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Allegation 101 

When there is a suspected date rape, you don't want the accusation looked into by administrators at New College

Wednesday, Dec 13 2006
A sedan emerges from the tiny parking lot off Valencia between 18th and 19th streets and turns into traffic. A 36-year-old man hangs his torso out the front passenger's window, sees a male student he knows, and makes the universal sign of the blowjob — tongue pressed so far into his cheek to create a bulge, fist pretending to hold something creating the bulge. The jokester laughs and tucks his head back into the window. The car speeds off.

So go early winter afternoon hi-jinks at the campus of New College of California, located in two former mortuaries and one ex-home for unwed mothers in the heart of the Mission District. This is a place where the ordinary rigidities of college existence — such as strict curricula, grading policies, or even the definition of what a classroom is — have dissolved to make way for what the school officially calls "education for social change, a progressive, activist college in San Francisco."

This winter, however, New College's penchant for shunning the strictures that other institutions live by may have undermined the school's motto of "preparing students for a more just, sacred and sustainable world."

The man in the passenger's seat is New College acting registrar Adam Laxton, who several months ago was accused of raping a young student he oversaw in a work-study program.

When I called Laxton last week and asked about the student's allegation that he raped her, he said: "It's ridiculous. And it did not happen. And that's the only comment that I have."

Indeed, I don't have information that would allow me to make a judgment about the veracity or falsehood of the allegation.

The San Francisco Police Department does not have a report on file lodged by the alleged victim. The young woman, who left high school in 2004, did not wish to discuss the matter when I spoke with her. Much of the information I have about the situation comes from on- and off-the-record interviews with administration, faculty, and student sources, and from New College President Martin Hamilton, who acknowledged the allegation when I interviewed him in his office.

However, during the past two weeks I've looked into the way the university handled the rape accusation, I've found the school's freewheeling approach to college-management seems to have extended to an inappropriate realm. Rather than immediately advising the student of her right to go to the police, or swiftly opening a formal school investigation into the matter, or helping her contact independent advocates or other services, and possibly putting the administration member on leave during such an investigation, the school until recently seems to have done little to get to the bottom of things.

This sort of laissez-faire attitude has no place in attempting to protect a student who believes she's been sexually attacked.

As is customary in stories involving alleged sexual abuse of young people, the accuser's name is not being printed.

During the ensuing days and months following the allegation, the college administration took steps to deal with the matter in unconventional ways. The student complained about the alleged incident several months ago. But the school seems not to have seriously dealt with the situation until recently. At about the same time word began circulating at the school that I would be doing a story about how New College had responded, or not responded, to the rape allegation, the school began holding meetings and interviewing people regarding the alleged incident, an administration insider said.

Hamilton says the school's tardy response to the allegation was not spurred by my inquiry. Though the New College president acknowledges the student approached a school employee several months ago with allegations that Laxton date-raped her, he says that it's only been during the past month that the allegations have become "more serious," without specifying what that meant. That's when a "deeper" investigation began, Hamilton said.

However, for Janelle White, executive director of San Francisco Women Against Rape, it's hard to fathom a date-rape allegation that wouldn't be serious enough to warrant immediate aggressive response.

"In any institution, there's an expectation that they're going to address abuses of power. This student was bringing to the school's attention a possible severe abuse of power," said White. "The onus is on the university. Ethically, it is on the university. And this is something that, unfortunately, the university also has to hear: It's a liability for them. It's a potential liability that they did not respond to this when it happened."

In an hour-long interview in his Valencia Street office, Hamilton offered a combination of assurances that the school was thoroughly investigating and addressing the matter, and what seemed like reasons for why it was difficult to do just that. He said now that they've begun addressing the situation in earnest, the school is proceeding with a proper investigation that has been guided by university counsel. He said he cares very much about the safety of students who might have reason to fear being harassed, or raped by members of his administration.

During our interview Hamilton challenged the idea that a university's questionable handling of a rape allegation was appropriate subject matter for an SF Weekly story. And he offered what seemed to be reasons that might have compromised his handling of the incident.

Hamilton suggested I was out to "get" New College by writing about this matter. He said the last article I wrote about the school, in which I criticized the school's lack of response to recent revelations that it was founded during the 1970s by an alleged sexual predator, had caused him significant personal trauma.

The college president, wearing light washed jeans, a solid flannel shirt with fishing flies embroidered over the pocket, and a grizzled two-day shadow on his face, questioned the motives of the former teacher who tipped me off to this situation, noting that she herself had had a sexual affair with Laxton. [The teacher acknowledged the affair.]

Hamilton noted that the alleged rape incident took place off campus. He also explained that he faces a constant battle to raise money sufficient to keep the school afloat. And he said he's struggled intellectually with the alleged victim's request that the school enact a formal policy curtailing employee-student sexual relationships.

He acknowledged that he, too, has dated a student, but that the affair had ended some time ago.

As for the school's fraternization policy, "it's an evolving document, and it doesn't say there was to be no relationship, but there shouldn't be a supervisor's conflict of interest," said Hamilton.

There's certainly merit to New College's nontraditional way of running a university — as long as the matter at hand isn't alleged sexual assault.

During a visit there last week, I chatted for a while with gay-rights pioneer and New College professor Harry Britt. He described his experience of helping to shape students with few prospects, the ones who might not fit into a more formal university setting. These students became prospects for graduate school. Perhaps there's even a positive side to the place's apparently free-spirited social atmosphere, in which employees and students study together, work together, hang out in bars together, and sometimes date each other.

But when this ferment results in allegations of sexual abuse, as it tends to from time to time in universities all over America, the responsible, ethical response happens to be formal and strict. It's imperative for school representatives to apprise the student of her right to call the police, inform her of the availability of independent rape advocacy services in and outside the university, and conduct an earnest investigation into the allegations, then follow up in a way that makes students know they have a right to feel safe from predators — even if that means disciplining a valued employee.

"You want to be fairly efficient about it," notes Doris Ng, supervising clinical attorney at the Golden Gate University School of Law Women's Employment Rights Clinic.

That's in part because a young woman who believes she's been raped is not in a good position to efficiently stand up for herself.

"A lot of people don't know their rights, or have access to people who can advocate for them," says Julie Patino, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates.

"There might have been a different outcome if people could do advocacy for her from outside the college. I'm guessing that the student was feeling like, 'What do I do?'" says White, the S.F. Women Against Rape director.

Judging from my discussion with Martin Hamilton, a similar feeling permeated the school administration when a rape allegation surfaced against one of their members several months ago. My hope is that in future cases the administration is less confused about its responsibilities and responds in an efficient, ethical, and, yes, highly formal way.

Last week's column, which described efforts by siblings of murder victim Victor Bach to try and help solve the 2003 killing themselves, drew attention at the Hall of Justice.

Bach's brother and sister lambasted San Francisco's infamous lack of success in finding and convicting alleged murderers, and I accompanied their criticisms with information compiled by the Board of Supervisors' Legislative Analyst, which said that of 166 murders committed since 2004, there's been only one conviction.

The office of District Attorney Kamala Harris took issue with the report.

The real number, district attorney spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh said in a statement, is five such convictions.

Moreover, Mesloh states in her bosses' defense, "25 other homicide cases that occurred since 2004 are either currently in trial or scheduled for trial within the next three months."

And because of delays due to scarce courtroom space, Mesloh adds, "it is not uncommon for a homicide case to take one to two years before a trial."

So be forewarned, killers: The district attorney's office says the ratio of 2004 S.F. murderers to 2004 murderer-convictions is not 166 to one. It's 33 to one.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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