ST. PETER, Minn. – Walking to class last March, the student let loose a startling Facebook post with a tap on her phone. Suddenly, it was out: a 750-word statement declaring that another student had raped her and that Gustavus Adolphus College had punished him with a 500-word essay.
The single Facebook post turned what had been a long-simmering campus debate at the small liberal arts college into a full explosion.
It prompted student activists to launch a petition drive demanding that campus rapists be expelled, and touched off a chain of events that is reshaping the campus this fall.
“People don’t feel safe on this campus, and that’s a problem,” said Liza Long, a junior who is part of the Womyn’s Awareness Center, a student group that led the demands for change. “So what can we do to try to remedy that and kind of work for a better campus?”
The college says it can’t discuss individual cases because of privacy laws. But officials confirm that they have used essays — always with other sanctions, since they started tracking cases — in cases of sexual misconduct.
“A lot of times, you think about the court system as punitive,” said JoNes VanHecke, the dean of students. “That’s not really one of the driving forces behind conduct on college campuses. On college campuses, we want it to be educational.”
Yet, Gustavus acted vigorously after spring protests. “We’ve never had a point where we weren’t working to improve the college’s response,” VanHecke said.
The report of the 500-word essay touched a nerve at a time when student activists across Minnesota and the country have been demanding that schools take a tougher line on campus rape. It also feeds long-standing fears that colleges are more interested in covering up sexual assault than punishing perpetrators.
The woman whose Facebook post erupted on campus agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. “I didn’t really want to make it about, ‘Boo-hoo, I’m here to tell you all how this has ruined me,’ ” she said. “I was mostly upset and angry that because the college has failed me, they had essentially failed every other girl on campus.”
She said she was raped by the same student twice during her first two years on campus, but didn’t report it at the time because they’d been drinking. She came forward with a formal complaint last fall, she said, out of growing concern that too many perpetrators were getting away with sexual assault.
In her post on a Facebook group called “Overheard at Gustavus,” she wrote that her perpetrator was “found responsible by the college for rape” and suspended, but that he appealed. She wrote that his punishment was reduced to exclusion from “school-related activities,” an assigned mentor and “a 500-word paper on consent.”
“I write this not to be vindictive but out of sheer desperation because Gustavus has not allowed me any other peace of mind,” she said in the post.
The man identified in her post did not respond to requests for comment from the Star Tribune.
Two days after the Facebook post went up March 1, about 10 members of the Womyn’s Awareness Center drew up a petition that collected 500 signatures in four days. The group gave the demands to college President Rebecca Bergman on March 7, the day of a campuswide town hall where officials announced that a college task force would work to address concerns.
Petition leaders posted a list of eight demands on a website called No More Fear, calling on the administration to take serious steps to tackle sexual misconduct. In response to the task force, Gustavus has decided to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator, instead of splitting the job among three deans. Other plans include more training.
Some students still aren’t satisfied. “It requires urgency,” said senior Womyn’s Awareness Center member Esrea Perez.
Jessica Green, a junior, said she had considered transferring because she didn’t feel the college was focusing enough on student safety. But she decided to stay after she heard about the full-time Title IX position — a sign to her that sexual assault is being taken seriously.
“It does instill hope, but the work isn’t done,” she said.