought it to our attention, we're going to investigate it as best as we can even if you don't pursue it."

Not necessarily, says Scott Coffina, a Philadelphia lawyer who advises colleges on campus security issues, arguing that there's no need to hold a hearing for an accused student after he or she leaves and when the accuser no longer wants to press the issue. "If they're gone, there's not really a case to bring."

Burch, the coach and adviser, began preparing for McCormick's hearing after McCormick left campus. He requested the accuser's phone logs to see how she spent the day and evening of the alleged rape, but says he never got them.

He asked for a police report, but there was none.

In one e-mail, he complained he wasn't allowed to see the boxer shorts the accuser said she was wearing during the alleged rape and that he couldn't take DNA testing or fingerprints. An administrator said the boxers wouldn't be entered as evidence – but that references to them were fair game at the hearing.

As the month progressed, Burch said he and the McCormicks grew concerned that McCormick wouldn't get a fair shake, convinced the accuser's father had the ear of the administration. The father, as an alumnus, donor and parent, has over time "been periodically in contact with Brown administrators," a lawyer for the university wrote in court papers.

E-mails from Burch reflect growing frustration, even anger, with the process, as he accused administrators of stonewalling efforts to gather evidence and of failing to help make McCormick's classmates available for questioning.

"I am doing my best to advocate for a student who has been put at a tremendous disadvantage in this hearing process responding to charges that carry with it the possibility of a life sentence in prison. I trust you understand how William and his family must be feeling at this time," Burch wrote in a Sept. 28 e-mail to administrators.

Afraid the accuser might seek criminal charges if he returned to campus, or that he might be labeled a rapist or denied a proper defense at a disciplinary hearing, McCormick sought alternatives.

His family's attention turned toward an arrangement, negotiated between the accuser's lawyer and their own attorney, that would close the case and permit McCormick to withdraw while maintaining his innocence.

The agreement presented to McCormick required him to leave school immediately.

He would agree not to return to Providence for as long as she lived there – unless it was for a wrestling competition with whatever new college he planned to attend.

She would agree to drop the matter.

Both would agree not to speak disparagingly of each other or discuss the deal outside their families.

McCormick signed the contract even as he wavered on the terms. He wrote his lawyer, Walter Stone, on Oct. 4 – the day he signed the contract in Wisconsin – to express reservations.

"This is a huge decision for me to make, and I need more time to consider, reconsider, and then go over everything again to make sure that I make the best possible decision regarding this matter," he wrote.

"There has been an awful lot of pressure put on me throughout this whole process, and for once, I would like to have the full perspective to properly make a decision of my own."

The message was forwarded to Joseph Cavanagh, the lawyer for the accuser's family, who replied the next day that it would be "unconscionable" for McCormick to attempt to renege on the deal.

He said the disciplinary hearing would proceed without a signed agreement, then in a follow-up e-mail, made what the McCormicks interpreted as a thinly veiled threat of possible criminal charges.

"The resolution we worked out would be exactly what he would need to give him the best chance to move forward with his life," Cavanagh wrote Stone. "I can only hope that you are able to persuade him and his family of what a mistake this is. As you well know, the Brown disciplinary matter is the least of his possible perils."

The contract was returned for the accuser's signature.

Cavanagh has declined to comment, other than to say that his client maintains she was raped.

Around the same time, Burch asked administrators if they had sent McCormick, who suffers from seizures, paperwork for his requested medical leave.

A Brown administrator, Robert Samuels, replied: "My understanding is that there is an agreement being made between the parties involved that supercedes (sic) any and all other processes."

On Oct. 18, McCormick wrote Brown to withdraw for medical reasons "due to the stresses caused me while I was a student at Brown." He said he would not return, a condition of the contract with his accuser.

Though colleges generally allow students withdrawing for medical reasons to return when their condition improves, McCormick was not offered that opportunity.

"Given the circumstances of your initial separation from the University," replied Klawunn, the dean of student life, "you will not be eligible for readmission to the University. Per your request we will have your transcript reflect that you withdrew for medical reasons with an effective date of Oct. 13, 2006."

___

William McCormick enrolled in 2007 at Bucknell, where he wrestled until being sidelined by injuries. An English major, he just completed his junior year.

Federal education privacy laws permit but do not require disclosure of disciplinary information about transfer students to their new school.

Bucknell Dean of Students Susan Hopp said she has no record Brown notified Bucknell of the rape allegations.

Bucknell wrestling coach Dan Wirnsberger said he didn't know the circumstances behind McCormick's departure until he received a vague anonymous phone call during McCormick's first year from someone opining as to what might have happened. Even then, Wirnsberger said, he made only minimal inquiry.

"He just said, `It's a personal, private matter that I'd like to keep personal and private,'" Wirnsberger recalled. "And I said, 'I totally respect that.'"

McCormick sued last fall, before the three-year statute of limitations expired, alleging the school failed to follow its own disciplinary policies, bent to the influences of a donor and failed to conduct an investigation that could have vindicated him.

Brown President Ruth Simmons told AP the allegations are "utter poppycock" but declined further comment.

A judge in April whittled the case down considerably, dismissing individual Brown administrators from the case, but left in claims of breach of contract, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the university. The accuser, a member of Brown's 2010 graduating class, and her father also remain defendants.

Nearly four years after McCormick left Brown under the cloud of rape allegations, the lawsuit represents an opportunity for him to start clearing his name, his lawyer, Kilpatrick, wrote in court papers. Though of course the case never would have come to light if McCormick had not made it public.

"The public," Kilpatrick wrote, "has the right to know about this case."

___

Eric Tucker is a writer for The Associated Press, based in Providence, R.I. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

Around the Web

Brown University, elite Ivy League school, raises questions with handling of ...

Did Brown University Mishandle a Rape Claim ?

Handling of rape claim at Brown raises questions

Handling Of Rape Claim At Brown Raises Questions