Seventh under scrutiny: Sexual assault at unregistered party spurs investigation, questions
A Rice University student was sexually assaulted early Saturday morning at an unregistered party, themed “Lads in Plaid,” on the seventh floor of Sid Richardson College, according to the Rice University Police Department. After an investigation in which RUPD sent several crime alerts to the Rice community, RUPD identified a male Rice student as the suspected perpetrator.
Following the party, whose theme imitated that of Sid’s discontinued Sid Schoolgirls party, the Sid community has struggled with questions of Code of Student Conduct violations and community values amid the initiation of an administrative investigation into the Lads in Plaids party.
According to RUPD Chief of Police Johnny Whitehead and Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson, the assault took place while the male student was dancing with the female at the party just after midnight. The assaulted student contacted RUPD, which began an investigation along with the administration and the Wellbeing Office, which were present to assist the survivor in the early hours of Saturday morning, according to Hutchinson.
The administration and RUPD sent a crime alert to the university community by email later Saturday morning to find witnesses to identify the suspect and to alert the campus that the suspected perpetrator was not yet in custody, according to Whitehead and Hutchinson.
Hutchinson said this assault was different from those usually reported to the university in that it was reported immediately after occurring, the survivor did not know the perpetrator and it occurred in a public setting with several witnesses. Whitehead said crime alerts have helped RUPD gain information in past cases, such as in the arrest of Nathaniel Simonette, who entered Lovett College and attempted to assault students in 2014.
RUPD identified the suspect later in the day, after which they released a second alert. Whitehead said the assault survivor has chosen not to press criminal charges, though she could choose to do so in the future. According to Whitehead, the university will carry out its own precautionary and judicial process.
“The university is continuing an administrative investigation and for the safety of the campus has separated the suspect from the university on an interim basis,” Whitehead said.
According to Hutchinson, the administration’s first priority since Friday night has been to address the sexual assault.
“Our focus for the last three days has been almost exclusively on the circumstances surrounding the sexual assault, supporting the survivor of the assault, closing the case around the sexual assault and providing support to everyone who has been affected by the event,” Hutchinson said.
However, Hutchinson said the administration was beginning an investigation into the Lads in Plaids party itself.
Sid master Ken Whitmire said that contrary to the beliefs of many students, RUPD did not shut down the party. However, he said this did not mean the party was acceptable.
“There are ... serious issues remaining — the nature of the party which violated numerous university policies, the laws of the State of Texas and the Sid Richardson College community values,” Whitmire said in an email and a Facebook post directed at the Sid community.
Hutchinson said the administration was beginning an investigation into the party. According to students living on Sid’s seventh floor, who wished to remain anonymous due to the investigation, at least one student involved with organizing the party has received an email from Student Judicial Programs.
“From what we know of the details of the party, it violated all the terms of the alcohol policy,” Hutchinson said. “It was not a registered event and it was not a private event, so it was an unregistered public event, which is a serious violation. In due time, we will investigate this event, and if the investigation supports the allegations that the college master has made, there will be serious consequences.”
Sid President Lauren Schmidt also said the party had involved multiple violations of university and community standards.
“A private party turned public blatantly [violated] the alcohol policy, the theme of the party violated a community value Sid had established and the capacity of the lobby was exceeded,” Schmidt, a senior, said in an email to the college. “Most unfortunately and disturbingly of all, a member of the Rice community was sexually assaulted at the party.”
The Lads in Plaid theme was intended to recreate Sid Schoolgirls, a Sid public party that occurred for many years in the spring, according to Whitmire. Amid rising concerns that the Schoolgirls theme sexualized underage women, the party was renamed Sid Academy in 2014. Last year, the theme was completely changed to 1960s-themed Sidstock. At the time, reactions were mixed, with some students expressing a desire to preserve the old theme while others welcomed the change.
In his email to the college, Whitmire said holding the party conflicted with Sid’s decision to stop hosting a Schoolgirls party.
“The college determined that the offensive and sexualizing nature of Schoolgirls was inappropriate,” Whitmire said. “This was not a decision that was forced upon the college by the University, but rather one that was made with full discussion of the Sid Richardson community because it was the right thing to do.”
One student on Sid Rich’s seventh floor said the floor’s decision to hold the party has resulted in strained relations with Whitmire and other adult leaders at the college.
“There is a lot of tension now because our floor in particular is being heavily blamed by our college master and our A-team for the party, even though this party was planned and attended by all of Sid, not just seventh,” the student said. “Things are definitely tense between the A-team and seventh floor in particular.”
Whitmire said in his email, however, that the entire college must face its responsibility in holding the event. According to Schmidt’s email, Sid Council will address the situation Tuesday night.
“A significant part of [the] investigation will center on the culpability of the college, not just the organizers, in facilitating the event,” Whitmire said.
Students on the seventh floor said they expected the party to be popular, but it was even more crowded than expected. However, one student said there was nothing unique about the party.
“I don’t think there was anything particularly unsafe about the party besides the fact that it was very crowded,” the student said. “It wasn’t much different from other parties that seventh has thrown or other colleges have thrown, and even though this isn’t at all making small of the sexual assault, I think that a large portion of all this scrutiny is because of [it].”
Hutchinson said that the frequency of Code of Student Conduct and alcohol policy violations at parties creates an unsafe environment, which at Lads in Plaids resulted in the assault.
“Circumventing [the rules governing parties] almost de facto means that you are putting people at risk, because you are undermining the very specific purposes of the procedures we’ve put into place to assure the safety of everyone who attends,” Hutchinson said. “In this particular case, we didn’t just have the risk, we had the reality — someone was harmed violently as a consequence of the lack of safety precautions that went into creating this event.”
Whitmire and Hutchinson both said the alcohol policy and party rules were designed with student safety in mind. Hutchinson pointed out that the alcohol policy was written by students three and a half years ago, but said student attitudes toward the policy need to change.
“What I’m concerned about is a very deliberate attempt by some students to circumvent those rules, not recognizing that in doing so they are putting people at risk and the reality that people get harmed because they’ve done this,” Hutchinson said. “That’s what needs to change; there needs to be an understanding among the student body that adherence to these rules is vital to the safety of everybody on this campus.”
Whitmire said college presidents and masters from across campus raised concerns about students’ lack of awareness of the alcohol policy with regards to private parties at a meeting Monday night.
Hutchinson said the enforcement of the alcohol policy and other rules relies primarily on student government, with RUPD and the administration taking a supporting role. He said in this case, there was a question of whether the Sid college court was able to carry out their responsibilities under the Code of Student Conduct.
“If enforcement has been lax, we need to have another conversation with the student body leadership to say, do you no longer feel capable of accepting this responsibility under student self government,” Hutchinson said. “What is not an option is not enforcing the rules.”
Hutchinson said he believes the student body must work to better follow and enforce the rules that are in place.
“I’d like to ask the entire student body to join in the effort to commit to the rules that exist that are embedded in our system of student self governance, that rely on our system of student self governance as a primary mechanism by which we keep our campus safe,” Hutchinson said.
Lovett College junior Bridget Schilling said she was impressed with RUPD’s response to the report of the assault, which she said was handled like any other crime.
“I am hopeful if this is the new norm,” Schilling said. “I think it speaks volumes that campus police are treating sexual assault as a crime with a suspect and a victim and hopefully students will come to expect this to be standard practice.”
However, Schilling said she was discouraged by comments several students made anonymously on Yik Yak doubting the veracity and details of the assault. As an example, Schilling pointed to many comments which falsely claimed the perpetrator was not a Rice student.
“I wish that we were at a place where people outside of the situation didn’t feel comfortable conjecturing about their idea of the truth of what happened with so little information,” Schilling said. “It’s also consistently disappointing when people need to hear every detail of a story before they are willing to consider believing it.”
As conversations continue at Sid and across campus regarding the assault and party, Schmidt said discussion must focus on changes to improve student safety.
“We cannot stop people from committing heinous acts against fellow human beings,” Schmidt said in her email. “We can, however, work together as a community to discuss what we must do to make our home safe for Sidizens and Rice students alike that want to have fun in a reasonable, respectful, and responsible way.”
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