The Dartmouth College community is reacting to news that a former student, Parker Gilbert, has been found not guilty of raping a fellow student in her dorm room last spring. The criminal case brings new urgency to the challenge of preventing sexual assault on campus.
While attending Dartmouth last spring, Gilbert was accused of entering the dorm room of a female student after a drunken party, and raping her. He claimed the sex was consensual.
On Thursday, a Grafton County Superior Court jury apparently found his story more credible than his accuser’s, whose name is being withheld.
In a dining hall at lunchtime today, many students said it was impossible to know, in this case as in many others, what really happened behind a closed bedroom door. Hunter Johnstone is a sophomore, and a member of a fraternity he declined to name.
“I think that the real big takeaway from the case is that it’s a case of conflicting stories and it kind of came out to whose lined up, ‘cause it was a kind of “he said, she said” scenario. And ultimately they ruled that his story lined up, his checked out, he wasn’t responsible for that, and I am confident with the jury’s result,” Johnstone said.
The defense based much of its case on the testimony of a student in the next room who said she never heard the victim protest aggression. But advocates say many rape victims remain more or less silent during an attack. Abby Tassel is Assistant Director of WISE, a domestic and sexual violence crisis center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. She says some victims’ bodies just shut down.
“They just freeze and just sort of send their mind some place else so they don’t have to fully experience the horror of it,” Tassel said.
Tassel worries that the acquittal will discourage other women from reporting sexual violence. But at least one Dartmouth student, Katie Wheeler, says she remains undeterred.
“Yes, so I actually have reported my own rape to the police,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler has written about sexual violence for the campus newspaper. She says she has pressed criminal charges against a male student who allegedly raped her, and who is no longer enrolled at Dartmouth. Reporting the attack, she says, has helped her deal with it emotionally.
“'Cause I am happy that my perpetrator—at least one of them-- is off this campus because that means there are fewer women that he can hurt,” Wheeler said.
It’s not certain that the case will go to trial. Many don’t, because prosecutors cannot always marshal enough evidence to meet a high standard of proof. But students can also bring complaints anonymously before the College’s judicial board. Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson says he knows sexual violence is vastly under-reported, not only at Dartmouth, but throughout the nation. But he says parents should be assured that safety is the administration’s top priority.
“It puts institutions in a position to demonstrate that they take this problem seriously and that they are taking actions that they believe, in this case Dartmouth believes, will reduce the harms and hopefully eradicate a problem that has been proven to be most intractable,” Anderson said.
Among those actions is a new Center for Sexual Violence, where victims can find support and resources. And if Gilbert wants to return to Dartmouth now that he has been cleared of the rape charge, he could still face judicial review at the College.