On the night of Aug. 2, 2016, Oregon State University student Miriam Morrissette was raped by a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching assistant enrolled in the same institution.
Upon reporting her rape to OSU, Morrissette couldn’t have imagined the convolution of power and procedural failures that would ensue. Her story outlines the lack of justice for traumatic cases devoid of hard evidence—those that ensure the perpetrator prevails.
Morrissette recalls saying “no” and “stop” a total of five to six times the night she was raped.
A straightforward person, when Morrissette agrees to tea, she means just tea. She and the man in question met at the downtown Beanery, where the two connected over a common interest in her undergraduate thesis research, which focuses on people with autism and disabilities. These are two subjects close to home for Morrissette, who was diagnosed with autism at age nine. She struggles with an inability to read social cues and fine motor skills.
Morrissette explained she made verbally clear she did not want to engage in sexual intercourse when agreeing to more tea at the man’s apartment. There, she was quickly ushered into his room. It was then that, alarmingly, he locked the door.
“I don’t like it when people lock doors… Fine motorism is a part of my autism. I have a hard time opening locks,” Morrissette said. The man immediately began kissing and fondling her—she reacted by reiterating her opposition to having sex, asking him to stop. The two then engaged in consensual massaging, before she requested to be taken home.
“Then he goes into the bathroom… and he comes out completely naked… and I was just scared at that point.”Morrissette recalled curling up in the fetal position. As part of her condition, she experiences selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that renders her unwillingly speechless in high-stress situations.
“At this point, to avoid penetration, I would have done anything,” Morrissette commented. When it became clear that he wouldn’t complete from foreplay, Morrissette agreed to try having sex, feeling that she couldn’t avoid it any longer.
Morrissette remembers feeling distant and rigid as her rapist moved her into various positions. She reported repeatedly saying “no” and that he was hurting her. She also experienced some loss of memory.
“This went on for two hours, but felt like 10 minutes to me,” she said. On one occasion, Morrissette said he dragged her by her ankles to the end of his bed and penetrated her roughly, to the point of convulsion. She again asked him to please stop.
Aftermath and Trauma Responses
“I woke up the next day with really bad pelvic pain and bleeding,” said Morrissette. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t keep anything down, and I knew something was really wrong.”
Morrissette’s parents noticed stark differences in their daughter’s behavior. In a Benton County Circuit Court restraining order hearing against her perpetrator in November, Morrissette’s mother testified that she’d become “very angry… she had troubles sleeping. Every other day or so she screams and yells and says she hates everybody, she just wants to die, he ruined my life. This lasts about an hour, two hours, until she finally gets it out of her.”
Morrissette paid three visits to the ER between September and November. During these, she was diagnosed with PTSD, suicidal feelings, and major depressive disorder. Her immediate behavior following the incident, however, was one of shock and denial.
Not fully processing what had happened, Morrissette spent 20 minutes in bed talking with her alleged rapist on the night of the incident, and upon returning home, was oddly nonverbal and distant with her parents. She made arrangements to see him again, sending texts and leaving him messages about how she enjoyed herself that night.
“I sent them because I was trying to justify what happened to me,” said Morrissette.
These responses are typical during the outward adjustment phase for survivors, sometimes called minimization, where victims attempt to normalize their trauma. The U.S. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) refers to this as a “controlled” response, where the survivor appears without emotion, as if “nothing happened”—one of three most common responses, along with an expressed response defined by hysterics, agitation, and anxiety attacks, and a shock/disbelief response marked by disorientation, and difficulty focusing, making decisions and/or doing everyday tasks—all behaviors Morrissette exhibited following her trauma.
When Morrissette realized she had been raped, she immediately canceled her plans with the man and sought justice through her university, though not yet the police.
OSU Standard of Procedure
Reporting a rape to OSU can take shape in many ways. Students can report to professors, faculty, or campus resources like the Survivor Advocacy and Resource Center (SARC), Student Health Services, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Each differ in procedure and capabilities in supporting a survivor, but the only OSU organization that can fully investigate and sanction OSU community members is the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access (EOA). Also, the Oregon State Police have a post on OSU’s Corvallis campus where criminal complaints can be initiated by students.
“Hopefully, if everything works the way it should, [reports] will all be funneled into EOA at some point,” said EOA Interim Director Clay Simmons.
When a case of sexual misconduct is brought to EOA, a formal complaint procedure should be followed, sparking an investigation of all allegations brought forward, as well as a formal determination of whether or not sexual misconduct occurred. Cases are assigned to an EOA equity associate whose job is to respond to complaints of discrimination, harassment, and bullying, according to their website.
According to Simmons, an investigation “is an administrative procedure that determines whether there has been a violation of university policy. It’s not criminal, it’s policy work.” If EOA finds that university policy has been violated, they can make recommendations for sanctions against the responding party, the extent of which is expulsion.
An equity associate is supposed to inform the reporting party—in this case Morrissette—of every possible course of action and available resource. This includes walking them through how to report rape to the police, providing them with a list of community support resources, and informing them of their Title IX rights.
Title IX requires universities to be proactive about sex discrimination and eliminate any kind of hostile environment for its students, meaning investigating claims of sexual violence, ensuring students are safe, and providing them with a support system on campus.
One campus organization that provides support is the Survivor Advocacy and Resource Center (SARC), which provides support groups, rights information, safety planning, and crisis stabilization, all with “the goal of empowering survivors to be able to make informed choices,” according to their website.
Assistant Director Judy Neighbors said SARC tries to individualize each survivor’s treatment in a trauma-informed manner. SARC has “no particular agenda” nor do they “pressure [survivors] into doing anything,” but will support them in whatever action they choose.
Some survivors opt to work with the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV), an Oregon-born organization providing services such as a 24-hour hotline and emergency shelter, legal assistance with restraining orders and sexual assault protective orders, survivor support groups, and community training sessions. They are not affiliated with OSU but are a resource that both EOA and SARC are supposed to refer student survivors to.
How It All Went Wrong
Eight days after the incident, Morrissette reported her rape to OSU. Her first point of contact was Judy Neighbors of SARC.
When Morrissette told Neighbors she was interested in reporting to the police, she said Neighbors first listed the alarming statistics at which rapists are not convicted in the United States. “She was like, ‘Only 10 in 1,000 women win their rape trials and the police often don’t investigate it at all.’ She just discouraged me from going to the police,” said Morrissette.
Steve Clark, Vice President of University Relations and Marketing, disputes Morrissette’s characterization, stating, “It is neither the policy nor practice of SARC personnel to dissuade visitors to their offices from reporting an assault.”
Procedure calls for Neighbors to present victims with the option of going to Oregon State Police Senior Trooper John Wolfenbarger, charged with handling sexual assault cases at OSU. When Morrissette ultimately came in contact with Wolfenbarger, she said Neighbors “acted surprised by stating that she did not know state troopers could take rape cases.”
Clark argued, “University officials are very aware that the Oregon State Police investigates reported cases [and]are also very aware that other law enforcement agencies investigate reported cases.”
In an interview, Neighbors claimed she would never dissuade anyone from police intervention and referred to Wolfenbarger as her “go-to person” when discussing options with student victims. When we inquired with the Oregon State Police at OSU we were referred to Lt. Eric Judah, the OSP OSU Station Commander, and he advised us that OSP will not comment on an active and open investigation, nor will they provide an opinion about the case.
After speaking with Neighbors, Morrissette was referred to a nurse practitioner with Student Health Services, for a pelvic exam and a potential rape kit.
“No one gave me any positives for doing a rape kit,” Morrissette recounted. For example, Morrissette claims she wasn’t told that under the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, a rape kit is free to sexual assault victims; at the time, she figured she’d have to pay for the services she was receiving.
“In hindsight, you should always get a rape kit done,” Morrissette disclosed, “even if it’s 20 days after, because it shows the DA and the police that you’re serious.” According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), lack of a rape kit also reduces the chances of discovering any assault-related injuries that might not have been visible immediately after the rape.
When Morrissette expressed uncertainty about going to the police, “[the nurse practitioner] said, ‘Yeah, it might be best not to go to the police. I’ve seen the defense tear the rape victims up on the stand. And a rape kit is really invasive.’”
Clark submits that said practitioner now reports “never personally witnessing a rape trial” and that “it is neither the policy nor practice of university health care professionals to advise patients against reporting an assault or against having forensic evidence collected.”
On Aug. 10, Neighbors accompanied Morrissette to OSU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access (EOA) to report the rape to equity associate Andrea Bibee. Morissette reports that at no point did EOA express that she could bring in chosen support people, leaving her to experience this process with strangers.
According to Clark, EOA’s standard of practice is to “permit support people to accompany a person” during the interview process.
During the single interview conducted by EOA, Morrissette claims she was again discouraged from going to the police, and that Bibee told her “a police investigation could delay our investigation up to 30 days.”
Clark disclosed, “It is not accurate to say a police investigation would delay an EOA investigation outside of the time taken to gather and assess evidence.”
Simmons told the Advocate that the processes carried out by the police and EOA “are independent parallel investigations” and would not interfere with one another. Morrissette said she was also not assisted in filling out a formal complaint form, a document meant to spark the formal Title IX investigation process.
A No Contact Directive was issued the day Morrissette met Bibee, which attempts to restrict contact between two parties involved in a reported case by disallowing any type of communication or physical confrontation. No Contact Directives are not enforceable by Oregon State Police, and violations must be reported to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, warranting a separate investigation.
The most extreme disciplinary action for a founded violation is suspension. This was the only action taken against Morrissette’s perpetrator throughout the entire process, who complied with the Directive, thus remaining on campus.
The next day, Morrissette met with Erika Patterson, who at the time was the head of Sexual Assault Support Services with OSU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
Patterson immediately began performing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy on Morrissette, a somewhat controversial treatment for trauma. EMDR therapists have subjects focus on a waving finger or object as they recall past trauma. This is meant to ease the emotions attached to traumatic memories, as subjects process the information of the moving object alongside the memory. According to the EMDR International Association, after a successful session, “A person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting.”
Clark submitted to us that, “OSU’s Counseling and Psychological Services denies that EMDR is a controversial therapy.”
Patterson, now in private practice, no longer works for OSU and declined to comment, saying, “There is enough information on the Internet” about EMDR.
There were multiple incidents of suspected unauthorized communication across departments—namely between Bibee, Neighbors, and Patterson—along with disclosure to the alleged of Morrissette’s personal information, which, according to policy, required a signed release from Morrissette for each cross-contact request. Clark denied any breaches in policy, stating that confidential offices do not share information without signed release.
In the restraining order hearing, the perpetrator’s attorney asked Morrissette if she told Bibee she had selective mutism. Morrissette was taken aback, demanding, “I want to know how you know that… that is private information that you should not have.”
Bibee, who was in touch with Morrissette’s alleged rapist, was reported as saying “that the perpetrator had been deeply affected by this process and that she thought he would not hurt nor harm [Morrissette] in any way.”
“I feel this was not a survivor-friendly thing to say,” Morrissette shared.
Clark commented, “It is always the role of EOA equity associates to investigate the allegations and interview both the reporting party and respondent.”
EOA Determination, DA Determination
On Aug. 22, 20 days after the incident, Morrissette reported her rape to the police. About three weeks later, Bibee arranged for Patterson to accompany her in receiving the EOA determination letter regarding whether or not her case would go to charges.
Morrissette brought her parents but says, “They were told to stay in the waiting room. They were not told that they could come in.”
Morrissette was then informed that EOA would not be charging the man she says raped her with a violation of university policy of sexual misconduct. Overwhelmingly frustrated, she sought to appeal the decision at the end of September, but was not given any information on how to do so right away.
When the Advocate spoke with Simmons in January, he said, “I believe [an appeal] has happened once.”
Morrissette and Simmons exchanged several emails about how to appeal an EOA determination, after which Morrissette was given just 15 days to review evidence and submit all necessary paperwork. Morrissette intended to provide a more extensive autism diagnosis, because she felt it was crucial information regarding her reactions during and after the rape, given that nobody within EOA is an expert on autism. Simmons allowed no such extension.
After Morrissette submitted her appeal on Oct. 1, it took Simmons just nine days to “find no grounds to reverse the decision not to proceed to a full investigation of [the accused’s] responsibility under the Student Conduct Code for the allegations.”
Despite hopes that she might be in better hands with the Oregon State Police, in December of 2016 Morrissette was delivered another devastating blow when the District Attorney decided that, due to insufficient evidence, her rapist would not be facing charges.
Morrissette Continues Facing Challenges
Two weeks into the fall term of her senior year, Morrissette felt forced to drop out due to overwhelming stress, meaning extra terms in the long run, adding to an already costly degree.
“That was what was really hard about missing this term for me. Since I didn’t feel safe, it was very hard to go to class and it puts me behind on graduating,” she said.
Morrissette has since gone back to school, and began this winter term with the hope of getting back on track. She has difficulty focusing, however, with her accused rapist present on campus.
On Sept. 21, during OSU’s annual Beaver Community Fair on campus, Morrissette experienced what she refers to as an autistic meltdown, during which she exclaimed the injustices she was facing, drawing numerous campus personnel and public safety officers.
Since the rape, Morrissette’s meltdowns have occurred more frequently in public, as she’s “triggered more easily.”
In early February, Morrissette experienced another outburst in her Spanish class, where she left crying. She was later contacted by Melissa Morgan, Assistant Dean of Student Life, saying she had instructed Morrissette’s professor to call the school’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) to escort her from class if she did not remove herself. Morgan said that Morrissette might hear from Student Conduct and Community Standards about the incident, since she was disruptive to other students’ learning—which, to Morrissette, felt like another hard slap.
“When I have an autistic meltdown I have no intent in harming others, but want to get away from the situation, and often scream as the fight or flight part of my brain kicks in,” said Morrissette in an email to her Spanish professor Lucia Robelo.
Robelo explained to Morrissette that she had contacted OSU’s Disability Access Services for advice on how to help Morrissette in the future, rather than to report her, given her lack of experience with students on the autism spectrum. In fear of being reported to the DPS and given her inability to predict her meltdowns, Morrissette missed the next day of class.
To help process the way OSU has mistreated her, Morrissette is currently attending ongoing therapy treatmentS. “The therapy has been good with learning to accept what’s happened with OSU. Because sometimes that’s been more of the focus for me, rather than what he did.”
OSU’s response to Morrissette’s visible stress, as she described it, “is not ‘How can we help you?’ it’s ‘You’re a pain in the butt, go away.’” Perceiving this kind of attitude from agencies she believed were in place to help her only exacerbates her trauma.
“I was not treated as a victim, but was victimized during this process,” said Morrissette.
Other women have now approached The Advocate, sharing they had been sexually harassed by Morrissette’s attacker.
Perspective: Consequences and Questions
Let’s look at what we know. OSU student Morrissette was allegedly raped in August of 2016 by a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching assistant—someone OSU is highly invested in. We know for a fact she wasn’t given a rape kit, and that personal information concerning her autism was disclosed to either the alleged or his attorney, and used against her in a restraining order court hearing. We know that Morrissette was controversially given desensitizing EMDR therapy, and was interviewed only once by Equity Officer Bibee during the school’s investigation.
We have claims that Morrissette wasn’t given any information on her Title IX rights, wasn’t allowed support people of her choosing during the interviewing process, and was blatantly dissuaded from going to the police by three university employees.
These facts and claims are enough to point to major breaches in university policy, but there is no system in place to track whether Equity Associates followed them or not. Simmons said he simply has confidence in his employees’ actions.
The university’s determination of lacking evidence to prove Morrissette’s allegations stands—and likewise, there stands a lack of university policy or standard to safeguard a survivor from this type of misconduct.
When reviewing this story, it’s important to note who’s suffering the consequences: Morrissette, the victim of alleged sexual assault.
Regardless of OSU’s intentions, the fact of the matter is that Morrissette’s university was supposed to be her support system. It begs the question: if Morrissette hadn’t gone to OSU for support, would she have taken a hiatus? Would she have had as many aggravated public meltdowns? Would she feel safer now?
Assaults like these—that turn up with a lack of hard evidence—happen everywhere. The questions raised in this instance include: do our institutions have adequate policies and standards of conduct in place, and are they doing everything they can to help survivors? In Morrissette’s case, who are OSU’s policies serving and protecting, and who is left helpless?
By Stevie Beisswanger