Patrick Henry College’s Sexual Assault Problem

This morning the New Republic published Sexual Assault at God’s Harvard, an article about how Patrick Henry College has handled cases of rape and assault. The article is subtitled “Patrick Henry was supposed to be a safe place. For these young women, it wasn’t.” In it, journalist Kiera Feldman tells the horrific story of the administration’s gross mishandling of sexual assault and rape cases on the school’s campus.

First, a little background. HSLDA’s Michael Farris founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 and remains the college’s chancellor. His goal is to train a generation of young conservative Christian culture changers, mainly homeschool graduates, to go into politics, media, film, and other key cultural industries. As a homeschooled teenager, I attended a summer camp for high school students at Patrick Henry College a decade ago. While I ultimately chose a secular university because I was eager to get started on changing the culture right away, I watched as numerous graduates of my homeschool community packed their bags and left for Patrick Henry College, and a number of my friends today are PHC alumni. Not surprisingly, I feel a strong connection to the college.

When I read this piece, I was reminded of the growing Bill Gothard sexual abuse scandal. Not unlike Patrick Henry College, Gothard’s ministry promised to provide a safe place for the teenage girls and young women sent their by their Christian parents. In a blog post last week I stated that “I’m increasingly seeing the Christian homeschooling culture as an unsafe place for girls and young women.” I was referring to the patterns displayed here—the victim blaming, the discounting of testimony by young women, the unceasing slut shaming. These patterns exist outside of this world too, it is true, but it sometimes feels like they are almost institutionalized within certain circles of the homeschooling world—and the result is a very unsafe atmosphere for the young women and girls that world supposedly puts so much value on protecting.

With this out of the way, I give you the New Republic article:

. . .

Claire was not the first female student to leave PHC disillusioned with the administration she had trusted to protect her. Other female students who say they reported sexual assault or harassment to the administration also left feeling that school officials blamed them instead of holding the accused male students accountable. The administration, they say, seemed much more concerned with protecting Patrick Henry’s pristine public image.

“Basically, my issue was swept under the rug, and the assaulter received little else but a reprimand,” says a young woman who attended Patrick Henry between 2004 and 2008. The student fell asleep at an off-campus party where there had been drinking and was awoken by a male PHC student assaulting her. She says she reported the incident to Patrick Henry. “The administration encouraged me to not go to the police and said that, because alcohol was involved and I was violating the rules there, they hinted that I could be expelled if I brought light to the incident,” the student says. “The focus was the alcohol. I drank. I sinned. I deserved to be assaulted in the middle of the night.”

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, says she was raped the summer before her freshman year. When she arrived at PHC in the fall of 2007, she was deeply depressed and cutting herself. She was summoned to Corbitt’s office. “I remember her smiling a lot in a forced, insincere way while she was telling me that ‘someone’ had relayed to her my ‘issues,’ and the ‘administration was concerned about my ability to successfully complete the semester,’ ” she wrote in an e-mail. The dean insisted that she take a psychological evaluation, then called her back to the Office of Student Life, got her parents on speakerphone, and made her tell them about the assault. When she choked up, the student says, Corbitt cut in to finish the job. Then the dean informed her parents that she was unfit for PHC and needed to be retrieved immediately. Her father flew out the following day and whisked her away, says the student.

In the spring of 2008, another young woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity says she made a sexual-harassment report to Corbitt. A male student was sending threatening messages, including an e-mail that conveyed that “he wanted to forcibly take my virginity,” she says. When she met with Corbitt to show her the e-mail, the student remembers the dean saying, “The choices you make and the people you choose to associate with, the way you try to portray yourself, will affect how people treat you.” In subsequent meetings, the student says Corbitt told her to think about her clothing and “the kinds of ideas it puts in men’s minds.”

The woman asked Corbitt to alert security and to keep an eye out for the student in question. Corbitt wouldn’t even consider it, the student says. In the end, “nothing came of it. The school consistently prioritizes keeping its spot-free image (necessary to maintain its far-right, hyper evangelical donor base happy), over the well being of its students,” she wrote in an e-mail.

PHC officials said they could not discuss the details of these incidents, but described them as “not accurate.”

Patrick Henry College is not alone in internally adjudicating sexual assault. Every college and university maintains its own shadow legal system—and many secular colleges have a terrible track record of investigating and punishing sexual assault. But Patrick Henry College is one of only four private colleges in the United States that eschews federal funds in order to avoid complying with government regulations. This poses financial hardships for students and their families—PHC students are prohibited from accessing FAFSA loans, Pell Grants, state funds, scholarships, or the G.I. Bill—and it makes the institution particularly dependent on its conservative evangelical donor base. Homeschoolers see this as a worthwhile price to pay for freedom from government intrusion. The financial-aid page on PHC’s website notes, “In order to safeguard our distinctly Christian worldview, we do not accept or participate in government funding.”

This also means PHC isn’t subject to the Clery Act, Title IX, or the more recent Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. The Clery Act requires schools to issue campus crime reports. Title IX says schools must hold an investigation independent of a criminal investigation and ensure that victims can change dorms and class arrangements, get campus restraining orders, and receive help filing a police report if they choose to do so. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act mandates that schools have prompt disciplinary proceedings and inform victims of their rights and options under Title IX. These regulations are no guarantee that sexual-assault accusations will be handled properly, and students at dozens of schools have recently filed Title IX and Clery Act complaints with the Department of Education that document widespread victim-blaming, mishandling of reports, and impunity for perpetrators. Yet, PHC students lack even that legal recourse. (The school says it tries to “generally follow the principles of those laws,” but it is not legally bound to comply with them.)

“As a private campus, it’s outside of federal influence. They can do whatever they want,” says Brett Sokolow, an attorney and president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. “If you’re a female student, and you elect to enroll at a campus that does not provide any of the federal protections that attach to other colleges and universities, you need to know that going in.”

In late November 2006, four years before Claire’s experience, another young woman reported a sexual assault to Sandra Corbitt, who was then the dean of women. Sarah Patten cried as she recounted how, the previous Saturday night, a boy named Ryan (whose name has been changed) had sexually assaulted her.

“I know him,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying. “He’s a nice boy. Are you sure you want to report this?”

Sarah described what she could remember: coming in and out of consciousness, her limbs feeling heavy and paralyzed, Ryan on top of her, his hands groping her all over, waking up disoriented.

Sarah says Corbitt grilled her on certain details: What was she wearing? Had she flirted with him or given him mixed signals? “The entire line of questioning was basically like, ‘Did you make it up? Or did you deserve it in some way? Or was it consensual and now you’re just lying about it to make him look bad?’ ” recalls Rachel Leon, Sarah’s roommate who had accompanied her to Corbitt’s office for support.

Listening to Sarah from across her desk, the dean was as polite as ever. But she didn’t seem to believe Sarah’s story at all. “If you were telling the truth about this,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying, “God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.”

. . .

A few days later, Sarah returned to the dean’s office to write up an official statement. Sarah still believed what her Christian homeschooling upbringing had instilled in her: that you shouldn’t question adults in positions of authority, because they’re looking out for you and probably know best. So when Corbitt strongly encouraged Sarah not to go to the police—to trust Patrick Henry College to handle this situation—she did as she was told.

. . .

Dean Thornhill, the dean of men, had the task of questioning Ryan and taking his statement. Corbitt informed Sarah that she and Thornhill agreed that “Ryan has the right to face his accuser.” (Sokolow, the attorney, said giving the accused this opportunity was “unorthodox and outside the best practices of the field.”) The deans brought Sarah and Ryan into a room together and gave him a copy of her handwritten statement, which included a bulleted list of memories: “Ryan laying on top of me”; “he pushed up my shirt and ran his hands all over my back and stomach”; “him grabbing my butt, not thru my jeans or underwear but actually my butt. I remember pushing his hand away.”

The deans asked Ryan to go through the statement and mark any inaccuracies. He gave it back to them untouched, Sarah says. Ryan told the deans that he “crossed a line” and realized he’d “taken liberties.” According to Sarah, he confirmed everything she said except one key detail: He said he didn’t realize that it wasn’t consensual.

The deans went off to deliberate. Corbitt determined that Sarah had made an “error in judgment” by being alone in a boy’s room in violation of PHC rules. “You are in part responsible for what happened, because you put yourself in a compromising situation,” Corbitt said, according to Sarah. “Actions have consequences.”

Both she and Ryan were to receive “growth contracts,” Sarah says. This meant counseling sessions—Ryan with Dr. Steve Hake, a literature professor, and Sarah with Corbitt. With that, the investigation was over. “Ryan acted as though not being expelled were synonymous with exoneration,” says Sarah’s roommate. “He positively gloated.”

Sarah’s weekly counseling sessions began after winter break. Corbitt opened the first session in January 2007 by saying Sarah would have to bear with her, because she’d never handled anything like this before. For each session, Dean Corbitt had Sarah read a chapter from Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, a popular evangelical self-help book about proper femininity and modesty. . . .  

Sarah, like most any sexual-assault survivor, was struggling not to blame herself. But Corbitt’s focus, she says, was on making her “pure” again. Corbitt set out to teach her about appropriate behavior and the kinds of clothing that are tempting to boys, like short skirts and low-cut shirts. That semester, Sarah began to fail classes. When nightmares woke her up, Sarah would pad downstairs to a friend’s room and curl up in bed with her. Other students weren’t so understanding. Hearing what had happened with Ryan, classmates repeatedly asked, “What were you wearing?” or “Why were you in his room?” or “Were you giving him mixed signals?” In May 2007, at the end of her freshman year, Sarah dropped out.

. . .

Officials from Patrick Henry College declined interview requests. Citing student privacy, the college would not comment on many of the particulars of Sarah Patten’s (who asked to be identified by her maiden name) or Claire Spear’s accounts, or the incidents involving the other students who asked not to be named. “Our policy is to immediately report to law enforcement any potential criminal conduct on our campus of which we have actual knowledge, and to encourage any apparent victim to file a complaint with law enforcement,” PHC wrote in a statement. “Our investigation of these incidents did not reveal information that gave PHC reason to believe that a criminal offense had occurred.”

Read the whole thing here.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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