A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jane Doe Revealed: Her name is SiennaMarisa Brown and she has a story to share about a painful journey

By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

SiennaMarisa Brown was full of high hopes when she chose Northern Kentucky University over a dozen other colleges. NKU offered a full tuition scholarship, an “opportunity” scholarship for top minority students. She was eager for the opportunity.

The bi-racial daughter of loving parents, one Latino, the other Black, she is an exceptional student whose parents stressed the importance of education – the “one thing no one can take away.”

Graduation day for SiennaMarisa — a triumph

She was expected to keep her eye on the prize.

Her parents, both from New Jersey, met in college themselves, as first-generation college students. They moved to Ohio — where dad had a job opportunity — with their two daughters when the youngest, SiennaMarisa, was three.

Because education mattered most, SiennaMarisa attended the best possible school in their neighborhood, a private school. Her parents made sacrifices. She was the only student of color there.

She was, she said, the “girl who ran,” a top track and field star and a top scholar. But the social experience for a bright young girl of color “was not the best.”

She kept her eye on the prize.

Socially withdrawn with few close friends, the exceptional student was accepted to 14 colleges and was offered scholarships. She and her family chose NKU because of the full tuition academic offer, a close-to-home residential campus experience, and a growing, diverse student body.

Seeking fresh start

SiennaMarisa was looking forward to a “fresh start,” ready to expand her academic horizons as a psychology and sociology major – and her personal ones too. Ready to make friends, to fit in, to find her place.

She moved into the dorm early to participate in a special – oddly enough – “FreshStart” retreat for freshmen meant to jumpstart campus networking and leadership skills. And, there, she met a young black man.

“I thought we would be friends,” she said quietly, a flash of painful remembrance across her face. “I helped him with his homework, starting with a poem for a GenEd course.”

1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in college. Only 20% ever report it.

That’s how she came to be in his dorm room that day in September when he raped her.

“He pinned my arms to the bed and pushed me up against the bed in such a way that I could not move my body. His strength surprised me, especially since I am a strong athlete. I could not scream because my lungs were being crushed between his body and his mattress — I could not breathe. I could not punch because he pinned my wrists down so firmly — I was numb. I could not kick because — since I could not breathe and my blood flow was being cut off at every place his body held me onto the bed — my legs betrayed me.

“After he was done, I was in shock and could not feel any part of my being. I was naked on his bed – slipping in and out of consciousness. I remember him walking to the door and doing something to it (I found out later that he put tape over the lock so his roommate would not come in). And then, he raped me again. I don’t remember much of this time — just sharp pain, disbelief, and a jiggle on his doorknob.”

She became a different person that day. A person standing outside herself, disconnected and disbelieving.

SiennaMarisa also became a statistic that day.

She was on her way to becoming Jane Doe in the Jane Doe vs. Northern Kentucky University lawsuit she would file. But she didn’t know that then.

Among undergraduate students nationally, 23.1% of females experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation, according to an Association of American Universities report. The Department of Justice says that as many as 1 in 4 college women are sexually assaulted in college.

Over the next few days she had consensual sex with him.

“I tried to normalize what happened,” she said. “I thought ‘if it happens consensually it would be OK.’”

But it wasn’t OK and she wasn’t OK.

Experts — from the Office on Violence Against Women to trauma psychologists and counselors say such behavior is not abnormal. Gabby Dralle of the Norse Violence Prevention Center testified in her deposition that it was not abnormal behavior and that she had seen it happen in other cases.

“I’m still trying to understand it,” lamented SiennaMarisa.

Back from the darkest place

NKU’s attorneys, hired by its insurance company, would argue in court that the consensual sex – following the rape – suggested that rape did not happen. Some NKU trustees were convinced of the same.

None of them had really met or knew SiennaMarisa. They had not looked into her eyes to see the pain. They had not heard her tell her story. They had never seen her as a human being, traumatized and wounded.

‘I was confused. I pushed everyone away. I made no friends. . . I hated myself. . . I erased who I was before.’

The different person that SiennaMarisa became before the end of that September of her freshman year was more withdrawn.

“I was confused. I pushed everyone away. I made no friends. I went home every weekend. I locked myself in my room. I hated myself . . .

“I erased who I was before. I was self-destructive. I was not happy or joking or light-hearted.”

She retreated to the darkest possible place where thoughts of suicide reside and try to pull you in. Today, even after some counseling and a pathway to understanding post-traumatic stress syndrome, those thoughts can intrude. They whisper and entice.

She cut herself. She developed severe insomnia and suffers sleep deprivation, bulimia, migraines and stomach issues. She was depressed and anxious. She had – and still has — unexplained panic attacks. They can sweep over her when she least expects.

“I was the only person I knew how to be at the time,” she said. She struggled.

Her parents noticed the difference, but she kept her eye on the prize.

Finally, she said, “I decided to refuse to let him win. . . I was in a bad place. I decided I could stay alive and find justice . . .or I could go deeper into a dark place. I don’t ever want to go to that place again.”

By the end of her second semester, she had to tell her mom.

“We both cried for hours on the floor of our living room,” she said. “I cried because I could see the pain in my mom’s face.

“We’re still not OK,” she said recently. “We’re coping, but it’s going to take a while. It has made the family stronger, but . . .” It’s a thought she can’t finish.

Violated — again and again

She put all her energy into her studies.

Keeping her eye on the prize.

And, finally, she reported the incident to NKU’s Counseling Services. She was referred to the Associate Dean of Students and ultimately to the Norse Violence Prevention Center. She was informed of the process available to her – Let them conduct an investigation and a hearing and take the appropriate disciplinary action.

The university’s lawyers would argue in court that such a long delay in making a complaint raised questions about her veracity and her motives. Yet statistics show that only 20 percent of female student victims, age 18-24, ever report to law enforcement.

Still, the university’s committee determined 3-0 that – in all probability – the young man engaged in “non-consensual sexual misconduct.” They do not use the term “rape.” He was not suspended because he was conveniently going to be away for a semester for military training anyway, but there were sanctions – including that he was not allowed near her or in the residential dorm area. Yes, and he had to write a paper about “what he learned from the process.”

When he returned to campus, he became president of a fraternity – one that, surprisingly, helped freshmen women move into the dorms.

He breached the sanctions on numerous occasions – these facts were substantiated in testimony in depositions filed in federal court.

At the end of thousands of “non-consenual sexual relations” on campuses across the country is a victim who is human and in pain – and a university in full defensive mode.

The university’s insurance lawyers would argue that each time a breach was reported, the university addressed the issue with him. But SiennaMarisa – substantiated by the depositions of various university individuals – claims the violations were ongoing and numerous. He was never suspended and never suffered any punishment. NKU does not expel students for the offenses he committed.

She was consistently told to “keep an eye out,” to “take pictures,” to “avoid him,” to report breaches of the sanctions.

She felt threatened and violated – over and over again.

She and her parents and a professor friend went straight to the top at the university. They got a meeting, but no satisfaction. She and her mom and the friend were in tears. Her dad got a pat on the back and she got “and how are your grades?”

She and the university were simply on different planets.

At the end of thousands of “non-consenual sexual relations” on campuses across the country is a victim who is human and in pain – and a university in full defensive mode.

This is where SiennaMarisa was when she decided to carry the mattress on her back around the campus.

She and her friends did the appropriate paperwork for the demonstration that followed. A big crowd participated as campus police laughed at their stories. She remembers the dogs and wonders why they were necessary. She would later learn about a controversial email the then-police chief sent campus wide, promising to protect the rights of the male student. The police chief would later testify under oath in a deposition that two of her rapist’s fraternity brothers told him that day that the male student had bragged to them about raping SiennaMarisa. The police chief also said the University police had no training in dealing with these issues and no information whatsoever about the sanctions against the male student.

“You can self-destruct or you can thrive,” SiennaMarisa says now. “The built-up emotion, passion, anger can suffocate you.”

Fighting back

She decided to fight back. She found an advocate, an attorney who took the case on contingency. Her family had no money and no hope. Kevin Murphy gave them hope. Murphy, she says, has been an amazing “father figure” and an amazing friend. He helped her emerge from that dark place.

From the Norse Violence Prevention Center’s Facebook page: Each ribbon on the wreath represents someone on NKU’s campus who has been impacted by sexual assault.

Jane Doe vs. Northern Kentucky University was filed in Federal District Court. Proceedings dragged on for some time, until a settlement was reached in August.

In the interim, SiennaMarisa persevered.

She kept her eyes on the prize.

She graduated in May summa cum laude, wearing 11 honor chords.

No one can take that away from her.

“I learned from therapy that it’s about perspective. I had to change how I thought of myself and my actions . . .I had to let it go.

“Someone’s opinion does not change you or define you,” she says, as if determined to believe it.

Her eye on the prize, she spent the last year applying – and being accepted – to The University of Oxford in England. She will be pursuing a master’s in sociology. Next, she’s aiming for The University of Edinburgh and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She leaves this week.

On her own, she secured loans and scholarships to cover her first year expenses. She will use the settlement funds to pay off her student loans – and pay forward as she can.

“I have learned to appreciate the people who have been there for me,” she says wistfully. “Something beautiful can come from the ugliest things.

“Now, I can continue therapy – which I’ll need for a long time – and go to a great university where I can thrive and be among a gigantic group of diverse people where there’s a great support system. I’m ready to live. . . I never got a real college experience.

“I may finally get an actual fresh start.”

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4 Comments

  1. Lauren says:

    Thank you so much to SiennaMarisa for sharing your story.

  2. Crystal says:

    I am in my first semester at NKU. Your story gave me chills. I hate that happened to you. And I’m glad you were able to complete your studies and go on to bigger and better things. Thank you so much for having the courage to share your story.

  3. Ty Adams says:

    Very good story. Tells what a criminal system is being enabled at NKU, this girl an example. How people like Geoff Mearns who took off running for Ball State, Sarah Sidebottom, Ken Bothof, every DPS officer on that campus can live with themselves is beyond me. They covered up this for their own sakes. Same with the three basketball players and what they got way with in 2015 with the assault that Mearns and Bothof called a sexual incident. Shout out to this girl and best luck to her.

  4. K Styles says:

    Thank you for speaking out! You have paved the way for others who have yet to speak out about their on-campus rapes. I applaud your courage and your intuitiveness! Mine happened over 20 years ago… but I couldn’t be more proud in this moment in knowing that LIFE AFTER ABUSE is REAL!

    It’s my biggest hope that victims realize that they too have a voice!

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