On the night she says she was raped, Synclaire Butler remembers wearing a new white dress with an old denim jacket from high school.
“It was chilly, but not unbearable,” she told me about the evening of March 17, 2014.
Synclaire said she walked through the front gates of Spelman College and crossed over to the campus of Morehouse, where her boyfriend lived in a dorm, around 6 p.m.
“Everything felt normal. I had gotten very used to walking between campuses,” she said. “It was a familiar walk.”
Spring break had just ended and it had been a week since Synclaire had seen her boyfriend. “I was excited,” she told me.
That walk to the dorm room is the last happy memory Synclaire has of her freshman year. Later that night, she filed a sexual assault claim at Spelman. Since then, Synclaire says, she's been met with a stunning display of intransigence, victim-blaming, and hostility from authorities at both colleges.
Synclaire’s story offers insight into the epidemic of sexual assault on campus, and how ill-prepared many colleges and universities are to deal with it. It's a problem that becomes exacerbated on the campuses of historically black schools like Spelman and Morehouse, where the South’s history of racist accusations of rape against black men complicates the path to justice.
“It felt like the administration didn’t care about me,” Synclaire said, “and that was really hurtful because it’s like, that’s your job to care.”
Both Synclaire and the man she says raped her, who was also interviewed for this article, say they felt failed by their colleges after the alleged assault. He maintains it was consensual.
Colleges across the country are facing a crisis of sexual assaults—reports show that 1 in 5 women will likely be assaulted during their college career; 185 institutions are currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are no different, and in fact they face unique challenges in confronting the issue.
Morehouse and Spelman are two institutions erected in America’s Deep South, a region where the legacy of slavery is ever present. The “black brute” stereotype was drummed up in the post-Civil War South to justify the unfair criminalization of black men—it was extremely common for black men to be lynched for raping white women without due process, though those allegations were often unfounded. The legacy of that trauma is very much intact for black men.
In order to maintain power in the South, whites also created rhetoric to preserve white womanhood. Black women were characterized in opposition to white women as loose and overly-sexualized jezebels, innately lacking in morality. The legacy of that trauma is very much intact for black women.
Jelani Cobb, a contributing writer at the New Yorker and a former professor at Spelman, told me about numerous conversations he had with students about sexual assault on campus. “I taught there for 11 years, and in my time there, a very disturbing number of women reported to me both incidents of domestic violence and of sexual assault,” he said. The women were reluctant to report their assaults for all the reasons women are, he said, but there was an added complexity to reporting sexual assault at an HBCU. Fears of “tearing down another young black man” were rampant, Cobb said.
These stories, and more, suggest a pattern of the colleges brushing sexual assault under the rug.
In January, Buzzfeed published the story of Melanie, another Spelman undergraduate and a friend of Synclaire’s, who says she was sexually assaulted by a different Morehouse student. Her story and Synclaire’s are hauntingly similar.
And in May, someone operating anonymously under the Twitter handle @RapedAtSpelman said she was assaulted by four Morehouse students who “took turns” and claimed the college took a month to respond to her case. Spelman’s president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, responded to the tweets earlier this month, inviting @RapedAtSpelman to reach out to her personally. “Please know that we are working together to foster a culture and climate that assure fair, swift and consistent adjudication of reported cases of sexual violence,” she wrote.
A 2010 National Institute of Justice study on sexual assaults at HBCUs found that 14.2% of women said they experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault at their schools, compared to 12.6% of college women as a whole. The study found that 7% women on HBCU campuses reported their allegations to police, compared with 20% of women at colleges in general. Overall, there isn’t a significant difference in reporting rates between black and white women, according to data from Department of Justice.
Synclaire grew up in Alaska, where the black population is just 3.9%. But growing up there wasn’t too challenging, she told me. Her family went to a black church. Her father, who had been in a black fraternity, was often visited by old friends, and her two sisters attended HBCUs.
“I’ve always had a closeness to my blackness,” Synclaire said.
At the beginning of her freshman year of high school in Anchorage, she was tasked with writing a list of her dreams and wishes—the stuff she hoped to accomplish in life. The list was a sort of time capsule, a piece of herself at 14 that she wouldn’t see again until right before she graduated and moved out into the world.
First on Synclaire’s list was to fall in love. Second was to enroll at Spelman College, a prestigious all-women’s HBCU in Atlanta. “By the time we got our time capsules back, I’d been accepted and everything,” Synclaire told me over the phone last December.
Going to Spelman was an obvious choice, a rite of passage. She was on the freshman Spelman stroll team, a dance tradition popular in black Greek life, and Sisters Keeping It Real Through Service (SKIRTS), a community service organization on campus. She made friends with her Spelman “sisters” easily and enjoyed the community and camaraderie of being at an all-women’s institution.
“It was the perfect school,” she remembered. “But then I became bitter after it happened,” she said, her voice breaking. “I saw a side of the school that they don’t talk about, that they don’t promote.”
Before the night of March 17, 2014, over text and by phone, Synclaire and her boyfriend had discussed having anal sex. Synclaire said she had agreed to try it, only if they used lubricant. But on that night, she said, it all went wrong. She says he didn't use the lubricant, and when she protested he pressed her down and anally raped her.
After Synclaire says she was assaulted, she remembers calling Jayson Overby, her Morehouse “brother,” a friend she’d been set up with through a Spelman-Morehouse sponsored program. “Vividly, I remember her calling me,” Jayson told me by phone in February. “And coming to my residence hall and crying to me and telling me about how the assault went down.”
What happened after Synclaire left Morehouse’s campus that night—described to me by Synclaire on a number of occasions in person, on the phone, and by email—made Synclaire feel like both Morehouse and Spelman did not take her claim of sexual assault seriously. These recollections were corroborated by several other sources who were with her that night and soon after. Fusion called and emailed Morehouse with several specific questions about Synclaire’s case and how they handle sexual assault in general. The school declined to comment on this specific case and didn’t respond to questions about its sexual assault policies in general. Fusion also reached out to Spelman repeatedly and received no response.
“I wanted to be back on Spelman’s campus and off of Morehouse’s campus,” Synclaire told me about how she felt after the alleged assault. She didn’t want to walk all the way back to her room, she said, so her friend Jayson walked with her from Morehouse to the room of her friend Lora, who lived closer to Spelman’s front entrance. “I think I was just in shock honestly,” Synclaire told me of that walk back to Spelman.
“She was crying,” Lora told me over the phone. “And I’m trying to console her.” Two other Spelman sisters—Melanie, who was portrayed in the Buzzfeed story and didn’t want her last name used and Synclaire's cousin—also came to Lora’s room. “I remember getting to Lora’s room and telling her what happened and calling my dad right away,” Synclaire said.
Melanie and Lora escorted Synclaire to Spelman campus public safety, where she filed a sexual assault claim. Synclaire and Melanie remember the public safety officer telling them that Synclaire’s options were to either get in an ambulance with the on-duty resident advisor at Spelman or to go to the hospital on her own. “It was too much for me. I didn’t want that,” Synclaire said about her emotional state at the time. She decided to go to the hospital with her friends, where she underwent a forensic exam known as a rape kit. Synclaire says since she never pressed charges with the police, the rape kit was not included in her investigation.
“I was at the hospital for eight hours, and by the time it was all done I was really tired and just wanted to go back to my room,” she told me of the hours after she says she was raped. “I had already gotten to the point of feeling really confused and unsure of what happened,” she remembers, a common feeling among rape survivors, according to Colby Bruno a senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Legal Center, an organization that represents sexual assault victims. Exhaustion and confusion, Synclaire told me, were the overriding feelings she had the morning after.
The day after the incident, Synclaire says her older sister, Vikteria, who lived in Florida at the time, drove to Atlanta to visit with Synclaire at Spelman. That day, Synclaire told me, the sisters met Synclaire’s boyfriend at an area on Spelman’s campus popular for socializing called Lower Manely. “When I went to meet up with him. I wanted answers,” she told me. She wanted to know what happened. According to Synclaire, her alleged assaulter told her he had lawyers who advised him not to speak with her.
When Fusion contacted Synclaire’s alleged assaulter, he agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. He told me that the two were in touch the next day and throughout the investigation process. He told me Synclaire initially told him that she was just triggered by a previous sexual assault.
A fourth of sexual assaults occur between couples, according to RAINN. Rape has about a 2% conviction rate, which is very low to begin with. Intimate partner rape cases, or assaults that occur between two people who have been previously intimate, are cases “prosecutors don’t like,” Bruno said. Bruno said it’s not uncommon for intimate partner victims to continue to have contact with their alleged abusers.
She says in the week after her assault Spelman officials told her she had only two options: to file a complaint with Morehouse or go to the local police. Additionally, Synclaire told me Spelman misplaced her original police report and that she had to retell her story to the campus police in the weeks after her assault.
Also in the week after she says she was assaulted, according to Synclaire, she met with Morehouse Campus Safety Officer Twyla Locklear who requested a meeting in her office. Locklear also told Synclaire she had two options: to pursue disciplinary action through Morehouse or press charges with the Atlanta police." Synclaire chose the former. “It would have been in the headlines,” she told Fusion. “I didn’t want all the attention.” Fusion reached out to the Morehouse Police Department and was informed that Locklear no longer worked as an officer at the school. Additionally, Fusion attempted to reach out to her, but all numbers for Locklear were disconnected.
That week, Synclaire says she was alone with Morehouse campus security officer Locklear when she asked Synclaire to sign a document that stated she was not going to press criminal charges with the Atlanta Police Department against her alleged assailant. This meant that the investigation and adjudication process would go through Morehouse. Even though she had a bad feeling about it, Synclaire signed the document. Melanie, Synclaire’s friend from Spelman, said she was asked to sign a similar document in her case around the same time.
Once she agreed to have Morehouse adjudicate her case, Synclaire said she was told by Officer Locklear at a separate meeting that her alleged assailant “was a really good kid” and “felt bad about what he did.”
Synclaire says she was also asked to sign a criminal trespass warning order as well as a no-contact order that barred her from entering Morehouse’s campus for the remainder of her time at Spelman and from contacting her alleged rapist. When asked whether it was common for alleged victims to be asked to sign such documents, Bruno said she’d never heard of “anything like this before.” Synclaire signed the documents but says when she requested copies from Morehouse at the time, she didn’t receive a response.
In the week after the alleged assault, she also met with Morehouse’s Title IX coordinator, Doris Coleman, as part of Morehouse’s adjudication process. Both Synclaire and Lora, who accompanied Synclaire to the meeting, separately told me Coleman said that young men at their age are at the “peak of their testosterone.” Fusion reached out to Coleman but she declined to comment.
Melanie says she also met a skeptical Coleman as part of her case. “The first question she asked me is, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’” Melanie recalled.
Following Synclaire’s meeting with Coleman, she was directed to Lance Houston, a Title IX investigator who was hired by Morehouse as a consultant. He was also the Title IX investigator hired in Melanie’s case. Fusion reached out to Houston and he declined to comment on the investigation citing confidentiality but he did say that all the cases he worked on at Morehouse College “were done in a very thoughtful, methodical, and legally compliant manner.”
Morehouse concluded its investigation on May 5, 2014. According to the report, obtained by Fusion, Houston concluded that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate “by a preponderance” that Synclaire was sexually assaulted. “Morehouse College Office of Student Conduct should delay any disciplinary action against [the accused] pending additional evidence coming to light or due to a successful appeal of this investigative conclusion,” he wrote.
The Title IX report (which absolved the Morehouse student of wrongdoing) says that he told the investigator, hired by Morehouse, that he was regretful. “You are right,” he acknowledged having told Synclaire in a conversation after the incident. “I should have stopped.” The report also states that he admitted saying, “Damn baby, I am sorry." But he also insists he didn’t rape Synclaire, who he says “knew he did not mean anything and that she was not upset.” The report heavily reflects and takes into account the account given by the student who Synclaire says assaulted her, and does not include Synclaire’s story as much.
Synclaire says she often felt alone during the investigation and adjudication process. “I would have expected more support,” Synclaire told me. After hours of organizing and filling in paperwork, meetings with administrators, and trying to figure out how to navigate the process, she felt betrayed by the system. After Synclaire told Spelman’s dean of students, Kimberly Ferguson, about her experience, a new program was established by the school to raise awareness about sexual assault. Synclaire was awarded the program’s first internship.
But another event nearly a year later compounded her pain. Synclaire had planned a teach-in on sexual assault with her then-boyfriend, a resident advisor at Morehouse named Raheem Jessop. The event was to take place on Morehouse’s campus, a place Synclaire was not technically allowed to enter since she signed the no-contact order. “I thought it was okay [to be on campus],” Synclaire wrote to me in a text message, “I thought everything was closed,” she said. When Synclaire showed up to the seminar room before her talk, she was met by campus security officers who said that if she didn’t leave campus, they would call the police. “I was literally like, you don’t understand how fucked up you all really are,” Synclaire told me.
“She came back in the room crying,” recalled Raheem, who had to lead the conversation in Synclaire’s stead. He said he felt like the school was trying to hinder his ability to educate his students about sexual assault.
In March 2015, according to a letter Morehouse sent Synclaire, which was reviewed by Fusion, the school rescinded the criminal trespass warning at Synclaire’s request, but a strict no-contact order was maintained. “Unfortunately the behaviors you engaged in on March 18, 2014, are not tolerated on our campus,” the letter said, an apparent reference to her accusation of sexual assault. “This action is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of members of the Morehouse College community.”
The letter made Synclaire “feel criminalized, devastated, frustrated and angry,” she said. In mid-May, Fusion contacted Morehouse to ask about the letter, and the school declined to comment. “It’s commencement weekend,” said Add Seymour, public relations officer at Morehouse. “We’re concentrated on getting our young men graduated.”
After getting kicked off Morehouse’s campus in March 2015, Synclaire decided that she needed to get away. The following semester she studied abroad in the Netherlands. This semester she is studying across the country at Berkeley, and is slated to graduate from Spelman in spring of 2017.
Last September, Synclaire filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under Title IX—a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding—alleging that she was not afforded a “fair and equitable” adjudication process by Morehouse and Spelman College administrators. In response, OCR announced it would be opening an investigation into the two colleges in November. “Because OCR has determined that it has jurisdiction and that the complaint was filed timely, it is opening these allegations for investigation,” wrote the Department of Education to Synclaire. “I just really wanted the schools to look at themselves,” she told Fusion. “And I know the change won’t happen until the student body creates a solidarity.” The Title IX investigation, according to the Department of Education, is ongoing.
At Morehouse, students and faculty received an email in March announcing that the school’s sexual assault program would be overhauled. The email said that Coleman, the Title IX Coordinator, was replaced, but that the replacement was temporary and would not be conducting “any Title IX investigations on behalf of the college.” The school would also be hiring “outside, local counsel” to help with sexual assault investigations. Fusion reached out to Morehouse and asked about the overhaul of its Title IX program but did not hear back by time of publication.
Morehouse and Spelman, from what Synclaire says, let her down. And she isn’t the only one who sees it that way.
“I was getting treated like dirt by my school,” her ex-boyfriend said about Morehouse during the adjudication process. The student, whom Fusion has decided not to identify because he hasn’t been charged with a crime, told me that the stress from the process caused his grades to drop and he lost his academic scholarship. The school then asked him to leave for a semester. Since his return to Morehouse, he says his grades have improved dramatically and that he’s made the dean’s list every semester.
But even though he was cleared of wrongdoing by the school, the student says he is still treated unfairly by students and faculty who found out about the situation by word of mouth. “The whole college experience has changed for me,” he said. “When I walk into an office to do a program, like mentoring, there’s a stigma associated with me.”
The Morehouse student maintains he didn’t rape Synclaire and says she “never said no” and “never said stop.” He told me: “The whole thing is unjust. You’re guilty even when you’re innocent.’
I met with Synclaire while she was studying at Berkeley for the semester in early May. She’d shaved her head since the last time I saw her in December. She wore a long chain with a tiny Buddha charm and striking, big mismatched earrings. She showed me her diamond ring—she recently got engaged to Raheem, her boyfriend from Morehouse.
“At this point in my life I’ve taken a year away from Spelman and out of the spotlight as a sexual assault activist,” she told me at a coffee shop on campus. She’s visited Spelman twice in the last year, and her sisters keep asking when she’ll return. “How can I reconcile the Synclaire who has gone through this spiritual trip? And who am I in relation to this at Spelman?”
But the truth is, she feels stronger than ever. “I had become my story on campus,” she told me. Synclaire says she doesn’t have anxiety about returning for her final year at Spelman. “I lost a big sense of who I was,” she told me. “A big piece of you is taken in sexual assault and you’ll never get it back, but what you decide to create where this piece is missing, is so important can really determine how you heal from it.”
As the recipient of a Dalai Lama fellowship, a grant for socially-conscious minded college students, Synclaire will create a program for high school youth in the community surrounding Spelman and Morehouse colleges, something she has wanted to do since her freshman year. She called doing this fellowship and returning to Spelman “a reclamation.”
“I’m not giving up on myself,” she said. “I’m able to say I love Spelman still. It’s what made me who I am.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.