Pa. college investigating allegation that women's hoops coach sexually assaulted player

The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Candice Signor-Brown

Swarthmore College said it will investigate an allegation that its head women's basketball coach sexually assaulted a Vassar College player when she coached that team a decade ago.

The former Vassar player, a Marlboro, N.J., native who currently lives and works in Philadelphia, said she talked Friday with an administrator from the Swarthmore office that looks into sexual-misconduct claims. The woman, 30, told The Inquirer she contacted that office about coach Candice Signor-Brown after Swarthmore players asked her for help.

"I'm hoping this makes a difference for the current players," said the woman, who asked that her name be kept confidential. "I don't feel someone like [Signor-Brown] should be in a position to coach young women."

Signor-Brown, 41, on Wednesday referred comment on the matter to the college.

She had previously told Swarthmore that "not everyone who posts things on social media is being honest or accurate," according to an internal Swarthmore report.

A Swarthmore spokesperson, Alisa Giardinelli, confirmed its contact with the former Vassar player and pledged to "judiciously pursue" the investigation of her claims.

Coach's alleged abusive behavior has Swarthmore basketball players ready to leave

It's the latest development in a hard-fought campaign by some Swarthmore players and parents, including star player Dana Bandurick, a sophomore from New Hope, to persuade the college to oust Signor-Brown, who has led the team since 2019.

Bandurick's mother, Laura Bandurick, said she has also filed a complaint with the NCAA over Signor-Brown's treatment of players, including encouraging her daughter to play with a broken elbow during the 2019-20 season. (The team did not play this year because of COVID-19.)

A petition calling for Swarthmore to remove the coach or force her to resign has garnered more than 3,200 signatures from people inside and outside the college. In December, five players including Bandurick told The Inquirer they would quit if Signor-Brown remained as coach.

Four players from the 2019-20 squad have chosen not to return to the team, Giardinelli said. Four others are graduating and two will return, she said. Signor-Brown has since recruited seven new players, more than in a usual year, to help fill those roster spots, she said.

The controversy began last summer when the former Vassar player alleged in an anonymous Instagram post that Signor-Brown had sexually assaulted her in a hotel room in 2011 after an away game.

Swarthmore players then called on the college to remove Signor-Brown and said the coach had also mistreated them, including visiting their dorm rooms, making demeaning comments and pressuring them to play when they were sick, injured, or needed to study. The Swarthmore players did not accuse Signor-Brown of sexual misconduct.

A Swarthmore investigation concluded that Signor-Brown had shown a "serious error in judgment" in some dealings with players and "questionable judgment" in visiting players' dorm rooms. But Swarthmore said it intended to keep her. The college also said that it had reached out to the former Vassar player through a third party but that she declined to talk and that it could not substantiate her sexual-assault allegation.

"Had we discovered any evidence of anything that rose to the level of gross misconduct or that jeopardized the health and safety of our students, the college would have acted to remove the individual(s) responsible for that conduct," Giardinelli said. "But there is no evidence that supports such misconduct occurred in this instance."

The college developed a "corrective plan to address the issues, including by bringing in outside facilitators, to work with both coach Signor-Brown and the members of the team on a process of reconciliation and healing," Giardinelli said. The interim athletics director and provost are monitoring the situation, she said.

Signor-Brown said in a statement Wednesday: "I'm grateful for and committed to the ongoing work with the provost, the interim athletic director, and our student-athletes on a process of reconciliation and moving forward."

The former Vassar player told The Inquirer that she never filed a complaint with Vassar and initially opted not to talk to Swarthmore about her Instagram post, because she didn't want to pursue anything else against the coach and only shared her account so her teammates would know what happened.

She said she didn't anticipate the post would ignite the controversy it did.

"I'm hoping this makes a difference," she said. "I'm hoping they do a thorough investigation even if the outcome isn't the one desired by myself and the players."

Swarthmore two years ago hired Signor-Brown, a Virginia native who had coached a decade at Vassar, to "start changing the culture" of its program, according to Swarthmore's former athletic director. Signor-Brown has acknowledged her "pretty intense and demanding" coaching style. Swarthmore's team made the playoffs in the 2019-20 season for the first time since 2013.

At Vassar, Signor-Brown compiled a 159-106 winning record, but some players there also had concerns, according to a three-part series in the Phoenix, Swarthmore's student newspaper.

The former Vassar player said Signor-Brown became coach during her sophomore year. The woman said she at first appreciated her as a coach. Signor-Brown was tough, but that's what it took to win, and Vassar started winning, she said.

The alleged assault happened during the Christmas tournament in Florida her senior year, she said. The evening after the team lost to New Jersey's Kean University by a few points, she said, the coach invited her to her hotel room. She went, thinking the coach wanted to talk to her about how well she played. She said Signor-Brown handed her an alcoholic drink, which she said she thought nothing of, given that she was 21.

What happened next became the subject of her Instagram post.

"I was sitting on the bed when she straddled me," the woman wrote. "I remember asking what she was doing. She pinned me down with her body and put her hands in my sweatpants, under my underwear."

She wrote that she told the coach no several times and finally faked an orgasm so the coach would stop.

After the trip, she said, the coach tried to pressure her into a relationship and continued to harass her.

She didn't tell anyone that night or report it, she said, because she didn't want to disrupt the team's strong season. Afterward, she said she just wanted to finish her senior year and was concerned she wouldn't be believed.

In interviews with The Inquirer, her former girlfriend and her father confirmed that she told them about the alleged assault in the months and years after it happened.

The Vassar player, who does public defense work in death-penalty cases, said the encounter with Signor-Brown has continued to affect her.

She said she finally confronted Signor-Brown at a bar during an alumni weekend.

"I very anxiously told her how I felt about what happened," she said. "I told her my biggest anxiety was that she would do it to someone else. I told her I have a hard time trusting women now. I don't think I can even date women anymore because of it. She told me she didn't see it that way and she's sorry I saw it that way."