Gilbert trial prompts campus discussion

by Marina Shkuratov | 3/30/14 6:50pm

Though the extent of its impact cannot be concretely measured, the acquittal of Parker Gilbert ’16 will likely further campus discussion of sexual assault, said College administrators and members of organizations that seek to address sexual violence. The trial and verdict, they said, may also discourage future victims from reporting and perpetuate false conceptions of assault.

Last week, Gilbert, 21, was acquitted of five counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one count of criminal trespass. He had been accused of raping a female undergraduate student after entering her room uninvited the morning of May 2, 2013.

New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence executive director Lyn Schollett said the trial’s occurrence was surprising, because few people choose to report sexual assault to law enforcement.

Fewer than 5 percent of women who experience rape or attempted rape in college report their assault to the police, a 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found. About 4 percent of those accused of sexual assault were convicted or pleaded guilty in New Hampshire in 2006, according to a report by the research committee of the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The trial’s occurrence provides proof that the law enforcement and judicial system will follow up with those who report instances of sexual violence, assistant dean of the College and director of case management Kristi Clemens said, adding that some students have worried that the system would not pursue their cases.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and WISE released a joint statement about the verdict on Thursday, saying Gilbert’s acquittal sends a “terrible message” to sexual violence survivors. WISE executive director Peggy O’Neil said the acquittal may discourage people from coming forward, reporting their attacks or cooperating with investigations.

“It was a grueling process for the victim and her family,” O’Neil said. “The outcome, while not unexpected, was still very disappointing.”

O’Neil said the trial also reinforced existing myths and stereotypes about rape and sexual assault. The trial contributed to misinformation about the crime and how a victim is supposed to act before, during and after an assault, she said.

“Scrutinizing how someone dances and what is put up on social media and how someone reacted in the aftermath of an assault is all saying that a real victim of rape should behave a certain way before she is assaulted,” O’Neil said. “She’s supposed to live a life that is unrealistic, quite honestly. She’s supposed to have fun, she’s not supposed to make mistakes, she’s not supposed to have interest in relationships and explore new opportunities.”

A stereotype that rape victims scream, yell or fight back during an attack does not necessarily reflect reality, O’Neil said. Instead, victims commonly freeze, especially because most sexual assaults occur between acquaintances.

Nine out of 10 college women who experience sexual assault know their attackers, the 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report found.

Communities, juries included, tend to judge victims differently if they consume alcohol before an alleged attack, Schollett said.

Safety and Security director Harry Kinne said he does not anticipate the trial’s proceedings will have a pronounced effect on students’ alcohol consumption.

The trial could spark discussion of the issues surrounding sexual violence and the options available to survivors, Schollett said.

Although conversation surrounding sexual violence at the College and efforts to address it preexisted the trial, Clemens said, it may offer students a concrete basis for discussing topics that can be difficult to talk about.

On March 14, the College released a proposal to strengthen institutional sanctions for perpetrators of sexual assault.

A proposal to hire an independent investigator to review alleged instances of sexual assault is scheduled to go into effect this summer, pending community feedback.

Though individuals who report sexual assault to Safety and Security do not always report their assaults to Hanover Police, Kinne said that the two organizations have a “memorandum of understanding” for crimes involving sexual assault. Safety and Security always provides a copy of its report involving such crimes to the Hanover Police, with the name of the alleged victim redacted if the individual does not wish to report the assault to them, he said.

Director of health promotion and student wellness Aurora Matzkin said the College is transforming its approach to sexual violence. Many of the changes she hopes to see involve mobilizing the entire community.

“Sexual assault on college campuses,” she said, “cannot be solved by one or two people working in one office.”

Matzkin said students, often present in social spaces, have a special responsibility to prevent sexual assault. Other community members can contribute by responding appropriately to disclosures by those who experience sexual assault, she said.

The Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning and Sexual Abuse Awareness Program run joint training sessions with staff and faculty to develop these skills.