This Is What Happens When Your Small College Stumbles Into The National Spotlight

Students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges were shocked by serious revelations in the New York Times this week about their school’s botching of a sexual assault investigation. But what comes next?

Flickr: Michael Tinkler / Creative Commons / Via Flickr: michaeltinkler

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a private liberal arts school that most people had never heard of. Over 5,500 words, reporter Walt Bogdanich reveals details of a botched rape investigation involving an 18-year-old freshman named Anna and members of the upstate New York institution’s football team.

As the story spilled across Facebook, many of HWS’s 2,300 undergraduates said they felt their small college’s reputation begin to implode. It was “gut-wrenching and soul crushing,” one said. But among the school’s activists, reaction was remarkably swift — a sign of how accustomed college students across the country have become to finding their peers and administrators in the middle of sexual assault scandals, as the national conversation on campus rape escalates.

From Sunday’s story, a Facebook page was born — “William Smith Stands With Anna,” — with more than 1,100 members as of Wednesday, along with a Change.org petition, signed by nearly 3,000, including some who’d surely never heard of HWS prior to the Times’ story.

Nine students who signed that petition and spoke to BuzzFeed on Monday and Tuesday all expressed admiration for Anna and a desire to do something to help her.

Anna told BuzzFeed she has been floored by the reaction.

“I didn’t realize how much support I had until that article came out,” Anna said. “I thought I was so alone at school.”

But there’s a clear challenge ahead. It’s not always easy to turn this type of online campaign into real action, especially over summer break.

“We want to make sure the momentum continues through the end of the summer and into the semester,” said Sara Winant of HWS’s Coalition of Concerned Students.

“There’s a different energy to this,” said Ryan Mullaney, another leader in the coalition and member of Hobart for Equality and Respect, a group for male students. “I think this is the first major political organizing that we’ve seen on this campus in recent years.”

Most of the students BuzzFeed spoke to said that prior to the Times’ story, they knew about Anna’s attack — or at least the rumor-mill version (many believed that Anna “made the story up,” one student said). But even those who hadn’t heard the gossip on campus said they knew HWS had been criticized for mishandling sexual assaults.

In May, the college was named one of 55 schools under Department of Education investigation, and the “campus exploded,” said Aislinn Raftis, a rising senior and editor of the student newspaper, The Herald. Groups held demonstrations to raise awareness and protest the administration. There was enough dissatisfaction with the school’s policies to inspire one student to start filling out transfer applications, before realizing she “wanted to stay and fight the good fight,” she said.

For some, the fear of being sexually assaulted was eclipsed by the fear of what would happen afterward.

“Honestly I was terrified that such a thing would happen to me, not because of the actual act of it happening but the way that the school would handle the situation and react to it,” said Becca Sloane, a rising sophomore and member of Women’s Collective.

Sunday’s student-created Change.org petition lists a number of demands for the administration, including appointing new members to the adjudication panel and a new Title IX coordinator. The efficacy of the petition was called into question by some alumni members during an action-planning conference call advertised on Facebook Monday — with some suggesting a private letter be sent to board of trustees members instead — but students are holding tight to it.

On Tuesday night, student members of the board of trustees emailed all HWS students to address the Times story, expressing “regret [for] the pain Anna has suffered,” and referencing “drastic curriculum, structural and cultural changes that Hobart and William Smith intends to implement.” The board members didn’t go into detail about these changes, but linked to the petition.

“The bottom line is, a lot of people are obviously concerned and distraught, and they’re ready to change the way HWS treats victims of sexual assault,” said Matty Carville, a rising sophomore. “This article is the best thing that could have happened because I know it will inspire reform.”

Flickr: Michael Tinkler / Creative Commons / Via Flickr: michaeltinkler

But what will that reform actually look like?

Student activists said they’re planning next stages; there’s been talk of bringing a full-time Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) nurse to Geneva’s hospital along with creating a women’s resource center and 24-hour hotline. There have even been “pledges for funding,” said Megan Lavin, rising junior and treasurer of the school’s Health Promotions Committee.

“I know it sounds harsh, but [rapes and sexual assaults on campus] aren’t just going to magically stop because an article was released,” Lavin said. “What I can do is make sure that there will be resources and lines of support that I can access if it does happen.”

Some students have said there’s a need for cultural changes to “our party scene and the social life,” which played a major role in Anna’s ordeal. Others aren’t so sure.

“I want the school to make the necessary changes, as everyone does, but I fear that it will change our daily lives more than we think it will,” Sloane said.

At least one student will certainly see her daily life changed. At the end of the Times story, Bogdanich reports that “against her parent’s wishes, Anna plans to return to Hobart and William Smith in the fall.”

“I mean obviously I’m worried about it because two of the four guys are still students at Hobart,” Anna told BuzzFeed. “But I’m excited. I feel like just in the past day, so many ideas have sprung up about how we can all change the school and make it a safer environment.”

Some of Anna’s classmates said this resilience is the part of her story most inspiring to them — and activists are optimistic that will outlast summer vacation.

“Although the circumstances are obviously terrible, it’s … brought to light an issue that I don’t think people considered in a serious way prior to this,” Mullaney said.

“I think this will have a huge impact when the semester starts up again,” Raftis said.

Still, the students said that along with support for Anna, they saw frustration among their peers. There’s anger and shame, and — as with any major story involving sexual assault — a little bit of disbelief.

“I have definitely seen some defensiveness, mostly from men but also from a few women,” Carville said. “I think that’s sort of a natural response, you know? It’s not right, but it’s hard to accept that such despicable acts of violence happened at, say, your frat, or maybe your friends were involved in some way. We’re a small community, so this has really rocked us at our core — no one wants to believe that everything the New York Times said is true, but we have to put our pride aside and realize this is an epidemic that we’re a part of.”

“I’ve heard some students voice worries about getting jobs or internships or just negative responses in general due to the name of their school,” said Emma Richardson, a rising sophomore at William Smith.

“I think we’re all experiencing some kind of our own silent mourning for our school’s current reputation,” Sloane said. On their Class of 2018 Facebook page, incoming HWS freshmen have been saying things like, “Not so sure I want to go to college anymore.”

“It’s a little bit scary to see this sort of information coming to the surface finally,” said Jordan Loretz, who just finished his freshman year at Hobart. “I didn’t know what to expect out of college, and I definitely wasn’t anticipating this kind of controversy at my school.”

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Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact this reporter at jessica.testa@buzzfeed.com
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