How Cyberbullying Is Making Sexual Assault on College Campuses Even Worse
As Dartmouth makes efforts to combat sexual assault, posts on an anonymous online forum have students terrified.
By Katie Van Syckle
Less than two months ago, a commenter on an anonymous online forum threatened to gang-bang me at a fraternity house. "Is the Cosmo writer actually coming to Dartmouth?" the poster wrote on BoredatBaker.com, a forum open to anyone with a Dartmouth.edu email address. "We should invite her to AD and run train on her. Take pics. Publish it in the next Cosmo issue." Two commenters supported the plan. One suggested peeing on me too.
AD, or Alpha Delta, is Dartmouths rowdy cool-boys frat, the inspiration for Animal House and where current college president Phil Hanlon (Dartmouth '77) pledged. I had contacted Hanlon a 60-something mathematician for an article on the new sexual assault policy at Dartmouth. I hadn't heard back from him, but I'd spoken to enough people on campus to make my presence known.
I found the post while sitting on my couch in Brooklyn in late March, four days after it was posted. I called the colleges campus police, Safety and Security, and they offered to send an S&S officer. I told them I was off campus. They took my class year I graduated from Dartmouth in 2005 my birthday, and asked for a screenshot. Two hours later, the Hanover Police called.
"Do you know who would have written it?" the officer asked. I told him I didnt. He wasnt optimistic that he could find the author or hold anyone responsible. He said the Hanover Police get calls like mine about Bored at Baker once a month.
"Its not saying we are going to stalk Katie Van Syckle. Its suggestive, sure. But in the eyes of the law, it needs to be more specific," he said. Law enforcement typically decides whether to act on threats based on whether or not they think someone will actually follow through with a crime.
The next morning, Dartmouths assistant vice president for media relations, Justin Anderson, called to confirm an interview with the dean of the college, Charlotte Johnson. Anderson had been notified of the threat and apologized for the "cesspool" of a website. He said Dartmouth would ask Bored at Baker to remove the post and told me Dartmouth had been able to identify authors in the past, even after posts had been removed.
Since the beginning of the year, two stories about alleged sexual assault at Dartmouth have made national news. In January, a "rape guide" was posted on Bored at Baker with instructions on how to assault a female first-year student, sparking outrage on and off campus. In March, a former Dartmouth student was acquitted of five felony counts of sexual assault and a misdemeanor of criminal trespass against another student. The prosecution said the defendant entered the sleeping womans unlocked room and started having sex with her. The jury sided with the defense, which argued that it was a case of consensual, "clumsy, awkward, drunk college sex."
Dartmouth is currently under investigation by the Department of Education for possible violations of Title IX, the 1972 statute that outlaws gender discrimination and requires schools to take necessary steps to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus. The college is now stepping up efforts to combat sexual violence. A zero-tolerance policy, slated to go into effect this summer, will require that students found responsible for rape by the schools Committee on Standards be expelled a policy few schools have in place. In April, Hanlon established a steering committee on sexual assault, high-risk drinking, and lack of inclusion, arguing that "[r]isky and harmful behaviors stand between us and realizing Dartmouths amazing promise and potential." Applications to the college in 2014 dropped by 14 percent from 2013, a decrease the college vowed to investigate.
These measures come as colleges and universities nationwide face criticism for their handling of sexual assault and rape on campus. But critics say that Dartmouths culture of sexual harassment is so pronounced specifically on Bored at Baker and the current policies are so ineffective that they question whether, even with these new efforts, students will be safer.
"I HAVE NEVER FELT SAFE ON THIS CAMPUS"
Tucked into the hills of remote Hanover, N.H., Dartmouth looks like a stock photo for a small liberal arts college. With its red brick walls and white spire, Baker library where Bored at Baker gets its name sits at the end of a grassy square flanked by a row of white colonial buildings. Founded in 1769, Dartmouth is the smallest Ivy League school, with about 4,500 undergraduate students. The social life is Greek-centric, and more than 50 percent of students belong to a fraternity or sorority. Dartmouth was one of the last Ivies to admit women, in 1972, and gender parity has dominated campus conversations since. The alma mater was changed from "Men of Dartmouth" to "Dear Old Dartmouth" in 1988.
Bored at Baker is a private, independently owned website and one of several sites in the "Boredat" network established by Columbia alumnus Jonathan Pappas in 2006. (The network also includes Columbia's Bored at Butler, Harvard's Bored at Lamont, and Princeton's Bored at Firestone, among others.) Structured as a collection of online forums, the Boredat sites host anonymous posts covering everything from academic questions to dating advice. A former moderator of the Dartmouth site says Dartmouths site is the most active in the network and the most vitriolic.
Jessica,* a 19-year-old whose first year of college has been warped by Bored at Baker, meets me for coffee in Hanover, just off campus.
Over the whirs of espresso machines, Jessica tells me she was raped in the fall but didnt report the assault because she didn't think she had enough evidence to bring the case before the schools internal justice committee.
She contacted another student who knew what happened, but when he didnt want to testify, she was discouraged. "Everyone knows the Committee on Standards needs to have overwhelming proof to get anything done," she says.
Around this time, posts started appearing on Bored at Baker calling her the "Choates Whore," named for her dorm. She says she reported the posts to Dartmouth administrators when they started and was told there was nothing they could do. The posts continued through October, November, and December.
"The administrations focus wasnt to prevent this from happening," Jessica says. "It was to prevent me from being upset by it I contacted people that I thought were behind the harassment, and one of the people was like, 'I dont know why you would accuse me of this. You should seek mental help.'"
Jessica eventually accepted that the harassment wouldnt stop. "I basically just got used to being called these things," she says.
On January 10, someone posted instructions on Bored at Baker on how to rape Jessica. She informed her dean and was moved to a different dorm, and she told the police the name of the person she thought wrote the post.
"I had faith the authorities were going to do something about it," she says. "But they got back to me and said there was nothing they could do. The police contacted me at one point and said, That person who you told us about, he sounds like hes just concerned. I dont think you have anything to worry about from him.'"
She says she followed up with administrators twice and was told they were waiting for the Hanover police to finish their investigation. On February 3, the police told her it wasnt a criminal matter, and the next day, Jessica appealed to her classmates on Facebook for help. She said since the "rape guide" post went up, nothing had happened to the poster. She also said she had been assaulted again.
"I went out last week and got assaulted at the first and only house I went to," she wrote. "Then I got told it happens all the time. I hope that maybe someone reading this will do something, because I have no one to turn to."
The campus erupted in outrage. The next day, the student responsible for posting the rape guide was identified by Safety and Security through his IP address. Jessica says it was the same person she first named to police. Dartmouth officials say he is no longer enrolled. On February 10, hundreds of students gathered on the snow-covered Green in freezing temperatures, listened to student speakers talk about the need to take a stand against sexual violence, and sang the alma mater. Jessica says the vigil made her feel more supported.
A professor I know put me in touch with Emily*, a senior who tells a similar story. We sit down in a florescent-lit, gray-toned study room in Baker Library. Nearby, students in Dartmouth sweatshirts crouch over books at Formica tables. Emily says she was being verbally harassed during the spring of her first year, and when she went to the perpetrators room to ask him to stop, he raped her.
"I tried to talk to sexual assault peer advisers. I tried to talk to students," she says. "I tried to talk to my undergraduate adviser. I tried to talk to my dean. I tried to tell her that I was afraid, and she said, 'It sounds like youre anxious. Do you have exams coming up?' I saw a counselor, and I tried to tell him what was going on. I requested a female counselor. They said there were none available and theres a two-week waiting list. After trying five or six times to reach out to people for support, I just gave up."
For the next three years, Emily was involved with sexual-violence prevention on campus and was increasingly harassed on Bored at Baker.
"At first I shrugged it off," she says. "But then the threats got more specific. People published my phone number, room number, and course schedule, and where I liked to eat. They gave dates and times where people were going to meet up and do things to me."
She says she was physically assaulted her junior year and was later targeted on Bored at Baker because the attacker thought she had reported the incident. The harassment was so intense shes vague for fear of more death threats that she was eventually hospitalized for trauma. The Hanover Police opened an investigation.
"They said there were so many people to interview they didnt think it was likely someone would be found," Emily says. "They must have dropped their investigation because the college judicial affairs and Safety and Security started investigating and were also unable to find anyone."
Emily says her experience with Bored at Baker is common. "I have friends who, once theyve seen something horrible about themselves on the site, they dont get out of bed, and they dont go to class," she says. "I have had first-year students brought to me who were suicidal about what was occurring on the site."
She tells me shes just focused on getting to graduation. "I would be shouting this story from the rooftops if I wasnt afraid of something happening," she says. "For most of my Dartmouth career, I have had to look over my shoulder. I have never felt safe on this campus."
In April 2013, 15 student activists called Real Talk Dartmouth entered a gathering for several hundred prospective students and started chanting, "Dartmouth has a problem." Nastassja Schmiedt, a sophomore who identifies as a queer woman of color, was one of the protesters. She says she was raped by another female student on campus in the fall of her first year but didnt report the assault because she was concerned the process wasnt inclusive of her experience as a queer woman.
The next day, the protesters faces appeared in the campus newspaper. They received threats on Bored at Baker targeting their race, gender, and sexuality.
"One said they would lynch us on the middle of the Green," Schmiedt remembers. "One said, Ill come in your room and rape you with a rusty pipe so you know that youre meant to be with a man. One said they hoped we slid down a slide of glass into a pool of ethanol and then they would light it on fire."
The college canceled classes for a day of reflection for the first time since 1986.
"I spoke to one of my professors," Schmiedt says. "He told me that if I wasnt mentally prepared for the threats, I shouldnt have been involved in the protests. He said I was probably just lazy, and thats why I didnt want to go to his class. I had hallucinations for the first time in his class, and I had to go to the hospital."
At the hospital, Schmiedt was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she and her partner eventually filed a Clery Act complaint with the Department of Education, alleging that the college covered up the threats the protesters received, which she says were never reported properly by the college. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to accurately report annual crime statistics including sexual assault, rape, and hate crimes on or near campuses.
Schmiedt says she was invited to a hearing later that month to determine whether she violated the schools standards of conduct. She says she got a warning and was told it would be on her school record.
A year later, Schmiedt still feels unsafe and unwelcome at Dartmouth because the individuals who made the threats against her were never identified. "I dont feel comfortable on campus anymore because there are still people that are walking around who threatened to rape and kill me, and I just dont know who they are."
Shes currently taking a year off from college and working as an activist. She plans to transfer, despite concerns about her financial aid status.
"It was such a dream come true to go to Dartmouth," she says. "I would really hate for what happened to take away my dream of being at an Ivy League institution."
"WE HAVE LIMITED CONTROL OVER THOSE COMMENTS"
Dean Charlotte Johnson has a corner office at Parkhurst Hall, Dartmouths main administration building. I meet her there one morning in April, and as we sit down, she apologizes for the threat I received on Bored at Baker. I tell her it is still up on the site.
"Oh, is it?" she says, shooting a look at Anderson, the vice president for media relations. "Im sorry, I thought wed taken care of that."
I tell her nothing has changed since I reported it a week ago.
"That is very unfortunate," she says. "Well get it removed."
In the last year, sexual violence on college campuses has become a national issue. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (Dartmouth '98) and Senator Claire McCaskill have pushed for a federal investment of more than $100 million to fund efforts to combat the problem. In January, President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault that released its first round of recommendations last week. On May 1, the Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of Title IX, including Dartmouth.
Johnson, who has been helming the colleges response to sexual violence, explains that, in addition to the proposed zero-tolerance policy, the college has made other new efforts to address sexual violence. In July 2013, the school implemented the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, a training model to give students tools to recognize, intervene, and stop potential abuse. In February, the college announced a new Student Sexual Assault Prevention Center to centralize existing resources. The school also hopes to employ an external investigator for cases of sexual assaults, and it plans to launch a "campus climate survey" in the fall to take a closer look at issues at the school, including sexual assault.
"I look at the way we address sexual assault on campus in three or four buckets," Johnson says. "One of those buckets is holding people accountable who are found responsible for sexual assault, so I think the more we do that, the more faith people, particularly survivors, have in the system, [and] the more likely they are to come forward and report."
Johnson maintains the numbers reported to the federal government in accordance with the Clery Act are not an accurate measure of sexual violence on different campuses, because nationally so few students report assaults.
"I dont think it is the case that Dartmouth has a higher incidence of sexual assault than our peers in the Ivy League," Johnson says. "I think what we have done over the last several years is to play a leadership role in this climate of reporting. I would hope that the higher numbers of reports really reflect that were making progress on this front."
After my meeting with Dean Johnson, I speak to college president Hanlon by phone. He also apologizes for the threat. "I detest almost everything Ive seen thats been posted on Bored at Baker," he says. "I would like nothing better than for our community to stop using it and for it to die away."
He thinks Bored at Baker is part of a larger issue of cyberharassment that manifests across platforms. "The access to unmediated opinions, information, is really a challenge for our society at every level," he says. And both Johnson and Hanlon emphasize that Bored at Baker is not a Dartmouth site. The college could block the site on their network, but Dartmouths attorneys say legally they cant shut it down entirely.
"You surely have to say that its impact is negative, but its not through any fault of the institution," Johnson says. "Unfortunately, the institution cant control the hearts and minds of people in the community. We certainly dont think that hateful and threatening comments that are posted on Bored at Baker do the community any good. But we have limited control over those comments. When we are able to identify someone, we do."
I ask Johnson if she knows whats happened with my case, and she says Safety and Security have identified several people connected to the post. This confirms what I had heard from another source, who had also informed me the college found these people through their IP addresses, either because they approved, disapproved, or wrote the threat, and that they were questioning these students and hoping that someone admits to the post.
"Threats are taken seriously," Johnson says. "I dont know how else to say that to you You only need to look at what weve done when a student or alum has presented to us with a threat. Unfortunately, in all cases, we havent been successful in identifying the source of the threat."
Dartmouth announced on May 2 that Johnson would leave at the end of the academic year to become the vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Scripps College in California. A post by the Office of Public Affairs touted her work in combating sexual assault on campus: "Under Johnsons stewardship, Dartmouth experienced a three-year decline in high blood-alcohol level emergency cases through education and prevention programs. Johnsons contributions extend to sexual assault prevention and education."
"THEY CAN DISCOVER IDENTITIES IF THEY WERE DETERMINED TO DO IT"
Later that afternoon, nearly a hundred students, faculty, and administrators spread out in the student center for the third annual symposium on sexual assault. There, I meet Cally Womick, a recent grad who volunteered as a moderator on Bored at Baker, policing the site for offensive posts.
"Bored at Baker is set up to provide reasonable anonymity, but if it is necessary to identify someone, it is possible 100 percent of the time," says Womick, who was not employed by the site. "It is just a question of differing degrees of difficulty."
Womick believes it would be "very easy" to find students who are using the site from Dartmouths network, but she thinks the college chooses not to. The sites moderators typically remove offensive posts when reported, but to find the source of the threats, the college and police would have to investigate using data available on the Dartmouth network or by subpoenaing data from Bored at Bakers servers. At 2013 graduation, the college was able to identify the suspected poster of a dirty bomb threat on Bored at Baker before the FBI did, using only the posters IP address.
Bored at Baker founder Jonathan Pappas did not return requests from Cosmopolitan.com for comment, but on his blog, he says he cannot provide a person's email address based on a specific post and does not have IP address information readily available to him. Still, he warns website users of the reach of law enforcement: " You should assume that law enforcement agencies can collect pretty much anything, period. I cannot stress that enough. They can discover identities if they were determined to do it, with or without the help of information stored in Boredat servers There are hundreds of ways to investigate activity online and they know how to use them. They have very smart people on the job. Some techniques are easy and some are difficult. Local, state and federal authorities all have different tools with different degrees of investigative capabilities at their disposal, but they work together when its necessary."
Professor Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland, a cyberlaw expert, says law enforcement officers commonly dismiss cyberharassment as non-criminal, even though courts have upheld convictions for online threats.
"The whole point of assault law, and the reason we criminalize it, is because harassment interferes with someones liberty," Citron says. "The person gets the sense and they cant predict that someone is going to hurt them, so it disrupts how someone is going to live their life. We take it seriously enough that we make it a felony."
Citron says one way victims are often dismissed is by being told the responsible parties cant be found. "We live in an era of too much data," Citron says. "When law enforcement says that to you, they are telling you they dont care, they are not going to bother to figure out who this person is, its not worth it to them."
Still, President Hanlon insists its not that simple. "We have to use computer forensics if were trying to identify an individual," he says. "Im not an expert in this, but I do know you cannot always identify the people."
"THE PEOPLE WHO WRITE THAT STUFF, THEYRE BAD KIDS"
The snow is slowly melting, and it is officially mud season in Hanover. I traipse down the squishy path to Alpha Delta to give the fraternity a chance to comment on the threat against me. I wonder if Im overreacting. Ive begun to normalize the post in my mind. But even though Im 10 years older than most AD brothers, I remember how I felt when I first saw the threat targeted, attacked, and afraid. A brother lets me into the house, and I ask to speak with the frats president. Couches and chairs are arranged in no particular order. The room smells like stale beer.
A few minutes later, the president, junior Michael Haughey preppy, handsome, straight from Dartmouth central casting bounds down the staircase. I can hear pounding bass coming from the basement, but hes been watching Game of Thrones upstairs. I show him a screenshot of the post on my phone, and a couple of brothers gather around. Shocked and surprised, they say they hadnt seen the threat.
"I can say with pretty good conscience that no AD brother would ever write that," Haughey says. "There are some bad people that go to our school, but AD as a brotherhood is taking a stand on sexual assault. We obviously know it happens on campus, and we want it to not happen on campus, and the first thing we are trying to do is make sure that when we open our doors to our friends and our classmates it never happens under our roof."
I ask him what he thinks of the site in general. "As far as Im concerned, its crap," he says with sincere frustration. "The people who write that stuff, theyre bad kids. We stand vehemently against it. We all have mothers, we all have sisters. Its B.S. that people feel that just because they dont have their names on something they can write crap like that. Im sorry that you had to deal with that."
Haughey says neither the police nor the administration has contacted him, but he says AD would perform their own internal investigation if approached. "There are ways to find out who that was. Youre never anonymous on the Internet," he says.
He recognizes that the site is troublesome. "The lack of accountability is a real problem," he says. "There is the point of free speech, but at the end of the day, no one should feel harassed here. No one should feel unsafe here."
Nineteen days after I reported the threat against me to the police, it was still on the site. I finally emailed the site administrator and flagged the post as inappropriate. It was removed in 14 minutes. As of publication, neither the college nor the police can tell me who posted the threat.
*Names have been changed
If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault hotline.
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Photo credit: Getty Images; Article Via Cosmopolitan.com