Last month, students at Dartmouth College staged a public protest to highlight the administration’s failure to address sexual assault, racism, and homophobia on campus. After the participants in the protest received rape and death threats from other students in an online forum, the college suggested the protesters’ public disruption was an equally serious offense as the threats leveled against them — and threatened to discipline them for it.
Now, that threat is materializing. Several protesters received letters this week from the college’s Judicial Affairs Office informing them that they must schedule a disciplinary hearing to address alleged violations of the student code of conduct. According to a letter obtained by ThinkProgress, the students who staged the protest are being charged with failing to follow directions, since they entered a building on campus that was already at its maximum capacity.
“At least two thirds of the protesters have now received disciplinary letters, and it seems random — some people who were featured prominently in the protest didn’t, and others did,” one of the student protesters, Karenina Rojas, told ThinkProgress in an interview. Rojas is among the students who is facing disciplinary action.
Rojas doesn’t know if college administrators are actively pursuing disciplinary action against the individuals who made the violent threats against the protesters, since Dartmouth’s judicial affairs office has declined to comment on ongoing cases against students. Rojas pointed out that Dartmouth may be having trouble identifying the students who made anonymous comments in the online forum, which is an independent website that the school has no control over. “It’s easier for the school to target the protesters who are public,” the Dartmouth senior noted. “When you take a stand, you’re putting yourself out there for repercussions.”
But Rojas explained that the administration hasn’t taken this type of disciplinary action against other on-campus protests that have focused on issues other than the university’s sexual assault and diversity policies. “I was a member of Occupy Dartmouth, and we occupied the student center for months… We definitely failed to comply with directions, and we were never disciplined like this,” Rojas said. The same goes for another student group, United Students Against Sweatshops, that has disrupted several high-level events on campus like board of trustee meetings.
The fact that Dartmouth is choosing to crack down on protesters now seems arbitrary, the Dartmouth senior told ThinkProgress. But it may have to do with external pressure. Earlier this month, Dartmouth College’s campus newspaper reported that college administrators discussed the anti-rape protest during an Alumni Council meeting, and some alumni asked whether the students who “disrupted” campus would be punished. At that meeting, one alumni was quoted as saying that “Dartmouth’s community is very strong despite the recent disruptions that have gone on that upset the community,” and the protesters’ citation of a Department of Justice statistic that 95 percent of sexual assaults on campus go unreported “sounds like a preposterous number.”
Ultimately, Rojas and the other protesters at Dartmouth don’t take issue with the fact that they may be punished. They just want the college to take other crimes on campus just as seriously as they’re treating the recent protest. “If we broke a rule, we should be punished — but we ask the administration to also punish serial rapists,” Rojas said. “The fact is that Dartmouth is punishing protesters who are very visible, but won’t punish students who commit assaults.”
Just last week, Rojas and other activists filed a federal compliant against Dartmouth alleging that the university has created a hostile environment on campus by failing to adequately address cases of sexual assault, racism, and homophobia. Although they may face repercussions for their actions during their public protest, Dartmouth cannot legally punish them for filing a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. A month ago, the federal government reiterated that college administrations are not allowed to punish students who bring these types of issues of discrimination to their school’s attention.