Pay attention: Thresher opinion prompts apology
Content warning: The following article contains references to sexual assault.
Following the publication of a Rice alumna’s anonymous opinion about the mishandling of her sexual assault case in last week’s Thresher, students mobilized across campus to express their dissatisfaction and anger through acts of vandalism and defacement, silent protests and petitions. Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman issued an initial statement through the Thresher, followed by an apology by Gorman and President David Leebron on Friday evening.
In the anonymous opinion, the alumna wrote that her assailant was found in violation of the Code of Student Conduct by Student Judicial Programs. She was informed that he would be suspended starting at the beginning of the Spring 2019 semester and would be required to apply for readmission. However, the alumna wrote that that she recently found out that her assailant was able to avoid his suspension by graduating early.
“He received a diploma, with all the rights and responsibilities that a degree from Rice confers,” the alumna wrote in her opinion. “When Rice handed him a degree, they handed him a certification that what he had done was fine.”
(Editor’s Note: The Thresher reached out to the alumna who wrote the anonymous opinion for comments. The Thresher granted the alumna continued anonymity in line with our policy of not identifying sexual assault survivors who wish to remain anonymous.)
The alumna said she wrote the opinion after she was dismissed by administrators such as Alison Vogt, the associate dean of students, when she asked about the outcomes of her case and policies that led to his ability to graduate. The alumna said she sent emails to various administrators for clarification but received no response, leading her to then write the opinion.
“I really had to work to get into contact with anyone from the administration,” the alumna said. “I really had to work to get emails back or schedule meetings and things like that but once my [opinion] was published, I was kind of immediately reached out to by a lot of different people.”
Vandalism and Defacement
Around 1 a.m. on Sept. 26, a group of anonymous Rice students plastered the base of William Marsh Rice’s statue with cut-outs of the alumna’s opinion and painted posters with letters spelling “PAY ATTENTION.” Images of the statue were then posted by the instagram account @justiceforricesurvivors. (Editor’s note: The Thresher granted anonymity to three students who took responsibility for the defacement of Willy’s statue to protect them from potential repercussions. The three students will be referenced using fictitious names.)
Beth, who came up with the idea for covering Willy’s statue with messages, said she felt that she had to raise awareness and reached out to Sam and Jane to get them on board.
“To me the op-ed felt like more of an issue that people just posted about on social media,” said Beth. “Reading the opinion and hearing stories from my friends and other people talking about [how] the university was not behind them, I thought that was a big issue and wanted to do something.”
At approximately 2:30 a.m., officers from the Rice University Police Department arrived at Willy Statue and removed all posters and signage. According to Chief of Police James Tate, the defacement of Willy’s statue was in violation of campus policy.
“RUPD has a duty to protect university property from acts of vandalism and defacement, whenever and wherever it happens,” Tate said. “We also have a duty to enforce all campus policies fairly and consistently, which is why the signs were removed.”
Tate also said that permission for any activity covered by the policy must be requested 48 hours in advance. According to Rice University Policy 820 titled “Campus Demonstrations, Protests, and Organized Expressions of Opinion,” activities such as protesting and installing posters are allowed as long as they do not violate local, state or federal laws. Texas Penal Code prohibits the defacement of burial sites, and Willy’s Statue is the tomb for William Marsh Rice.
Sam said that they were aware of the policy and do not have any anger against RUPD. Sam said that the picture of the statue on Instagram served to preserve their message.
Shortly after midnight on Sept. 27, the group again posted cutouts of the alumna’s opinion with painted letters spelling out “YOU CAN’T SILENCE US” on the base. In addition, a sign reading “I PROTECT RAPISTS” was placed on the statue. Images of the statue were again posted by the Instagram account @justiceforricesurvivors. RUPD responded to Willy’s Statue at approximately 1:45 a.m. and removed all signage. Gorman said that no complaints regarding vandalism or defacement have been filed with SJP as of today.
Sam said that their group escalated the severity of their diction the second night in order to match the discourse on campus. Beth said they considered the potential triggering effects of the message on students, but felt that Willy’s statue was in an avoidable location.
According to Sam, several other independent Rice students contacted Sam, Jane and Beth asking about how they could contribute to these demonstrations. Sam said that all the interested students organized on the Wiess College and Hanszen College sundeck in the early morning hours of Sept. 27 to plan additional demonstrations and protests.
Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., multiple groups of students working in solidarity with Sam, Jane and Beth dispersed across campus, trying to cover various buildings and landmarks, including the Sallyport and residential colleges, with cut-outs of the opinion. They also used chalk to write messages on walls. The platform of Willy’s statue was once again defaced, this time with the message “Rice protects rapists” written in chalk. Most of the messages were removed or cleaned by noon on Sept. 27 but some remained at residential colleges in the afternoon.
Lisa, the fourth anonymous student, said she and others wrote the messages across campus. Lisa said she regrets that they did not have enough time to think about whether the messages across campus would be triggering for sexual assault survivors, but said that many of the organizers of such activities were survivors themselves.
“I understand that different people who are organizing put a lot of posters in college commons and I can see how it would be very overwhelming,” Lisa said. “We should definitely put [survivor safety] as a priority [when organizing demonstrations] going forward but there is not much we can do now after the fact.”
According to Snigdha Banda, who serves on the executive committee of Students Transforming Rice into a Violence-Free Environment, the overwhelming presence of these messages across campus may have been triggering for students, especially survivors.
“We’ve had our liaisons reach out to the groups posting publicly on campus to alert them to the effect it may have on survivors,” Banda, a Wiess senior, said. “The groups often include survivors themselves and so they were generally lending an open ear to such concerns.”
Cathryn Councill, director of The SAFE Office: Interpersonal Misconduct Prevention and Support, said that the SAFE Office has been especially busy providing support to students during this “stressful time.”
At 10 a.m on Sept. 27, more than 50 students, majority of whom were wearing red, held up signs and lined the Rice Memorial Center corridor, spanning from Coffeehouse to Farnsworth Pavilion, in a silent protest intending to disrupt Families’ Weekend activities. The protest was organized by multiple students, including those involved with @justiceforricesurvivors. Information about the protest was privately disseminated on the evening of Sept. 26.
As part of the Families’ Weekend program, parents were attending the “Welcome to the Weekend” event inside Farnsworth Pavilion and Ray’s Courtyard. Shortly before 10:30 a.m., some student protesters dispersed into Ray’s Courtyard and handed out copies of the recent Thresher to parents in attendance. Around 11 a.m., Leebron addressed the crowd in Ray’s Courtyard but was subsequently surrounded by silent protesters.
The protest was organized through a collaboration of Sam, Jane and Beth and other students. Another student, Jack, who identified as a member of Rice Left, said they privately disseminated information about the protest Thursday evening via a PDF document titled “Share this document only with friends you trust.” (Editors’ Note: The student from Rice Left was granted anonymity and is referred to by a fictitious name to protect them from potential repercussions).
According to Jack, the idea of protest started as a discussion within Rice Left. Jack said that they decided on a silent protest to allude to the discourse of the administration silencing student concerns.
“We could have gotten in people’s faces about it and been loud about it but I think the opinion speaks for itself, and we just wanted to amplify the opinion and get parents and administrators to know that students were really upset about it,” Jack said.
Jack said that the protesters intentionally did not block entrances or create disturbance to prevent any response from RUPD. According to Jack, Gorman had privately emailed students from the SA in the morning about the fact that she knew about the protest and assuring that RUPD would not interfere with the demonstration.
Maddy Scannell, a Martel College junior, was one of the students who participated in the silent protest in Ray’s Courtyard.
“I’m here because I’m angry,” Scannell said. “I’m tired of SJP brushing incidents like this under the rug and I’m tired of when even SJP does the right thing and finds rapists in violation, the administration is not doing enough to punish them and sanction them after the fact.”
Miranda Curtis, sister of a current student, was attending the “Welcome to the Weekend” event. Curtis said that she supports the students involved in the protests.
“I think it’s great that students are standing up for people who have been sexually assaulted at this school and I’m happy to see it here [in Ray’s Courtyard] as a form of free speech on campus,” Curtis said.
Jack said that Leebron came and spoke to student protestors for a few min after parents had dispersed from the courtyard.
At approximately 11 a.m. on Sept. 27, a second silent protest, also organized by Jack, started during Gorman’s Family Weekend lecture at Hudspeth Auditorium in the Anderson-Clarke Center. Students, holding signs and again dressed in red, lined the sides of the auditorium as parents were taking their seats. Jack said that Gorman seemed to not anticipate this second protest and took a few minutes to make some phone calls. The silent protesters remained in the auditorium when the lecture began.
Gorman abandoned her lecture content to address the protesters and field questions from students and parents about Rice’s mismanagement of sexual assault cases.
“I want the group that’s here to know I do see you, I do hear you and we are paying attention,” Gorman said.
Gorman answered questions from students and parents about Rice’s mismanagement of sexual assault cases for the remainder of her lecture. For some questions, Gorman deferred to Vogt, who was also present. Parents and students asked about instances where SJP asks survivors about what they were wearing and about the reasons for not expelling students in violation of Sexual Assault policy.
In response to the question on clothing, Vogt said that this is an optional question intended to gain insight on the mechanism of the assault. Gorman responded to the question on expulsion that there is a wide spectrum of behaviors classified as sexual assault and not all merit expulsion. Gorman repeatedly mentioned that she would not divulge any details of the alumna’s specific case.
On Sept. 26, the Thresher published a letter from Gorman regarding the opinion. In the letter, Gorman said that privacy laws limited what she could say about the case, but “substantial sanctions” were imposed upon the student found guilty.
“Although we do our best to communicate clearly, we realize we fell short in communicating the final resolution of this case to the student who filed the complaint,” Gorman wrote in her letter. “As a result, there has been understandable anger and frustration. For that, we sincerely apologize, and we are committed to doing better.”
The alumna said that Gorman’s Sept. 26 letter failed to provide any resolution or meaningful contribution to the dialogue.
“I did not agree with how she characterized what had happened as a problem in communication as opposed to a problem in decision-making process,” the alumna said. “I think that her letter on Thursday was ambiguous in a way that made the Rice administration seem cold and heartless and avoiding the problem.”
The alumna said that Gorman reached out immediately after the opinion was published and met with her on Sept. 27 to offer a direct apology. According to the alumna, Gorman provided specifics of her case and discussed ways to make changes to the SJP process for sexual assault survivors.
“Dean Gorman was willing to talk to me about the specifics of my case and she was willing to tell me what exactly had happened and why it was able to happen,” the alumna said. “She also apologized to me with multiple times in a very human and real way about how she was sorry the case was handled in the way that they did, and was sorry about the effect it had on me.”
The alumna said that Gorman told her that when making the decision on her case, Gorman and others had debated between suspending her assailant and allowing him to graduate early. According to the alumna, Gorman said that they chose to let him graduate early so that he could not appeal the decision to defer suspension and continue in the campus community. The alumna said that Gorman told her that they wanted to protect her from her assailant by letting him leave the Rice community.
“I kind of expressed my dissatisfaction with that and Dean Gorman was very honest in saying that decision was a mistake and that they should have involved me in that decision and going forward, they will involve survivors in that decision,” the alumna said.
On the evening of Sept. 27, Leebron and Gorman sent a joint email to all faculty and staff publicly apologizing to the alumna and the Rice community. Leebron and Gorman said that they would revise the current policy in order to prevent those guilty of sexual assault from graduating early.
“At the time the decision was made, Rice had no explicit policy in place about how a suspension should be applied to a student who is able to graduate before the suspension could take effect,” Leebron and Gorman wrote. “We have determined that there should be such a policy, and that the decision made in this case was in fact a mistake. For that, we sincerely apologize. In the future, our policy will be to not allow anyone to graduate without serving their sanction.”
Leebron and Gorman also specified the sanction imposed upon the alumna’s assailant, which included an indefinite ban from campus and a note on their permanent record.
The alumna said that this letter reflected her earlier discussions with Gorman and provided her with more closure.
Sam, Jane, Beth, Jack and Lisa all said they would continue to work to represent student concerns about sexual assault and organize future demonstrations if the administration does not follow through with their promises.
A closed-door meeting with Gorman, college presidents, magisters, Student Association officers, STRIVE liaisons and other administrators was held Thursday night in the Duncan Magisters’ house.
Based on minutes provided by Baker College President James Warner, attendees discussed SJP policies, especially with regard to punishment for those found guilty with sexual assault, resources for survivors and how students can provide criticism and feedback to adminstration.
Will Rice College sophomore Izzie Karohl, member of the Student Association’s Committee for Interpersonal Violence Policy, organized a petition writing meeting on Sept. 26 to draft a list of demands. The petition currently has 970 signatures from both students and faculty. The Committee for Interpersonal Violence Policy also organized a town hall on Sept. 30 with both students and administrators, including Gorman and SJP officials. The petition and townhall are covered in an online story, coming later this week.
The alumna said that she never expected her opinion to have such a great impact on the Rice community. She said she hopes for a continued platform for students to share stories and concerns regarding sexual assault, as well as greater transparency and resources in the SJP process.
“Ii just really want to emphasize that I have loved being able to sort of like in some way ignite this movement and I really hope that people can continue that,” the alumna said. “I am really excited to take a step back and see what people do from here on and I hope that people are able to find a different, new symbol beyond just my op.”