After Winthrop allegedly mishandled her sexual assault claim, one woman fought for justice

·18 min read

'No Means No'

Rhianna Rausch asked Winthrop officials in 2020 to open a Title IX investigation into her alleged sexual assault. Three years later, her ordeal remains unresolved. But she found out she’s not alone. This is The Herald’s special investigation “No Means No.”

Rhianna Rausch felt her phone vibrate. She glanced at the screen. Her heart raced.

She had waited months for the email finally in her hands that afternoon in 2020. She believed she would know the outcome of an investigation by Winthrop University officials into the night in 2019 when she said she was sexually assaulted — an ordeal that even three years later is unresolved.

She hoped the email would give her closure.

Rausch took a deep breath and scrolled. She read without blinking.

Her heart sank.

The investigation said nothing about a sexual assault.

She put the phone down and cried.

Rausch had spent months telling university officials, in agonizing detail, about her alleged assault and the ordeal that followed.

But according to documents Rausch received from the university, the investigation — completed by Anthony Davis, Winthrop’s Interim Dean of Students — focused on a fraternity house party Rausch attended. Davis evaluated whether the fraternity, which her alleged assailant was a part of, had violated the university’s “social event guidelines,” and its alcohol and drugs policies.

Davis determined the fraternity, which had recently been restored from university-imposed probation, would not be punished.

“To see the person who had the power to help me, simply erase it completely was just too much,” Rausch told The Herald. “Reading his summary was almost like reading about a completely different event. I didn’t understand how this could happen.”

Sexual violence on college campuses isn’t new. Out of the nearly 182,000 undergraduate and graduate students who responded to a 2019 Association of American Universities survey, 13% said they’d been sexually assaulted through physical force, violence or incapacitation.

College officials nationwide have commissioned independent studies on the issue — including Winthrop, which administered in 2017 a “campus climate study” of its own to measure safety, with an explicit focus on sexual assault.

And yet, when Rausch received the email, questions arose about the university’s trustworthiness and transparency handling cases of sexual violence.

“It just didn’t make sense to me because the entire reason I started this investigation was because of the assault, and I felt like he just ignored it completely,” Rausch said. “That email crushed any hope left that I had.”

But a lot has happened since then. For one: Rausch learned she wasn’t alone.

Other students fault Winthrop

In a March 2021 article published by Winthrop’s student newspaper, The Johnsonian, two former students — Summer Phillips and Ellie Marindin — said they’d been sexually assaulted and harassed, and they felt the Rock Hill, South Carolina, university mishandled their claims.

The Johnsonian’s article sparked student-led protests, citing systemic flaws in how Winthrop responded to reports of sexual misconduct. Federal Title IX law requires campuses to take immediate action to eliminate sexual violence and harassment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.

The article also led to the creation of a student group called Winthrop University Students For Change, which Rausch helped start.

Interim President George Hynd responded and promised Winthrop would further study the problem. Hynd also assured the university would create a new position solely dedicated to Title IX, update its sexual misconduct policy and hire an external consultant to evaluate the school’s Office of Victim’s Assistance.

“I had no desire to do any of this until I saw Summer and Ellie come forward,” Rausch said. “If they have the courage to do that and people are listening to them, then I need to amplify their voices with what’s happened to me.”

Rausch is one of four former students The Herald has interviewed. The Herald typically does not identify victims of alleged sex crimes. However, the students have granted The Herald permission to do so. The Herald has not named the assailant in Rausch’s case, or any others, because no one has been convicted of a crime.

Federal law and school policy prohibit Winthrop officials from discussing individual sexual misconduct cases. But the four students provided The Herald with emails, documents and audio recordings from university officials that support the students’ allegations.

The Herald has requested on four occasions to meet with Winthrop officials and has so far been denied.

“We are unable to share specific information regarding cases, past or present,” Hynd said in a statement to The Herald. “However, as an institution, we take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, and we thoroughly investigate any allegation of misconduct or assault. Sometimes the facts of a case do not lead to criminal or judicial charges being filed, and that can be upsetting to those bringing charges. Nonetheless, we care deeply about our students and seek to support them.”

The night of the party

Rausch said she was a sophomore when she was assaulted.

On Feb. 8, 2019, Rausch went to a party at the Pi Kappa Alpha (also known as PIKE) fraternity house near Winthrop’s campus. The person she would later identify as her assailant invited her. She met him the previous semester at a tailgate event. One of her friends, who was dating a member of PIKE, introduced them.

After they’d met, Rausch’s assailant occasionally messaged her on Snapchat, but she didn’t know him well. Her friend, who was dating a member of PIKE, wanted to go to the party. Rausch said she was hesitant because she didn’t know many people going, but she joined.

As she walked with her friend and a few others to the fraternity house that night, Rausch said she drank a shot of Vodka mixed in a bottle of Gatorade. And at the party, she had two beers. She said she did not drink enough to lose her memory, but after a certain point, she can’t remember all that happened.

She said she suspects at some point she was drugged.

She said later in the evening, her alleged assailant forced her to drink from a bottle of whiskey. Then, she remembered she was in a car with him.

“I don’t remember saying anything or even moving,” Rausch said. “I don’t even remember thinking anything except for the concern about drunk driving ... I felt really weird, like I wasn’t fully in my body or something.”

She doesn’t remember getting out of the car or going into an apartment. When she came to, Rausch was lying on a mattress in what she believes was her assailant’s off-campus apartment. Rausch said she fell asleep as he started to kiss her. She woke up moments later and he was removing her pants.

She could not move or fight. She knew she would not be able to stop it, so she quickly uttered: “Do you have a condom?” It was the only way she could think to protect herself, she said.

Over the next couple of hours, Rausch said she woke up in searing pain, saw her assailant was having sex with her, asked him to stop, mustered up enough energy to put her underwear back on and fell back asleep. She woke up intermittently and went through the same ordeal.

At one point, she noticed he wasn’t wearing a condom.

“I remember feeling panicked,” she said.

Rausch would later provide these details to police in a sexual assault complaint.

Fleeing in the morning

When Rausch woke the next morning, she was naked. She got up, chugged a bottle of water and frantically looked for her clothes. Her assailant was asleep and lying on them. She snatched her clothes, got dressed and ran out of the apartment.

“I was in pain and I felt really weird and gross, so I wanted to leave,” she said.

She didn’t know where she was or how to get back to campus, so she started walking. She ended up on Celanese Road and texted her friends to see if anyone could pick her up. No one could, so she called an Uber.

She darted into her dorm, changed clothes, walked her dog, then showered.

“I know now that I shouldn’t have showered, but at the time, I didn’t fully comprehend what happened to me,” she said. “I just knew that something was wrong. I felt really disgusting and I just wanted to try to get rid of that feeling.”

She did not feel comfortable at Winthrop, so later that day, she went home to her parents, about an hour away in Kershaw County.

“I didn’t tell my family what happened,” Rausch said. “I didn’t really want to go through it at that time.”

That night, while Rausch was at her family’s home, she got an alert on her phone. It was her alleged assailant.

“Last night was a great start, but it’s not the best example of a good time I could show you,” he wrote in a Snapchat message, which Rausch provided to The Herald.

She felt sick.

Out of discomfort, she responded.

“I just played it off, like nothing was wrong,” Rausch said.

Over the next few days, Rausch struggled to be on campus without thinking about the assault. So, five days after the party, she went with a close friend to the university’s Office of Victims Assistance and filed an anonymous sexual misconduct report. She also scheduled an appointment with a counselor.

“I wasn’t really even thinking to do something in terms of disciplinary action for him,” she said. “I was thinking more like, ‘I need to do something for myself.’”

Rausch did not open a Title IX investigation at that point. While she was there, she signed a form, which Rausch provided to The Herald, that told her she had rights protected by Title IX. However, she said, at the time, she didn’t know what those rights were.

Rausch wanted more information on her options, and the sexual misconduct report gave her a way to notify university officials if she decided to go forward with a Title IX investigation.

Title IX is a federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex. Discrimination under Title IX can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual coercion.

‘Get something done’

Three days after she filed the sexual misconduct report, Rausch returned to the fraternity house for another party.

“For quite a few months, I was still processing things,” she said. “I knew what happened ... but I didn’t stop going to PIKE parties or stop hanging out with those people. ... At the time, I was not ready to cut off my entire friend group.”

Before the party, Rausch told her friend what had happened. It was the same friend who introduced Rausch to her alleged assailant. Rausch’s friend suggested she tell a fraternity member.

Rausch, with her friend, met with two fraternity members in a car outside the house. She told them what happened, and she asked if they could remove her alleged assailant from the fraternity, and ensure he wouldn’t be at any more parties.

The two members told her the fraternity could not kick him out because he wasn’t a “full member,” but they said he would be banned from parties.

“I thought that meant that they were going to actually ban him and go through the fraternity board,” Rausch said. “I specifically told them, ‘You can tell whoever you need to tell to get him out of here and to get him disciplinary action. Just don’t tell every single person in PIKE and don’t broadcast it.’ But get something done.”

In April 2019, the fraternity member, who was dating Rausch’s friend, notified the fraternity’s executive board, according to text messages Rausch provided to The Herald. As a result, he asked Rausch to come by the house at night to tell the fraternity’s executive board, which included at least nine members, what happened.

While there, Rausch learned the two fraternity members never told chapter leaders.

The fraternity’s board then asked Rausch to come back the next night. She explained everything — again.

Before she went to the house, she confronted one of the members who had promised to help her.

“I thought I could trust you and thought you guys were helping me,” she wrote in a Snapchat message.

That member told Rausch her alleged assailant was no longer a Winthrop student. He tried to dissuade her from notifying university officials about the assault because he worried the chapter could get in trouble, according to messages Rausch provided to The Herald.

Rausch had been unsure if she wanted to pursue a Title IX investigation or contact police.

During the two meetings, fraternity members told Rausch that Winthrop couldn’t help because her assailant was apparently no longer enrolled at the school.

As a result, Rausch thought she would have better success with a police investigation.

Around the same time, Rausch had met with Winthrop’s Victim Coordinator Itali Jackson to ask about Title IX. Jackson offered to set up a time for Rausch to meet with the university’s Title IX coordinator. But before Rausch could, Jackson pushed her further toward a police investigation, according to text messages Rausch provided to The Herald.

“I found out yesterday that the rapist isn’t a student at Winthrop anymore, so although I don’t know much about Title (IX), I feel like they wouldn’t be able to do much since he no longer attends Winthrop?” Rausch said in a text message to Jackson.

Jackson confirmed Rausch’s suspicion.

“Unfortunately, they will not be able to do anything if they are not a student anymore,” Jackson replied via text.

Opening an investigation

Rausch immediately started gathering evidence to take to the Rock Hill Police Department.

She remembered during her two meetings with the fraternity that a member was taking notes on a computer. Rausch asked for, and got, a copy of the notes.

“I couldn’t get a rape kit done,” she said. “I washed all my clothes except for my underwear and socks, so I didn’t have a lot. I was like, ‘I need to have every document that I can possibly have.’”

The notes, titled “Timeline,” detailed the fraternity’s actions after learning of Rausch’s alleged assault.

The notes revealed that the party Rausch attended was an unregistered event.

Winthrop fraternities and sororities that host a social event with alcohol on or off campus must register the event with the university at least seven days ahead of time, according to the university’s social event guidelines.

Davis, in the investigation summary, confirmed that the party was an unregistered event.

The notes also disclosed what took place during Rausch’s two meetings with the fraternity’s executive board.

After Rausch’s first meeting, the notes state the fraternity’s president notified the chapter adviser “of the alleged incident and (asked) for immediate advice.” The notes referred to Rausch’s alleged assailant as an “alumni brother.” The notes also clarified that the two members’ claim that the fraternity could not terminate the assailant from the chapter was not true.

The fraternity voted to remove the alleged assailant and one of the two members Rausch had confided in, according to the notes. The fraternity placed “sanctions” on the other member, requiring him to attend a sexual assault cultural event and present information on sexual assault awareness to the chapter.

It’s unclear why just one of the two members was removed from the fraternity.

In late April, Rausch reported the alleged assault to police. She said she provided police with dozens of screenshots, statements and documents. She gave police a copy of the fraternity’s timeline. She also gave them the underwear and sock she wore the night of her assault, which she had kept in a Tupperware container.

In June, she got a tattoo on her right arm that says “No Means No.” She got it during the nonprofit Still Not Asking For It’s annual tattoo fundraising event in Charlotte to raise money for local groups against sexual violence.

“That was a good experience for me,” she said.

In September, once Rausch was back in Rock Hill for the fall semester, she said she gave her formal statement to police. Over the next month, as she waited for the police investigation to conclude, Rausch said she had trouble focusing on school.

A month later, Rausch said she got a call from the detective assigned to her case.

The department was not going to pursue charges against her alleged assailant, she said.

“That was very traumatizing,” Rausch said. “I felt like I went through all that for nothing.”

Rock Hill police, in a statement, said the detective conducted follow-up interviews and reviewed evidentiary items associated with the case.

“In this case, there was not sufficient evidence to establish probable cause to obtain charges closing the investigation at that time,” the statement said.

Rausch gave up. She spent days without leaving her apartment. Her partner, Milo Wolverton, walked her dog. And she rarely went to class.

‘I noticed something’

About a year after the assault, Rausch tried to make sense of the disappointing outcome of the police investigation, so she reviewed the fraternity’s timeline — again.

“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do, if there’s anything that can help me, and I noticed something,” she said.

On the third to last page, the notes stated that on April 12, 2019 — a few days after Rausch’s two meetings with the fraternity’s executive board — the chapter notified Winthrop’s Office of Student Affairs about the alleged assault.

Her eyes widened.

“I, of course, read that forever ago, but it just never clicked to me that if they told the Office of Student Affairs, why did nobody contact me about that?” she said.

Rausch wanted to know if the fraternity had actually notified the university, so she scheduled an in-person meeting with Davis, Winthrop’s Interim Dean of Students, on Feb. 7, 2020. She provided The Herald with what she said is an audio recording of the meeting. She said the voice in the recording is Davis.

In a statement, Winthrop said it cannot confirm these recordings or “authenticate the contents thereof” because “the alleged recordings of any grievance proceeding meetings would not have been produced and released in accordance with institutional policy and procedures,” per Winthrop’s Title IX coordinator Kevin Sheppard.

“My name is Rhianna Rausch,” she said in the recording. “Around this time...” she paused. Wolverton sat beside her.

She held back tears.

“Sorry,” she said. “I am going to get emotional.”

“You’re fine,” Davis said.

“Thank you,” she said. “I need that.” She nervously laughed.

Davis interrupted her.

“Before you start, let me just tell you what I do and how this all works, and I’ll let you make an informed decision as to whether you want to report or not,” he said. “By law, I’m mandated to report ... If you’re getting ready to share something that’s sensitive, the school doesn’t have to do anything if you don’t want them to.”

Rausch took a deep breath.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about because that’s what I’ve had an issue with,” she said. “I do want to have some outcome of an investigation of my situation.”

Davis interrupted her again.

“Are you familiar with our counseling center at all?”

She sighed.

“I’ve been at OVA for a while. It’s just some other issues that I’m having here.”

Then, Rausch told Davis about the party, the alcohol, the assault, the fraternity, the meetings, the timeline, the police, the outcome. Everything.

In the recording, Davis said the fraternity never notified him about an assault and he asked why Rausch first went to the fraternity.

“I felt more comfortable going to the fraternity who I’ve talked with and been to their events rather than going directly to the police or directly to the school,” she said. “That seemed a lot more intimidating.”

She said, in retrospect, she felt the fraternity tried to cover up the assault.

“I really do feel like PIKE is a danger to this campus due to all of the lying and this whole situation, so I would like to see them completely gone from this campus forever,” Rausch told him.

“We can investigate this situation,” Davis said. “I don’t know how far we will get on the actual assault because we don’t have anything that would obligate this person ... to talk to us if he’s not a student.”

During the meeting, Rausch said she believed she made it clear that she wanted to open a Title IX investigation. She resubmitted her anonymous sexual misconduct report to include names and she emailed the fraternity’s timeline to Davis to attach to the report.

She also wanted Davis to look into the fraternity. She told him she felt the fraternity created a hostile environment by hosting an unregistered party.

“Either way, we will investigate,” Davis said.

“Thank you,” Rausch said.

Two months later, she got the email.

The investigation summary said nothing about the alleged sexual assault.

Rausch stared at the last sentence: “The chapter will not be subject to any disciplinary action.”

She cried.

This is the first of a three-part series of the stories on Rhianna Rausch and three other Winthrop student victims of sexual assault. Alex Zietlow contributed to these reports.