500-Word Essay as Punishment for Rape?

Student goes public with details on alleged rapist at Gustavus Adolphus, renewing debate over whether respecting privacy lets colleges get away with wrist slapping instead of expulsions.

March 7, 2016

Many college applications feature 500-word essays. Short in-class papers often have a similar word count. At Gustavus Adolphus College, a 500-word essay can also be the institution's punishment for students accused of rape.

That's the claim made by student activists at the small liberal arts college last week. One case in particular has galvanized student activists and concerned alumni: that of a student found responsible for sexual assault by the college, but whose punishment was later reduced from a suspension to having to write a 500-word essay about consent.

The accused student’s name and the allegations against him were made public last week in a post on Facebook. (Attempts to contact the accused student were unsuccessful.)

"The college has stated that there is essentially no other options for a survivor once the restrictions of an outcome are appealed and rescinded/lowered, and that they must accept the fact that they have to attend school, under the expectation of cordiality, with their own rapist,” a female student at Gustavus Adolphus wrote. “I will never be cordial and I will never forget his name, even if the school doesn't tell you it. I sincerely hope now that all of you won’t either.”

The female student posted the note on a private Facebook group frequented by students called “Overheard at Gustavus.” The note was later deleted, and the female student was banned from the group, but not before her plea was widely shared, roiling the small Minnesota campus.

According to the female student, the accused student was found responsible by the college for rape, defined by the college as “as any sexual intercourse, however slight, with any object or body part, by an individual upon another individual, that is without consent and/or by force.” Using the preponderance of evidence standard that is required by the U.S. Department of Education, the college ruled that the student likely assaulted another student. He was suspended for the remainder of the year, the female student said, beginning this January.

The accused student then successfully appealed his suspension, she said, and his punishment was reduced to writing the 500-word paper. Other colleges have been accused of doling out similarly soft punishments to students accused of sexual assault over the years, though the practice is believed to have become less common since 2011, when the Education Department began more aggressively investigating how colleges handle cases of sexual misconduct.

“Since 2010, the college has never assigned an essay as the only sanction in a sexual misconduct case,” JJ Akin, a spokesman for the college, said. “Gustavus Adolphus College is strongly committed to providing a positive educational experience for its students and does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind. The college has policies and practices in place to help prevent incidences of sexual misconduct, and to promptly and appropriately address complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

Citing privacy laws, the college declined to discuss the case or confirm the female student's account. She said the accused student’s punishment does also include working with a mentor and not being allowed to participate in some campus activities, though she claims he is still allowed to participate in his fraternity and to live on campus in college housing.

Her account is consistent with the college saying that it has never punished a student in a sexual misconduct case only with an essay requirement.

After the note was published on Facebook, two petitions were circulated online. One was created by Gustavus Adolphus students, and another was created by alumni. Both list a series of demands, including that the college adopt a sexual assault policy similar to that of Ohio University. That policy requires a mandatory punishment of expulsion for rape, and a minimum sanction of suspension for one semester for other kinds of sexual misconduct. More than 500 people have signed the petitions.

“Recent discussions on the Overheard at Gustavus Facebook page have again raised concerns about the ways the college handles instances of sexual violence,” the alumni petition reads. “Throughout the years, we have all become aware of situations in which students of Gustavus were found guilty by the school to have committed rape or sexual assault and were allowed to remain on campus, attend parties and continue their involvement in extracurriculars like Greek organizations and sports -- all of which put other students at risk.”

Going Public With Accusations

While there have been discussions and demonstrations about campus sexual assault at Gustavus Adolphus before, students said, the recent focus on the issue is the result of students coming forward on social media in recent weeks. Because of student privacy laws, few details regarding how colleges handle specific cases of sexual assault are ever shared unless a victim decides to go public.

Though some colleges have attempted to pressure both accused students and their accusers into entering confidentiality agreements, doing so is a Title IX violation. Victims are not legally required to stay quiet about how colleges handle their cases.

"Survivors coming forward, especially when a case didn't turn out the way it should, is one of the most important things they can do," Jessica Green, a sophomore and student activist at Gustavus Adolphus, said. "They're going public with their stories so people know."

The tactic is not new. In 2002, a College of William and Mary student hung posters in a campus building detailing how her attacker raped her after he was found guilty by the college but eligible to re-enroll. A list of about 30 students accused of rape appeared on bathroom walls at Brown University in 1990. But the tactic has become more widely used in recent years amid an increase in attention to the problem of sexual assault on campus.

A similar situation unfolded at Yale University last week. In February, a Yale basketball player suddenly withdrew from the university without explanation. Shortly after, the rest of the team wore shirts with the player’s nickname and number printed on their backs while warming up for a game. The player has not been charged with sexual assault, and at the time he had not been publicly accused, but posters featuring photographs of the team wearing the shirts soon began appearing around campus.

“Yale men’s basketball,” the posters read. “Stop supporting a rapist.”

In 2014, the names of four alleged rapists were found scrawled on the wall of a bathroom stall at Columbia University. The names were later discovered in other buildings across campus, and eventually on fliers. The victim of one of the men whose names were posted later began carrying a mattress with her around campus. It was her senior art thesis -- a controversial performance piece and a protest that put the student at the center of a national conversation about campus sexual assault.

The female Gustavus Adolphus College student said she and other victims came forward with their alleged rapists’ names not out of vindictiveness or because they’re seeking attention. She said they go public out of “sheer desperation.”

“I write this not for attention, pity or sympathy,” she wrote, “but out of concern that a school I love so much is allowing perpetrators of rape to walk around with minimal punishment and with a disregard for the safety of the other students who go here.”


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