A young woman dragged a mattress across her campus to protest Columbia University’s mishandling of her sexual assault complaint. A young man at Gustavus Adolphus College was assigned a 500-word essay about consent as punishment for sexual assault. Now, a report was released documenting over fifty years of unpunished sexual abuse committed by twelve faculty members at Choate Rosemary Hall, a small elite boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut.
Sexual assault allegations have become so commonplace on campuses around the country that only the most sensational stories make the headlines. These stories represent just a microscopic sampling of the thousands of reported sexual assault cases in the last decade alone, and each sheds light on a disturbing pattern of indifference toward human dignity within the educational administration system.
Choate released a report less than a month ago that documents sexual harassment and assault committed by at least twelve former faculty members beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 2010s. The investigation was conducted only after the Boston Globe in 2016 published the story of a Choate French professor who was forced to resign in 1992 for having sexual relations with a student, but was given a recommendation letter from the administration which helped him land a job at another private institution months later.
The document prepared for the Board of Trustees at Choate describes multiple cases of parents and students complaining to the school about inappropriate interactions of faculty and their students that were never brought to police attention. These cases include a young woman in the 1980s who contracted herpes from her English teacher and a student who was raped by her teacher on a school trip to Costa Rica. Most these faculty were allowed to quietly resign from Choate and ended up working at other schools where they became potential threats to future victims.
This serves as just one example of faulty school administrations across the country that are more concerned with the reputation of their school and the incoming class size than the dignity and safety of the human beings that already reside in the community. This is neither a small nor an isolated problem: it deeply affects young people across the country and sadly, has been and continues to be relevant across generations. It necessitates major structural change, not just within the educational administration system, but within our larger culture that perpetuates the violence and mistreatment.
Only a year ago, our own small-town, private liberal arts, “community on the hill” college made national news in USA Today College for punishing a student found responsible for sexual assault by assigning a 500-word essay on the subject of consent. A paragraph about consent? A fifth grader with a laptop could whip that out in less than an hour.
Not only was this his punishment, but it was his only punishment. He was allowed to remain on campus and continue a regular schedule of classes which included a class with the victim. After sacrificing a whole hour to write his punishment essay of course, he was allowed to continue his regular life while the victim not only endured the trauma of sexual assault, but had to endure the continued suffering of being reminded of it every single day and living in constant fear. As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the student body was not informed of the sexual assault case until months later when we read it in the neighboring city’s newspaper headlines. Even then, the administration refused to release his name.
The educational administration acts as an oppressive social structure which restricts human dignity and freedom by allowing perpetrators to remain free and present an ongoing threat to their victims and the whole of their community. This promotes individual selfishness of current and potential perpetrators because they can rest assured that if it’s up to the school administration, their scholarship or blossoming future career will be bubble wrapped so that they suffer no real world consequences for their actions. The oppressive school administration and the selfish perpetrator feed a culture of complicity around sexual assault. Rape culture continues and human dignity suffers because of deep-rooted structural and cultural problems that remain unaddressed.
When I speak of protecting human dignity, some might raise objections to the prioritization of the dignity of the victim over that of the perpetrator. However, if a society is to value and protect human dignity, it must be built on a system of justice, one that holds a person accountable for their actions, for their violation of another human being. If we allow perpetrators to walk free, they stand as a threat to all of human dignity.
The systemic structures and cultural values that perpetuate sexual violence are deeply imbedded in our society and will take time and great effort to change. While we work to dig up the roots of the problem, the problem does not cease to exist. Therefore, victims should bypass their school administration and seek justice off-campus in the real world, where each decision and action has a consequence which must be faced. While our justice system too is broken, it is typically not invested in upholding the reputation of an institution, and therefore provides greater hope for valuing and protecting the dignity of the victims.
Education is supposed to move our society forward, and liberal arts colleges specifically are meant to promote, dignify, and explore the responsible use of freedom. Yet, by remaining complicit in rape culture, they deny full freedom for many students by not upholding the discipline of responsible behavior on which a society must function if it is to be both civilized and free.
Campuses around the country have become a prison for victims and a playground for perpetrators.