WARRENSBURG, Mo. — Last Monday, the University of Central Missouri emailed its 12,000-some students and 450-odd faculty members about an alleged rapist on campus.
It wasn't the kind of warning or bulletin that many college students receive when there's a crime near their dorms or classrooms. It was the school's defense of the accused rapist's status as a student.
"[T]his incident occurred more than a year ago, and all charges against persons of interest were dropped," UCM's public relations office wrote. "The university is required to allow all qualified and eligible students to pursue an education."
At the bottom of the email was a link to a widely circulated Kansas City Star article, published a day earlier, about Daisy Coleman, an Albany, Mo., teenager who claims she was assaulted by a popular football player in Maryville, Mo., when she was 14. Coleman's mother claims the family was driven out of Maryville after Daisy pursued charges — which were eventually dropped — against the 17-year-old boy, Matthew Barnett.
The article didn't mention UCM until the final paragraphs — "Barnett is enrolled at the University of Central Missouri, his grandfather's alma mater" — but it was enough to inspire a group affiliated with Anonymous, that chaos-chasing, loosely structured hacker-activist collective, to declare war on UCM for "harboring" a rapist. Justice For Daisy supporters blitzed the school's Facebook and Twitter accounts. "You should warn all the females on campus that you just enrolled a rapist." "What are you doing to protect your students?" "Stop lying about being committed to safety. You are harboring a fucking rapist."
Before the Star article, the UCM Facebook page was running a standard promotional campaign of student "spotlights." But by Wednesday, with Coleman's story now receiving international attention — and UCM's Facebook page falling deeper into the internet's rage sinkhole — the school's PR department called the next scheduled "spotlight" student to ask if she wanted to shelf the post.
"I said, 'Hell no, use my name,'" Amanda Roberts, a UCM senior studying entrepreneurship and social enterprise, told BuzzFeed. "'Bring it on.'"
And it was brought.
"Someone commented that I should be raped. I had people messaging me, telling me to transfer," said Roberts, a small business owner and mother who's spoken out against sexual assault for years. "When something like this happens, you don't just pick up and leave."
(The school, after attempting to reply to every angry comment with a link to its safety and confidentiality policies, has since deleted all messages related to Barnett, including the comments on Roberts' post.)
From the internet's perspective, UCM was clearly in the middle of a PR and safety crisis. Warrensburg residents allegedly threatened to spit on Barnett if they saw him in town. Barnett's family, hometown, and former employers were threatened. But on campus? "It's been calm. I don't think a lot of people know what's going on," Roberts said.
Barnett may be Missouri's most famous college freshman thanks to international coverage of the case, but standing on his school's leafy Midwest campus, you wouldn't know it. When BuzzFeed approached two homecoming royalty campaign groups on campus Monday — one week after the university sent its email — none of the Greek life students said they recognized his name, and only a few knew details of the story. A UCM business school professor said none of her hundreds of students have brought it up in class.
The lack of chatter isn't suspicious, in context. The university is a medium-sized school in a small city, but it's a suitcase campus with a large population of nontraditional students. To combat its transfer and dropout rate, the school has recently adopted a policy requiring all freshmen to live on campus for their first two years.
But within the limited chatter about Barnett, there's one persistent rumor: that he's dropped out.
Roberts said she was told by faculty friends on Monday that Barnett has "left UCM" and is "no longer on campus." The news didn't surprise her, especially after the entire school was emailed the damning Star story, Roberts said: "If I were him, I would leave too."
University spokesman Jeff Murphy declined to comment on whether Barnett was actively taking classes.
"I can say that he was enrolled in UCM at the beginning of the semester," he said.
Barnett couldn't be reached for comment. His mother, Shirley Barnett, previously told The Daily Mail, "The more you dig, you will get closer to the truth. It is not on the surface, you're going to have to dig for it, unfortunately we can't help with that because that is not our personality." Matthew's father said his son was "being assassinated."
The university has not made any further announcements to students about the case. On Thursday, UCM's student newspaper, the Muleskinner, reported that UCM President Chuck Ambrose said the administration has "exercised an immediate review of the policies and procedures" to ensure safety.
"UCM isn't going to judge you through the court of public opinion," Ambrose told the paper. "When we have any sense of student endangerment, we take action."
The Muleskinner also announced a panel discussion for Tuesday night to "raise awareness about rape culture" and "provide an open discussion on the legal, social and personal implications regarding this type of crime."
A faculty member with knowledge of the panel emphasized that it will not include any discussion of the Maryville case.
"Students are now thinking about the issue, and we want to reach them when they might be interested in the topic. But the panel isn't in response to the case," the faculty member said. "It's such a bigger issue than that."
Roberts is one of two students participating in the panel, which will cover the history of rape culture and how to intervene when witnessing an attempted sexual assault, among other issues.
"For people keeping up with the case, there's been a lot of anger — how do we direct that energy peacefully?" Roberts said. "How do you defend your campus effectively on social media?"
"The truth is, every single college campus — every town in the U.S., even — has a person who's raped or sexually assaulted or made an unwanted sexual advance toward someone else. This is just one case we actually know about."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Barnett's enrollment date at UCM. (10/22/13)
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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