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At Colby College recently, 15 students have withdrawn or been suspended for sexual misconduct and related charges -- and an entire campus is struggling to understand an incident that took place in November. The college won't say exactly what occurred, but has told students that the investigation is complete, and that local police determined no criminal acts took place.

But for an event shrouded in secrecy, the fallout on the Waterville, Maine, campus has been notable:

• The number of students who are no longer on campus as a result of the incident is unusually large for a small, well-regarded liberal arts college.

• The campus has been divided over how to respond, even before the investigation was complete. The student government canceled a spirit bus to an away football game, and in an e-mail to students suggested that football players were among those accused of wrongdoing.

• The football coach, a Colby employee for 23 years, resigned in December for unspecified reasons.

• About a quarter of the college’s 1,825 students turned out for a campus meeting on sexual harassment, and students report that they have been talking about the incident for months. Many note that they have been discussing the situation based on secondhand, unconfirmed information, because the college has only confirmed that something happened and that students were punished.

The college has refused to say what occurred or reveal the identities of the accused students, citing campus policy and federal privacy laws.

An irony of the situation is that a thesis by a woman who graduated last year had already started a discussion of its argument that sexual misconduct by male athletes and others is a serious problem at the college.

Heather Pratt’s 175-page honors thesis is generally critical of Colby’s sexual misconduct policies. She wrote about past sexual violence against Colby students and said the college wasn’t doing enough to make students feel safe reporting the offenses. In many cases, the alleged perpetrators were male athletes. She describes the story of one woman who met a football player several years ago and agreed to return with him to his dorm room, where she says that he sexually assaulted her and forced her to perform oral sex. The woman didn't feel comfortable enough to pursue a disciplinary hearing.

Those findings troubled Eric Barthold, a senior on the downhill skiing and soccer teams who wants to become an English teacher. Most athletes abhor sexual abuse, Barthold said, but don’t know how to express that. So, along with two other athletes, he founded Colby’s Male Athletes Against Violence. Pratt was thrilled. About a third of Colby's students are varsity athletes, and they often end up dominating the campus social scene, Pratt said.

Barthold's group aims to raise awareness about sexual misconduct and give men an outlet to speak out against it. The initial response, he said, was promising. Knowing that students sometimes see acts of sexual violence occur but don't speak up because others aren't, the group handed out bracelets. The idea was that someone would feel more comfortable intervening if they saw others in the room were sporting a bracelet.

But despite the club’s efforts, male athletes were implicated in sexual misconduct complaints last fall. Though administrators won’t confirm that football players were involved in last November’s incident and messages sent by Inside Higher Ed to team captains and other players weren’t returned, Barthold and others said it quickly became common knowledge that football players were among those accused of sexual misconduct.

At Colby, sexual policy violations are divided into three classifications. Sexual assault generally equates to rape. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances. Sexual misconduct includes voyeurism, secretly recording intercourse and secretly permitting others to watch sex.

None of the Colby students accused last fall were disciplined for sexual assault. The punishment for the 13 students who didn’t withdraw ranged from suspension through the end of the spring semester to multisemester suspensions. The students can earn Colby degrees after their suspensions are over, but will not be able to attend commencement. If a student was a member of a sports team, he would be able to compete again upon returning.

The allegations came shortly before an away football game against rival Bowdoin College. The student government had already booked a fan bus for students, but decided to cancel the reservation after learning of the allegations. They kept one bus for students who wanted to watch the Colby cross country team compete at Bowdoin that day.

“In light of recent pending allegations against a few members of the team, we feel that we can no longer justify the buses for the football game,” wrote the seven members of the student government executive board in a Nov. 10 e-mail to the student body. “Although the charges are only allegations, they are of a serious and ongoing nature. We cannot support students who may have acted in a blatant breach of our values as a community.”

Student government declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an e-mail that they were pleased with the college’s investigation. Those who would talk about the incident said that the misconduct – and the widespread discussion of it – helped bring the campus together to address what had been a growing issue on campus.

The college held two forums, each drawing hundreds of students, to discuss sexual misconduct and Colby’s policies. The student government authorized the formation of the Colby Sex Club, which aims to promote discussions about sex and how students can communicate what they do and don't want to do with their partners. And Male Athletes Against Violence gained members and put on a "sex narratives" event where students could discuss their own experiences, both positive and negative. Barthold said it was powerful to hear students speak about meaningful sexual experiences.

The dean of students, Jim Terhune, led the investigation of the 15 students. While he’s proud of the process and Colby’s response, Terhune said any progress remains overshadowed by the pain of the victim. “There’s no way to look at this situation and say anything good came out of it,” he said. “Everybody involved, it was bad for them. If there’s anything we can take away from this, it’s that we have a system here that works, that takes care of victims of sexual misconduct and where people are held accountable.”

One downside of the dialogue, Barthold said, was that some students vilified all football players. That wasn’t fair, he said, and he’s glad to see students moving past those generalizations. Several football players have joined the anti-violence club, which recently changed its name to include women and non-athletes.

“A bunch of guys that had no idea about the incident definitely felt hurt about the whole thing,” Barthold said. “There was a lot of anger about how the campus reacted to them. It almost became a stigma. There’s also been a massive response from them saying we’re going to change our image.”

When writing her thesis last year, Pratt said she didn’t expect Colby to have a high-profile case of sexual misconduct so soon. But she hoped her research would help the college respond if a tragedy ever occurred.

And after what she considers a checkered past in addressing these issues, the response to this incident was gratifying. A recent decision to hire a gender and sexuality resource officer is another positive step, she said.

“The school was totally outraged as a community that came together,” she said. “The administration adjusted as best as they could. The way they dealt with it was like textbook. Issues of gender and sexuality are being talked about a lot more. I’m really proud of Colby.”

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