A retrospective on discussions surrounding sexual assault

by Gigi Grigorian | 9/10/18 9:00am

Like at many colleges across the United States, sexual misconduct has become a significant source of discussion for both administrators and students at the College in recent years. Many student groups actively work to promote discussions about the topic and to eradicate sexual violence on campus. Administrators have implemented numerous policies and programs to combat sexual misconduct, earning the College an award for excellence in preventing sexual assault in 2017. Despite these measures, however, sexual misconduct has continued, sometimes forcing Dartmouth into the national media spotlight.

Last fall, news broke that three professors in the College’s department of psychological and brain sciences were accused of sexual misconduct by several students in the department. Professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen were alleged to have engaged in inappropriate behaviors such as excessive drinking and sexual harassment.

All three left the school when faced with revoked tenure and terminated employment. Heatherton retired from the College in June, and Whalen resigned later that same month. Kelley resigned in July, concluding the College’s internal investigation. Criminal investigations by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, the Grafton County attorney, the New Hampshire State Police, the Grafton County Sheriff’s office and the Hanover Police Department into the actions of the three men have not yet concluded.

This incident has not been the first of its kind at the College. In 2013, a female Dartmouth student alleged that then-freshman Parker Gilbert ’16 had raped her in her dorm room. According to the female student, Gilbert entered her room at night while she was asleep and assaulted her, despite her protests when she awoke during the incident.

Gilbert never denied that the sexual incident occurred. In fact, he even sent an email to the female student days after the event apologizing, writing, “drunkenness is no excuse and I don’t know what else I could do but offer my sincere apologies.”

Gilbert was arrested and charged with seven counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one misdemeanor count of criminal trespass. This incident and the ensuing trial at the Grafton County Superior Court was covered in both local and national media. In the 2014 trial, Gilbert maintained that the sex was consensual, with his attorney arguing that it was “clumsy, awkward, drunk college sex.” He was found not guilty of these charges, provoking outrage and frustration among students.

In 2014, the College again gained national attention when a male member of the class of 2017 posted a “rape guide” about a female student, also a ’17, on an anonymous posting site called Bored at Baker. The now defunct website allowed any student with a Dartmouth email address to access the posts. The post, which explicitly insulted the female student, presented step-by-step instructions to sexually assault her.

The College pursued an investigation into this post, but the Hanover police did not due to the extreme difficulty in identifying the anonymous poster.

While the College responded to the incident, students on campus denounced the hateful and inappropriate post. The Panhellenic Council, which has since been renamed the Inter-Sorority Council, and the Interfraternity Council publicly criticized the post in emails to campus. There was also a gathering of hundreds of students on the Green with speeches by student leaders.

In 2014, responding to the Bored at Baker post as well as other incidents of sexual misconduct at the College, activist organization UltraViolet created a petition encouraging Dartmouth to make concrete changes to its methods of addressing these instances of sexual assault. The petition, which gained 50,000 signatures, told the College, “Sexual assault is serious. Treat it that way.”

The petition outlines investigation practices for the College to adopt and suggests that students found guilty of sexual assault be expelled.

To combat the persistence of sexual misconduct on campus, the College has increasingly worked to address the issue in recent years.

“We have really since 2014 ramped up how we talk about sexual misconduct, both in reporting and in expectations,” said Kristi Clemens, the Title IX coordinator and Clery Act compliance officer at the College.

When College President Phil Hanlon took office in 2013, he made the issue a central focus of his tenure. In his Moving Dartmouth Forward plan, Hanlon outlined several steps to move the College toward being a sexual assault-free campus. For example, MDF proposed a “mandatory four-year sexual violence prevention and education program for students,” as well as a mandatory sexual misconduct education program for all new employees.

Paulina Calcaterra ’19, a member of the College’s Movement Against Violence organization, said she believes that these kinds of required programs for students are the most effective in reducing sexual assault on campus. While there are many optional programs for students, they often do not reach the students whom she believes need this education, she said.

“It’s hard to have a captive audience of the general student body for [voluntary] prevention events, and I think the people who need to hear [sexual violence programming] often don’t end up in the room,” Calcaterra explained.

Associate director of the Student Wellness Center Amanda Childress has observed the effects of the College’s push to address sexual misconduct in recent years.

From an administrative standpoint, Childress cited the creation of the Title IX office in 2014 and the establishment of new processes for students to more quickly speak to counselors.

In terms of less tangible effects, Childress said she has recently seen increased student interest and involvement in projects around sexual violence prevention and response. She has also noticed how student groups have begun to partner together more often to work toward a common goal.

“More students are talking about sexual violence. It’s not as quiet of a topic,” Childress said, explaining that this shift can be attributed to both the College’s work and the increasingly prominent national conversation about sexual misconduct.

Childress added that, while she has seen many improvements, she knows there is more work that must be done to fully address sexual misconduct on campus.

Like Childress, MAV director of programming and Sexual Assault Peer Alliance member Anne Pinkney ’20 has noticed a slight shift in her two years at the College so far.

“There’s definitely increasing awareness about sexual violence just because of what’s going on at a national scale, especially with the dawn of the Me Too movement,” Pinkney said. “More individuals are talking about it more openly.”

Calcaterra noted that, in her time at the College, she has observed an improvement in the language students use to discuss sexual violence, as they more often use the terminology used by groups working to combat this issue. She also said that she appreciates how the College has recently addressed sexual conduct but explained that there is more work to be done.

“We have a president who actually uses the words ‘sexual violence’ and acknowledges it publicly,” Calcaterra explained. “On the surface, we’re doing great with prevention work and programs, but I do think there’s a deep cultural issue of many of our spaces being problematic and promoting rape culture.”

Pinkney similarly believes that there is more work that needs to be done, citing the continued stigma that survivors of sexual assault often face in coming forward about their experiences. She also noted that the small nature of Dartmouth’s campus makes it difficult for survivors to feel comfortable and safe at school.

“Another facet to this issue is how our judicial system has been codified into making it extremely difficult for survivors to really seek justice if they choose to do so,” Pinkney added.

While sexual misconduct has been addressed through administrative programs and organized student groups, students have also independently engaged in campus-wide discussions pertaining to sexual assault. This past spring, for example, the issue of enthusiastic consent took center stage at the College. At the root of this discussion was the question, “If consent is unenthusiastic, does it still constitute consent?”

Calcaterra said she believes the conversation was sparked by sidewalk chalk in the days before Green Key intended to remind students about enthusiastic consent before the concert weekend. The messages, written by students, included phrases such as “Consent is enthusiastic” and “Consent is ongoing.”

In the weeks after Green Key, several opinion pieces were published in The Dartmouth debating the issue of enthusiastic consent. One column by Jillian Freeman ’21 argued that “unenthusiastic consent is, in fact, consent.”

“If you don’t want something, don’t say yes,” she wrote, describing the ambiguity and subjectivity of enthusiasm.

Another column, written by Calcaterra and Katherine Carithers ’19, responded that an unenthusiastic, coerced “yes,” often prompted by power imbalances between sexual partners, does not constitute consent: “Being intimidated or pressured to mumble ‘yes,’ ‘sure’ or ‘okay’ to things one is not fully comfortable with is not consent,” they wrote.

A third column by Emma Sampugnaro ’19 argued against overly broad definitions of sexual assault.

“There is indeed a difference between regretting an encounter and walking away from an experience feeling violated — but that feeling of violation does not in itself create a legally actionable definition,” she wrote.

This series of articles prompted a flurry of discussion, with each column garnering support and opposition. Sampugnaro wrote in her piece that she hopes that other controversial issues will be brought into open, campus-wide conversation, as with this issue, with students listening to each others’ views in order to create a rich discussion.

Just this month, there was a march on campus intended to show solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. At the event, which was not affiliated with any specific student organizations, three students addressed the crowd of 80 people in attendance.

Highlighting the complexity of sexual misconduct as an issue on college campuses, Clemens finds reassurance of the College’s progress in a seemingly counterintuitive place. According to federal data, the College ranked third in the United States for reported rapes in 2014 with 42. Ahead were Brown University and the University of Connecticut, each with 43.

“We know from national data that sexual assault is happening on all college campuses,” Clemens explained. “If we’re seeing more reports, that’s actually a good thing because then we’re getting resources to those reporting parties where we’re going through potentially a conduct hearing and holding people accountable for harming others in the community.”