Standing up to sexual assault: Addressing leniency on readmission of students found responsible

Content warning: This op-ed deals with accounts of sexual assault and may be triggering to survivors.

A friend recently told me of a peculiar phenomenon she encountered.

Last spring, the campus was decorated with posters shamelessly asking seniors to donate to the College. All across Paresky, purple letters screamed ways in which seniors could give back.

One day, my friend noticed a poster inside a stall in the women’s bathroom that read, in small lettering in the corner: “I’ll donate when Williams stops readmitting rapists.” Then below it, in a different hand writing: “YESSSS, thank you!!!”

Further down was a list, belonging to many different handwriting styles and pen colors. A list of names. People were listing the names of student rapists who were still at the College. Of course the poster was taken down when my friend went to check again a few days later.

When my friend shared this with me, I was struck – not only by how deep of an issue the readmission of rapists to the College is that so many people would react so quickly to a small comment on a poster, but also by the realization that the only setting in which people felt safe enough to criticize the College’s handling of sexual assault was on the inside of a stall in the women’s bathroom.

Let’s be real. It’s not easy to talk candidly about rape without repercussions. Except for “Take Back the Night,” where students bravely share their personal stories with the community, there aren’t many opportunities for the general student body to be exposed to the reality of rapists on campus. And there certainly aren’t opportunities for students to work with the administration to address concerns about how sexual assault cases are handled. The College releases an annual count of reported assaults, as it is legally bound to do. On the College’s website under “Rape, Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” there is general information available regarding the readmission of rapists. According to a letter from Professor of Psychology and Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom, during the 2015-16 academic year, “all five cases of sexual assault that were investigated and adjudicated resulted in findings of responsibility, as did one of the two cases of relationship abuse and both cases of exploitation. All students found responsible for sexual assault were separated from the College: one of the students was expelled, and the other four were suspended for two semesters.” Accordingly, four of the five students found responsible for sexual assault were eventually readmitted to the College.

I first heard that the readmission of rapists was a thing at Williams while watching a hockey game with the women’s ski team two years ago. Between sounds of cheering, an older teammate had us freshmen girls engaged in a story about a student who reported a hockey player for rape a couple years ago. She told us the student coming forward had a difficult time dealing with the dean’s office, and, after facing social isolation and humiliation when the story was leaked to the student body, ended up transferring to Columbia, even though the assailant was eventually found guilty by the College. Our jaws dropped. My teammate then asked us if we could guess what the hockey player rapist was doing now. She raised her arm, pointed to an athlete on the ice – an athlete we were all gathered around cheering for – and said, “That’s him right there.”

What message does this send to us students? That if you ever decide to report a rape, it’s going to take a lot more than the bravery to share your story and to make it through. You will have to go against the administration, you will struggle to find support as you go against your peers and you might have to get used to staying in school and attending classes with your assailant.

Back in my freshman year, I struggled to make sense of that story. I searched online, googling “williams college hockey rapist,” and what I found didn’t ease my sharp inner feelings of injustice. Articles online criticized the College’s choice to suspend him for a mere three semesters, rather than to expel him for fear of “ruining the life of the [convicted] student.”

Sound familiar? Oh yeah, that’s the same logic that Judge Persky used to get Stanford’s Brock Turner out of a long jail sentence. We are better than that. We have to be better than that.

Under the changing leadership of a new president of the College, we have the opportunity to reconsider how we handle sexual assault on campus and the information that we share with the community regarding these assaults. We must work on better supporting our students who come forward to report rapes, and on creating an environment where all students feel that attackers are consistently and permanently removed from campus.

We’re better than shoving the issue of readmitting rapists under the rug for what we tell ourselves will protect the reputation of our school. Students deserve more of a voice than the secretive scribbling on a poster. We can make the College better if we work together as a community to solve the issue of mishandling sexual assault.

Skylar Chaney ’19.5 is from Wrighstville Beach, N.C. She lives in Fayerweather.