Update: around 5:30 PM on October 17, a player on the women’s basketball team at Swarthmore published an update, “They [Swarthmore] are keeping the head coach,” on a Change.org petition. The Phoenix has since confirmed with our sources that Candice Signor-Brown will continue her position as Head Coach of the Swarthmore Women’s Basketball Team.
Content Warnings: Sexual abuse
On July 14, an anonymous post was submitted by a Vassar alumna and former basketball player, alleging that Vassar’s then-women’s basketball coach, Candice Signor-Brown (then Candice Brown), sexually assaulted her after a basketball game in her senior year in 2012 and continued to sexually harass her throughout the rest of the season. Six days after the post went live, Swarthmore women’s basketball players sent an email, signed by all members of the team, to Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton, all of the deans, the Swarthmore Title IX office, and former Director of Athletics Adam Hertz to bring the Instagram post to their attention.
Candice Signor-Brown began her career coaching for three years at Manhattanville College before her decade-long tenure at Vassar College. In the summer of 2019, Signor-Brown resigned from her position as Head Coach at Vassar to become the Head Coach of Women’s Basketball at Swarthmore. Throughout her career in basketball coaching, Signor-Brown has focused on turning teams with losing streaks into high-achieving teams.
While players’ initial complaint was solely regarding the sexual assault allegation from the post, the Swarthmore women’s basketball players’ complaint now focuses on current allegations that Signor-Brown is an abusive coach.
In our interviews with four former Vassar women’s basketball players, including the original poster of the Instagram post and four current Swarthmore women’s basketball players, descriptions of Signor-Brown’s coaching style ranged from “tough,” “manipulative,” and “humiliating,” to “toxic” and “abusive.” More reporting on the experiences of women’s basketball players under Signor-Brown will be published at a later date.
The Phoenix reached out to Signor-Brown on Tuesday, October 13, via email, for a comment on the allegation in the post and for a comment on the complaints made by current Swarthmore players. We did not receive a response.
The Vassar Survivors allegation was initially under the purview of the Title IX Office. The Office aims to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, gender-based harassment, sexual violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. More than two months after the initial email was sent by players, the Title IX Office deemed the inquiry “inconclusive.” Notably, the original poster of the Vassar Survivors Instagram post said that she did not receive any communication from the Swarthmore Title IX Office. The Swarthmore Title IX complaint, which includes extensive details from Swarthmore players alleging non-sexual abusive behavior, was handed off to Willie-LeBreton on October 5. Players on the team also independently reached out to the Provost’s Office with their complaints about Signor-Brown on September 1.
All of the communications between basketball team players and administrators have occurred via email, phone calls, or Zoom meetings.
The Phoenix also reached out to Willie-LeBreton, Swarthmore Title IX Coordinator Bindu Jayne, and members of Swarthmore Athletics administration. Willie-LeBreton sent a collective response to our inquiries on October 16.
According to Willie-LeBreton, the outcome of the Provost’s Office’s inquiry will be released to the parties involved either today or tomorrow. Willie-LeBreton emphasized the private nature of the matter and that the health and safety of students and faculty is considered a top priority for the college.
“Last week, I told all parties that I plan to share privately the outcome of my inquiry by the end of this week, and I still anticipate doing so by today or tomorrow. As I’m sure you can appreciate, the inquiry is confidential,” she wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “It goes without saying that the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff are of the utmost importance.”
According to multiple current players on the team, if the College does not fire Signor-Brown, she will partake in a rehabilitation or reintegration program with the team before she begins coaching again.
In an October 15 email to the Swarthmore community, Willie-LeBreton announced Hertz’s departure from the college after nineteen years at the college. The reason behind his departure was unexplained. The current acting Director of Athletics is Karen Borbee, head coach of women’s lacrosse.
SWAT WOMEN’S BASKETBALL PLAYERS ALERTED ABOUT THE INSTAGRAM POST
On August 21, The Phoenix received a tip from an anonymous source regarding an Instagram post on an account called Vassar Survivors, which publishes testimonials submitted by survivors of sexual abuse at Vassar College. The Phoenix corroborated the timeline of these allegations with a friend of the original poster.
Multiple members of the Swarthmore women’s basketball team were made aware of the Instagram post through tagged accounts affiliated with Vassar Athletics and Swarthmore Athletics.
Willie-LeBreton stressed that the inquiry into the allegations was taken seriously despite the Swarthmore Title IX Office’s ultimate inability to verify them.
“We take such allegations very seriously, and our Title IX Coordinator looks into these types of accounts diligently,” she wrote. “Allegations made anonymously with limited information are not always verifiable despite those efforts. We will not assume wrongdoing of individuals in our community based on unverifiable information.”
A parallel Title IX inquiry with regards to the post was initiated at Vassar.
The Instagram post received notable traction on the Vassar Survivors page. Current Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley commented on the post using her personal Instagram account.
“I am deeply saddened to see these allegations,” she wrote. “The College takes this very seriously … No one should have to go through something like this. Sexual assault on this campus, or anywhere, is unacceptable. I hope you are finding ways to take care.”
A DELAYED RESPONSE FROM THE COLLEGE
On July 21, one day after Swarthmore women’s basketball players’ collective email, the Title IX Office issued a ‘no-contact order’ between Signor-Brown and all women’s basketball players. The ‘no-contact order’ prohibits all forms of contact, virtual and in-person, between Signor-Brown and players. Shortly afterwards, on July 23, the Title IX Office started an official inquiry into Signor-Brown after meeting with the players on the team.
On August 31, players received an email notifying them that Signor-Brown had given them access to a Google Calendar called “Team Class Schedules” which contains the class schedules of all women’s basketball players currently on campus. In sharing the calendar, Signor-Brown violated the Title IX Office’s no-contact order.
At the beginning of this inquiry, the players were informed by the Title IX Office that normal investigations conclude in about one month, yet because of the unusual circumstance surrounding this specific inquiry — its basis on an anonymous Instagram post from another college instead of a complaint of sexual misconduct at Swarthmore College — the Title IX Office could not guarantee a timeline. Even so, many players were under the impression that the inquiry would be completed in a timely manner, and that they would receive regular updates and support. During the meetings with the Title IX Office, the players were also told by Jayne that they would only need to discuss the stressful or traumatic experiences they had with Signor-Brown once, and that the information players provided would be forwarded to all the proper channels.
In August and September, however, the players received intermittent communication from the Title IX Office about the state of the inquiry, which many players found insufficient. Players reported that on one occasion, Jayne promised to schedule a meeting with two basketball players that never took place.
On September 1, a player who was frustrated with the insufficient progress made by the Title IX Office made a separate, formal complaint about Signor-Brown’s abusive behavior at Swarthmore directly with the Provost’s Office. Willie-LeBreton communicated with this team member on September 4. Two days after their communication with Willie-LeBreton, players emailed Jayne specifically to request that she relay all of the information they shared with the Title IX Office to the Deans and Willie-LeBreton.
On September 23, close to two months after the Title IX Office began their inquiry and after persistent outreach from the teammate who contacted Willie-LeBreton, Dean Shá Duncan Smith was asked by Willie-LeBreton to contact the players. Duncan Smith had multiple phone calls with players throughout the day. According to multiple current players, Duncan Smith had very little knowledge about the specifics surrounding Swarthmore’s Title IX inquiry into Signor-Brown’s behavior, and only became aware of the Vassar Survivors Instagram post during the phone calls despite reassurance from Jayne, on September 8, that a report of relevant information had been compiled and that information would be submitted to the administrators.
According to some of the players, at this point in time, neither Duncan Smith nor Willie-LeBreton seemed to have received the personal experiences and testimonials they had shared with the Title IX Office.
Players also remarked that administrators outside the Title IX Office did not take action to investigate the allegations in July and August, and only seemed to respond after persistent outreach initiated by the players. One player remarked that Duncan Smith was the only administrator who followed up with the players closely and displayed genuine concern for them.
On October 5, women’s basketball players on campus, most of whom are underclassmen, held their first practice of the season under the guidance of the assistant coaches. Signor-Brown visited the gym and spoke to players as they entered, once again violating the Title IX Office’s ‘no-contact order.’
According to “Beatrice,” a member of the women’s basketball team who was present during this incident, the encounter felt planned.
“It wasn’t even like she ran into us. She deliberately walked into the gym, where she knew we were practicing, and she was talking to our assistant coach … I think it’s important to emphasize that this was a deliberate decision,” commented Beatrice. “Even though she’s the one under scrutiny, we still feel like we don’t have any power.”
On the same day — which is over two extra weeks after the usual 60 days in which Title IX strives to complete its process — the players were informed by the Title IX Office that it did not have sufficient information to address the sexual assault allegation against Signor-Brown. The players were also told, however, that despite the Title IX inquiry coming to a close, the ‘no-contact’ order would still be in place because Signor-Brown is still under the inquiry of the Provost’s Office.
Team members were also dissatisfied with administrators’ advice about on-campus interactions with Signor-Brown while the Provost’s Office reviewed the Title IX inquiry material. According to one player, Jayne told players to strategize ways to avoid places Signor-Brown might be, rather than having school administrators help enforce the no-contact order.
“I want to reiterate the fact that the players on campus are actually terrified of going around because Coach Brown had been spotted several times,” said “Audrey,” an upperclassman player who keeps close contact with her on-campus teammates. “My teammates are going to school to try and have an education, have a good experience, and most importantly, have a safe environment. And they’re told to avoid spaces because the coach, who has a no-contact order, is roaming around.”
The players were also told that the no-contact order only applies to members of the women’s basketball team, so Signor-Brown is still allowed to be on campus grounds and access campus facilities. Players interviewed by The Phoenix are under the impression that Signor-Brown currently retains all her roles, such as the Head of the Diversity Committee for Swarthmore College Athletics. Crucially, the players also believe that Signor-Brown has still been involved in recruitment efforts for future players, even during the Swarthmore Title IX inquiry into the Vassar sexual assault allegation.
“I guess by being on campus, she doesn’t technically violate the no-contact order. But we have all of our players saying that they feel uncomfortable…” said “Meg,” another off-campus upperclassman teammate. “But the only response the Title IX Coordinator has given is basically ‘find coping mechanisms in case [an encounter] happens,’ which was absurd to us, especially coming from the Title IX Coordinator who’s supposed to be protecting us.”
Currently, the most recent responses the players have received from the administration include an email on October 9 from Willie-LeBreton, which reiterates that a conclusion will be delivered either today or tomorrow.
One player describes being frustrated with the lack of communication between the Title IX office and Willie-LeBreton.
“The Provost claimed that no one had come to [her] to file a formal complaint which is a lie because one of our teammates had [on September 4],” stated Audrey. “The Provost almost was blaming us for not coming to her sooner even though we had all emailed her [on July 20] when we first found out about the post. Dean Shá [Duncan Smith] and the Provost had not had any of the notes that we’d shared with Bindu [Jayne]. So retelling that story was frustrating.”
In contrast, Willie-LeBreton asserted that the allegations made in the Vassar post were given immediate priority and that the basketball team has received updates regarding the inquiry surrounding the team’s allegations of abusive behavior by Signor-Brown.
“Separately, a few Swarthmore student-athletes have raised concerns unrelated to Title IX. I gave those concerns my immediate attention, and I have updated the individuals involved regarding this formal inquiry throughout the process,” Willie-LeBreton wrote.
The repeated setbacks, confusions, and non-transparency of how the administration is currently handling this issue has prompted one teammate to publish an opinion piece in Voices on October 12, with a petition attached, that calls for the college to “fully investigate all allegations and take appropriate action.” As of October 16, 465 people have signed the petition.
November 6, 7:06 a.m.: a previous version of this article contained identifying information for an anonymous interviewee.
November 6, 2:08 a.m.: A previous correction to this article incorrectly states that the Swarthmore Title IX Office did not reach out to the original Vassar Survivors’ poster. According to an Oct. 29 email from Title IX Coordinator Bindu Jayne in response to this previous correction, the Swarthmore Title IX Office had made efforts to reach out to the poster through a third party, but was unable to establish contact.
The first version of this article, published on Oct 16, stated that “the Swarthmore Title IX inquiry into Signor-Brown was inconclusive because the original Vassar Survivors poster declined to participate in the investigation,” which was a statement based on information we’ve received from current Swarthmore players, who, in turn, were recounting the information they’ve received from the Swarthmore Title IX Office. The original Vassar Survivors poster reached out to The Phoenix on Oct. 18 to indicate that she had not received any contact from Swarthmore other than The Phoenix at that point; to the best of her knowledge, nor had any of her friends been contacted by the Title IX Office at Swarthmore. The Phoenix published a correction on October 18, as is preserved below, in response.
The Swarthmore Title IX Office has reached out to The Phoenix on Oct. 19 to establish contact with the original poster.
October 18, 10:59 a.m.: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Swarthmore Title IX inquiry into Signor-Brown was inconclusive because the original Vassar Survivors poster declined to participate in the investigation. In reality, Swarthmore Title IX did not reach out to the poster
Updates: a previous version of this article did not have a content warning.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore College’s Athletics Department