WHITEWATER (AP) — Raechel Liska wants to see changes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
She wants better systems at universities to help students who have been sexually assaulted.
She wants sexual assault victims believed rather than accused of provoking assaults.
She wants victims to know they are not alone and to know things get better with time.
Liska, 22, said she was in a dark place for a long time after being sexually assaulted at a UW-Whitewater off-campus fraternity house in October 2014.
She tried to move past being assaulted by someone she trusted, but she saw the person almost daily, she said.
It took her months to digest what had happened and to realize life improves.
Now, about 16 months after the assault, the New Berlin native said she is taking things day-by-day while speaking up about her experience in hopes that it helps other victims move forward.
“We need to make sure that we as a culture and as a society allow those women who unfortunately do become victims to feel safe coming forward so that they know that they’re going to be believed, that they’re going to be listened to, that they’re going to be helped, that they’re going to have somebody stand up for them because right now I don’t feel that’s the case,” Liska told The Gazette.
Liska graduated from UW-Whitewater in spring 2015 with a degree in sociology. She has since landed a job as an on-call sexual assault advocate for the nonprofit People Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse in Jefferson.
She responds to sexual assault nurse exams at Fort Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson and serves as a resource for victims.
She arrived at UW-Whitewater in 2010 after landing a full-ride, Army ROTC scholarship to attend any university in the country as long as she was a part of an ROTC program, she said.
She turned down the U.S. Military Academy at West Point because UW-Whitewater was closer to family but also because UW-Whitewater felt like home.
Liska was a busy student with a full course load on top of ROTC commitments and being a volunteer EMT for the city of Whitewater.
She loved the university and its community until her senior year, when she told university officials she had been assaulted by an ROTC classmate. She felt the university violated her trust and turned its back on her, she said.
Liska and her attorney, Myka Held, claim the university conducted an inadequate investigation into the assault. The mistakes in the investigation, Liska said, prompted her to file a Title IX complaint against the university with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Held is an attorney with SurvJustice, a national nonprofit focused on providing legal assistance to victims of sexual violence. She and Liska allege Liska was discriminated against based on gender during the university investigation.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination by gender in federally funded education programs. The law was created in 1972.
Under Title IX, a school and its Title IX coordinator are required to “respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence against students” and “take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred” while helping the complainant feel safe, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
UW-Whitewater is one of dozens of campuses being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of reported sexual assaults.
UW-Whitewater issued this statement Friday through Sara Kuhl, director of university marketing and public relations:
“Due to the nature of the current investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, legal counsel has advised that UW-Whitewater is not in a position to discuss matters related to the investigation.”
“... UW-Whitewater has been and remains committed to raising awareness about the existence and impact of sexual violence and taking active steps toward preventing the occurrence of sexual violence on campus. UW-Whitewater takes all complaints very seriously, and every complaint is handled with care and compassion for all parties involved.”
Kuhl said UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper “believes that providing a safe environment for students, faculty and staff is her first priority.”
The assault took place on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, when Liska and two of her EMT friends went out for drinks in downtown Whitewater. Liska had arranged to meet a fellow ROTC member downtown before returning to her apartment, where she lived with her boyfriend, she said.
Between the night of Oct. 3 and early morning of Oct. 4, Liska had between five and six drinks, an amount that wouldn’t make her forget things, according to Whitewater Police Department reports.
But Liska’s memory of that night is fuzzy.
Whitewater police believe someone slipped drugs into drinks consumed by Liska and at least two other women that evening, Held said.
Liska’s two friends left the bar because one woman, who might have been drugged, wasn’t feeling well, according to police reports and Liska.
Liska then met her ROTC friend at a bar before the two went to the off-campus fraternity, where the ROTC classmate lived.
She doesn’t remember clearly what happened inside the man’s bedroom, but she remembers putting all her focus into walking up the house steps because she had a hard time controlling her body, she said. Liska also remembers telling her classmate she wanted to go home.
The man dropped off Liska at her apartment at 4:30 a.m. About four hours later, Liska woke up in pain, worried she had been assaulted, according to police reports.
The man Liska accuses of assaulting her told police their sexual encounter was consensual and that Liska didn’t appear drunk, according to police reports.
Over time, some details have come back to Liska, she said, and she’s pieced some things together. Liska said she never consented and had no expectations of being physical with the man.
“The man who did this to Raechel may not have been the one to drug her, but he certainly knew she was incapacitated and couldn’t consent,” Held said.
Liska reported the assault to Whitewater police at the end of October 2014. Police investigated her claim and referred a charge of rape by force to the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office, according to police documents.
The case was not prosecuted because prosecutors didn’t believe they could prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, according to a Jan. 19, 2015, non-prosecution letter from district attorney’s office.
UW-Whitewater officially became aware of the sexual assault Oct. 15, 2014, after Liska told one of her UW-Whitewater ROTC commanders, Liska said.
By law, the colonel had to report the assault to Mary Beth Mackin, the former dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator. Mackin oversaw investigations into sexual assaults.
Mackin died of natural causes in November 2015 at age 57.
Liska met Mackin on Oct. 17, 2014, to discuss her options, she said.
At the time, Liska was unsure how she wanted to continue with the university complaint and waited until February to file an official complaint with the university after the police investigation was done, she said.
Between October 2014 and March 2015, communication between Mackin and Liska was “sporadic” and often initiated by Liska, she said.
When Liska met with Mackin, Liska said she felt “prosecuted” because the questions focused on her sexual history, how much alcohol she had consumed and her intentions that night.
Liska repeatedly requested her assailant be removed from her classes and a no-contact order be issued. Her requests were ignored until Liska reached out to the Army, who had the student removed Jan. 28, 2015, she said.
On March 6, 2015, Mackin told Liska the accused was not going to be held responsible because there “wasn’t a preponderance of evidence a sexual assault occurred,” and that it wasn’t “reasonable for him to be able to tell I was incapacitated. She was very vague,” Liska said.
Liska was frustrated and began researching how other campuses handled sexual assaults, she said.
During her research, Liska came across media reports of a UW-Whitewater student who had filed a Title IX complaint in 2014 after experiencing similar issues. She didn’t feel alone and was motivated to take action, she said.
Among the allegations filed in Liska’s Title IX complaint are:
• Mackin failed to interview two witnesses from that night.
• Mackin did not accept police reports or medical records following the incident.
• Mackin did not issue a no-contact order against the alleged attacker and did not remove the accused from Liska’s classes. Liska said the student would drive by her home and text her.
• Mackin did not inform Liska of her Title IX rights.
Because Liska’s federal complaint filed in July 2015 has allegations similar to those in a complaint filed by another woman in 2014, Liska’s was attached to the prior complaint, and they are being jointly investigated, Held said.
The investigation into how UW-Whitewater handles reported assaults has finished and the Department of Education and UW-Whitewater are working on a resolution of how the school can improve and what the two former students can receive, Held said.
Held did not know when the resolution would be finalized.
Resolutions at other universities have included changes to policies and procedures, new or improved programs, additional staff and more employee training on Title IX.
Resolutions also can address complainant specific requests, Held said.
Liska has requested:
• A new university investigation into her reported sexual assault.
• Closer connection between the university and advocacy groups.
• Better communication between investigating officers and complainants about the status of investigations and Title IX rights.
• A UW System policy change that allows complainants to appeal university decisions. Under current policy, the accused can appeal the university’s decision, but a complainant can’t. The state policy conflicts with federal rights and the Board of Regents is working on a change, Held said.
Held and Liska are not privy to the negotiations, Held said.
The Army found a “preponderance of evidence” that Liska was sexually assaulted, Liska said. She did not know what the outcome of the investigation could be.
Liska’s experience has empowered her to speak up about sexual assaults and advocate for more awareness.
Her message has been met with acceptance, she said.
Sexual assault victims from UW-Whitewater and elsewhere have contacted Liska since she filed her complaint and has done media interviews. She has met with some in person.
Messages have included praise, comments about similar experiences with university administrations and words of thanks for not being afraid, she said.
Liska has encouraged at least one other student to come forward and submit supplemental testimony to be attached to Liska’s Title IX claim.
Sarah, a senior at UW-Whitewater who agreed to let The Janesville Gazette use her first name, learned about Liska through the media. In her testimony, Sarah wrote she experienced a similar response as Liska from UW-Whitewater after reporting she was sexually assaulted by another student.
Sarah claims Mackin did not inform her of her Title IX rights and felt as if Mackin “talked down” to her and “never addressed the actual problem that I was having: I was abused by another UW-Whitewater student and I was terrified,” according to the testimony.
UW-Whitewater police talked to the accused, but Sarah still felt the university was minimizing her fears of retaliation from the man, Sarah wrote.
Sarah could not file her own Title IX complaint because the deadline had passed, Held said. Sarah was given the option to add testimony to Liska’s claim and did so to help push for improvement in UW-W’s response to sexual assault victims.
It was “distressing to realize that, after talking to Raechel about her interactions with the school, I wasn’t alone in this treatment. It made me want to change the way the University deals with cases like mine and Raechel’s,” Sarah said in her testimony.
When Sarah reached out, Liska said, she felt she had done the right thing by coming forward and sharing her story.
“That was kind of the first point through all of this where I actually felt proud of myself because I knew, at that point for certain, that I had inspired other women,” Liska.
“It wasn’t just about them coming forward, it was about them feeling empowered again and about them getting control back in their lives again.”