Head Coach Signor-Brown Departed From Vassar Amidst Multiple Investigations

Content warnings: mentions of alleged sexual abuse, unequal power dynamics, serious injuries, mentions of trauma.

This is the first of a three-part investigative piece into Signor-Brown’s career and players’ experience working with her. For coverage of current players’ allegations about how Signor-Brown treats illness and injury, interferes with players’ personal life and social media, and the culture of favoritism she created, read our second piece. Refer to our third story for coverage of Signor-Brown’s inappropriate behaviors surrounding the topic of race and players’ personal values, as well as players’ responses to the Title IX allegations against Signor-Brown.

A list of all interviewees The Phoenix refers to in this document can be found here.

Introduction

On October 17, the Swarthmore women’s basketball team was informed by Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton that Head Coach Candice Signor-Brown would be staying at the college after a Provost’s Office inquiry into allegations of inappropriate behavior during her tenure at Swarthmore. This concluded a complicated three-month inquiry process that involved multiple departments across two colleges. Signor-Brown was first under a Swarthmore Title IX inquiry into a sexual assault allegation made against her by a former player at Vassar College, where Signor-Brown worked for a decade until her departure in 2019. Players on the Swarthmore women’s basketball team were floored by the college’s lengthy inquiry processes, as well as by the decision itself. 

“How is the school not doing anything?” asked “Audrey,” a current Swarthmore basketball player, in an interview with The Phoenix. “Time after time, offense after offense?”

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 Women’s Basketball Coach at Swarthmore. 

Throughout her career in basketball coaching, Signor-Brown claims that she has focused on turning teams with losing streaks into high-achieving teams. Though Signor-Brown’s teams at Vassar and Swarthmore have outwardly displayed success, according to current and former women’s basketball players at Vassar and Swarthmore interviewed by The Phoenix, that success is underlied by unhealthy team cultures, favoritism, and other inappropriate behavior from leadership towards players. Women’s basketball players who have played under Signor-Brown’s leadership have alleged to The Phoenix that Signor-Brown ignored injuries, exercised unusual aspects of control and favoritism over players, and engaged in other inappropriate behaviors that made players uncomfortable.

When Signor-Brown took over at Vassar in 2010, the team had suffered a 4-21 season. One year later, the team’s record had improved with a 9-15 season. Over the span of Signor-Brown’s ten-year career at Vassar, she has coached four teams that went to the NCAA tournament and her coaching staff was awarded best in the Liberty League three times.

In July 2020, a former Vassar women’s basketball player, “Eve,” submitted a post to an Instagram account called Vassar Survivors, which publishes submitted stories from Vassar students and alumni who survived sexual assault and violence while at Vassar. Signor-Brown started coaching women’s basketball at Vassar in the 2009-2010 academic year, Eve’s sophomore year. In an interview with The Phoenix, Eve disclosed that she quit basketball after her sophomore year because of friction between herself and Signor-Brown. Eve rejoined the team her senior year.

In the Vassar Survivors Instagram post, Eve alleged that Signor-Brown had sexually assaulted her in the January of her senior year and had continued to sexually harass her throughout the remainder of her senior season. “Alison,” a friend of Eve, corroborated the timeline of these allegations to The Phoenix. Eve and Alison have both requested to remain anonymous in The Phoenix’s reporting because of the sensitive nature of these topics and to protect their real-life identities from harm.

The Phoenix reached out to Signor-Brown twice via email, once on October 13 for a comment on our previous reporting and once on October 27 for a comment on these stories. The first email asked Signor-Brown to comment on the allegations made in the Vassar Survivor’s post, as well as a letter written by a Swarthmore Women’s basketball player published in Voices. In the second email, The Phoenix reached out to Signor-Brown to ask for a response to more than 15 players who allege abusive and inappropriate coaching behavior. We did not receive a response for either emails.

In addition to these allegations of sexual abuse from the Vassar Survivors Instagram account, in interviews with The Phoenix, former and current basketball players under Signor-Brown have described toxic favoritism and abusive and inappropriate behavior from her. The Phoenix interviewed eleven current and former Vassar women’s basketball players and four current Swarthmore players who noted a history of harmful behavior which has included, at times, ignoring players’ illnesses and serious health problems, manipulating and controlling players to extents that are abnormal for athletic cultures, and interfering with students’ personal lives and relationships outside of basketball. Not all players interviewed by The Phoenix are quoted in our reporting.

For more information regarding The Phoenix’s journalistic methods and investigative process into these series of events, refer to our article on the editorial process

According to multiple players that The Phoenix has interviewed, tough coaching in athletics is normalized so players can ultimately become stronger and better athletes. Several women’s basketball players under Signor-Brown, however, explained that Signor-Brown’s coaching style went beyond coaches’ typical toughness and pushed the limits of players’ physical and mental health with lasting, harrowing effects.

“As athletes who have played basketball for a while, a lot of us know that there’s a line between being tough on your players and challenging them versus being unreasonable and completely unsupportive,” said Zoe Walker, a former basketball player who graduated from Vassar in 2017. “I think her [Coach Brown’s] complete disregard for that line was really unfortunate.”

THE DECISION TO KEEP SIGNOR-BROWN AT SWARTHMORE

On October 17, players were informed by Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton that Signor-Brown would be staying on as Head Coach. The report, on how and why that decision was made, was given to players who were told, by Provost Willie-LeBreton, to keep it confidential. After the decision was made, players had one joint team meeting on October 21 with Provost Willie-LeBreton and Acting Director of Athletics Karen Borbee. Players also had individual meetings with Borbee to express their current feelings with regards to Signor-Brown and whether or not they will continue playing under her. 

According to three players who attended the meetings, the decision to keep Signor-Brown at the College was made based on an end-of-season survey and the complaints that players had expressed to Title IX Director Bindu Jayne and Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton during the two inquiries — not on the allegation detailed in the Instagram post or on complaints raised by former Vassar women’s basketball players during the Title IX office’s inquiry. The complaints raised by Swarthmore players were not under Title IX’s purview.

Title IX Director Bindu Jayne conducted an inquiry into the Vassar post and reached out to former Vassar players who had played under Signor-Brown. The inquiry ultimately resulted in an inconclusive decision. 

“I spoke with Swarthmore student-athletes, Vassar alumni, and Vassar administrators and received no additional information about the allegations in the Instagram post. The information I gathered from all the individuals I spoke with involved non-Title IX concerns that fall outside of the scope of the Title IX policies and this office,” Jayne wrote in an email to The Phoenix on Oct. 29. “Therefore, I summarized all of this non-Title IX related information in a report and provided it to the Athletic Director and the Provost for their review.”

According to Provost Willie-LeBreton, the Title IX Office attempted to reach out to Eve via a third party but Eve declined to speak to the Title IX Coordinator. In an Oct. 19 email to The Phoenix, Eve indicated that she had not heard from The Title IX office, nor, to the best of her knowledge, did any of her teammates or friends, about the inquiry prior to the publishing of the first Phoenix article on this story. The Swarthmore Title IX office was unable to confirm the veracity of the claims made in the Instagram post. The Swarthmore Title IX office also asked The Phoenix to reach out to Eve on their behalf on Oct. 19, 2020, after the publication of the first Phoenix article about this issue.

“We take all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously; our Title IX Coordinator looks into these types of accounts diligently. But we will not — we cannot — assume wrongdoing of individuals in our community based on unverifiable information,” Provost Willie-LeBreton wrote in a letter to The Phoenix on Oct. 30

Following the Vassar Survivors Instagram post, the Vassar Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (which includes Title IX staff) also looked into the Instagram post. It is unclear to The Phoenix what procedures the Vassar Office of EOAA took to look into the post, since the Office of EOAA cannot disclose whether or not an investigation has taken place without a subpoena or permission of the investigated party, according to an Oct. 16 email to The Phoenix from Amanita Duga-Carroll, Vassar’s vice president for communications.

In an Oct. 19 email to The Phoenix, Eve explained why she declined to speak with the Title IX staff at Vassar.

“I chose not to speak to the Title IX folks at Vassar because I am generally distrustful of Title IX offices,” she wrote. “I have had friends at Vassar have terrible, victim-blaming experiences when reporting. I have heard countless stories from other schools that seem terrifying. In general, I believe Title IX offices are out to cover the school, not protect the students.”

According to the players, the decision to keep Signor-Brown was based, in part, on an end-of-season survey, given to all of the players on the team around February 2020. The survey had questions that mostly evaluated Signor-Brown’s professional capability as a coach, such as preparedness for games and the efficiency of practices. However, three players also noted flaws in the end-of-year survey. While the survey was supposed to provide feedback anonymously, the players felt uncomfortable sharing their thoughts, at the time, due to their fear that Signor-Brown would know which players had made complaints about her. Additionally, not all of the players filled out the survey. At least one player had emailed these concerns, including how the players felt like the survey did not sufficiently represent their opinions of Signor-Brown, to Provost Willie-LeBreton prior to the official conclusion of Provost’s inquiry into Signor-Brown in October.

The three players believed that the Provost’s decision was based on what had occurred at Swarthmore and not during Signor-Brown’s ten-year career at Vassar, even though some of her coaching behaviors at Vassar, as detailed in the Vassar Survivors post, were quite similar to her behaviors at Swarthmore.

“Abuse is cyclical and that seems pretty important,” said Audrey, a player who was also present at the meeting.

While players at Swarthmore expect Signor-Brown to rejoin the team, they are unsure of the current plan regarding her return to coaching and to interacting with players. Currently, players who are on-campus are having practices with assistant coaches. Beatrice, another player present at the meeting, said that a major concern going into the meeting with the provost was whether Signor-Brown would be able to practice with players this semester.

“I feel like the one achievable goal we had going into the meeting that we felt we could realistically accomplish was having her [Signor-Brown] not participate in the practices at least for the remainder of the semester so I think that’s going to happen,” Beatrice said.

FORMER TITLE IX COMPLAINTS AND EOAA INVESTIGATION

The chain of events that commenced at Swarthmore after the Vassar Survivors Instagram post is not the first time that Signor-Brown was under inquiry for potential Title IX violations.Title IX, in addition to covering sexual misconduct and violence, prohibits any form of sex-based discrimination in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding, including athletics programs.

In 2016, Julia Roellke, a 2019 alum of Vassar and four-year women’s basketball player, filed a Title IX complaint regarding financial disparities between the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Vassar. Roellke’s father is Christopher Roellke, who served as Dean of the College at Vassar from 2008-2018. According to Julia, Christopher Roellke was not directly involved in any Vassar Title IX complaints or investigations against Signor-Brown. 

During Julia Roellke’s time at Vassar, the women’s basketball players spent six to eight Saturdays every Fall fundraising by selling concessions at West Point Academy football games, which required players to devote twelve extra hours to fundraising and related activities. The men’s team did not invest the same amount of time or labor into fundraising. In an email to The Phoenix, Roellke stated that she filed the initial Title IX complaint when she held a residential position at Vassar. In her position, she facilitated student programming for first years and frequently could not attend the events she planned due to the basketball fundraising commitments. A faculty member noticed her absences, and upon learning of the discrepancies between the men’s and women’s teams from Roellke, reached out to the Title IX office. The Title IX office subsequently reached out to Roellke to learn more about the situation.

Roellke’s older sister, a Vassar alum who was not affiliated with athletics, filed a more thorough Title IX complaint in 2017 about NCAA misconducts that she believed Signor-Brown had perpetuated. In her letter, Roellke’s sister explained that she was bringing forth this complaint as a non-player because many players on the team did not come forward because they feared repercussion.

The NCAA violations alleged by Roellke’s sister against Signor-Brown include bullying coaching behaviors that severely harmed players’ mental well being; excessive time demand at odds with expected Division III athlete’s sports-academic time balance; and scheduling training sessions when appropriate support personnel were absent. To Roellke’s knowledge, no result came from her or her sister’s complaints. 

In Spring 2019, about six people, including four players and their family members, wrote letters to Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley about the problematic aspects of Signor-Brown’s coaching and behavior. In response to these letters, Vassar launched an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Investigation and hired Kelley Hodge, a Philadelphia-based attorney who served as the District Attorney of Philadelphia from 2017-2018, to conduct an external investigation. (Hodge is not affiliated with Vassar or the NCAA.) Hodge spoke to several Vassar players about their experiences playing for Signor-Brown, and at least one former Vassar women’s basketball player and team parents were solicited to send character witness letters in support of Signor-Brown. 

According to Julia Roellke and her former teammate Samarah Cook (Vassar ’18), who were both letter writers directly involved in the 2019 EOAA investigation, in addition to allegations of Signor-Brown’s bullying coaching behavior and dismissive attitude towards serious player injuries, the 2019 EOAA investigation was partially motivated by reprised player complaints surrounding the opaqueness of team funding under Signor-Brown’s management during 2016-2019. Three players — Roellke, Cook, and their former teammate Maeve Sussman (Vassar ’19), another letter writer — corroborated this detail in separate interviews. Players reported that despite the extra hours spent fundraising at West Point Academy football games, the team in general had little idea of where the extra money was being used. 

In an email on November 6 to The Phoenix, Amanita Duga-Carroll, the vice president for communications at Vassar, wrote that Vassar’s EOAA office does not share the outcome of any investigation or whether or not an investigation has taken place without a subpoena or the permission of all parties involved.

Signor-Brown made at least one effort to explain team finances to the Vassar players in the Spring of 2018 through a presentation. Players, however, report that the breakdown of the numbers remained ambiguous to them, and they were not given any official documentation of this presentation or report of financial resource allocation afterwards, which made it difficult for players to evaluate team spending independently.

The timeline and outcome of this 2019 external investigation were unclear to the students who filed the initial complaints. Signor-Brown left Vassar to coach at Swarthmore before the students received any formal conclusion from the external investigation. Although the exact circumstances surrounding Signor-Brown’s departure from Vassar are vague, multiple players have characterized the departure as unusual. Sussman, who graduated in 2019, remarked that Signor-Brown had given no prior indication of leaving and had already recruited incoming basketball players for the 2019-2020 season. “Adria,” who played women’s basketball at Vassar during that time, corroborated this.

The Vassar EOAA website states that the office should inform complainants of the investigation’s outcome and provide them with a summary of the investigation’s procedure. According to three players who had filed complaints and written letters as well as other Vassar basketball players who were interviewed for the EOAA investigation, interviewees were never informed of the official results of the EOAA investigation. Furthermore, Roellke and Cook indicated that Vassar did not respond to multiple later efforts to follow up with the investigation after Signor-Brown’s departure from Vassar was announced.

“The investigation was never deemed ‘inconclusive,’ but we [also] never got any formal sign of about whatever came of it,” said Roellke in an interview with The Phoenix, ”so [it was ‘inconclusive’ because of] the absence of any communication.” 

Details regarding Signor-Brown’s arrival at Swarthmore in 2019 also remain unclear. Karen Borbee, the acting athletic director at Swarthmore, could not share specifics regarding Signor-Brown’s hiring. She explained, however, that the hiring process for head coaches begins with a search committee consisting of staff members, other coaches, and student athletes from the team seeking a coach. After the interview process, finalists are identified and interviewed by a larger swath of people before the committee uses the feedback and conversations to make a hiring decision. Furthermore, there are conversations with a coach’s supervisor. The athletic director oversees the entire process.

“Though the athletic director may not be a member of the committee, the [Athletic Director] is involved with all aspects of a search for a head coach,” Borbee wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

Vassar’s Director of Athletics and Physical Education, Michelle Walsh ’98, was a three-sport captain at Swarthmore and has served as the director of athletics at Vassar since July 2015. The Phoenix reached out to Walsh, for a previous article, about Signor-Brown’s departure from Vassar. Walsh stated that Signor-Brown resigned from her position at Vassar in summer 2019 to take the Head Coach position at the College.

In Fall 2019, Walsh was inducted into the Garnet Hall of Fame by Adam Hertz, who was the director of athletics at Swarthmore for nineteen years before abruptly departing in October 2020. 

In January 2020, Hertz gave an interview with D3Hoops for an article about Division III programs that had benefited from having a new coach, praising Signor-Brown’s first season at the college.

“Candice is very organized, very focused, and holds the players very accountable — and that’s something they were craving,” Hertz said in the article.


Read the next story in our three-part series or skip to our third piece.

CORRECTIONS:

November 22, 12:30 a.m.: The Phoenix has updated sentences in the article’s introduction to further clarify and distinguish that certain player complaints are allegations and were not personally witnessed by The Phoenix. The Phoenix clarified why certain interviewees have requested to remain anonymous.

November 22, 5:05 p.m.: The Phoenix added a couple of paragraphs to clarify why “Eve” chose not to participate in the Vassar Title IX staff’s procedures following the Vassar Survivors Instagram post.

November 23, 4:12 p.m.: The Phoenix also added details about the manner in which we reached out to Signor-Brown for comments on past and current reporting.

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