DURHAM — The student-run Sexual Violence Action Committee is missing one important player: the school president.
UNH President James W. Dean Jr. wants students in the group, formed in response to sex assault allegations on campus, to apologize for the way they treated him and other administrators at a protest last month. And he won't meet with them until they apologize, according to two school officials.
President Dean attended a protest outside his on-campus home Oct. 25, held amid mounting frustration among students who felt UNH wasn't doing enough in response to alleged sexual violence.
UNH spokesperson Erika Mantz said students responded to the presence of the president and administrators with "disrespectful behavior."
“When he tried to talk with them, he was met with profanity, jeering, ridicule of his name, and them turning their back to him," Mantz said in a prepared statement. "He would like to meet with these students once they apologize and take responsibility for their disrespectful behavior.”
Mantz also defended the school's response to the allegations. "UNH condemns all forms of interpersonal and sexual violence, including sexual assault and harassment. UNH administrators, President Dean included, are spending considerable time and effort on this important issue,” she said.
UNH Police Chief Paul Dean said last month police were investigating a report of an Oct. 15 sexual assault in Stoke Hall, the largest dorm on campus. The chief recently said the investigation has since been passed along to the Strafford County Attorney’s Office for review.
What sexual assault allegations were made? Why did students begin protesting?
In October, an online petition addressed to the school accusing a UNH student by name of “MULTIPLE acts of rape and assault against women” began to circulate. Because the accused student has not been charged with a crime nor been cited as being under investigation by the school or university police, Seacoastonline will not publish their name.
At the same time, an Instagram account with the username “unhchicks,” which is not affiliated with the university, named the same student in a post as being “known around his residence hall (Stoke Hall) as someone who constantly gropes women.” The same post wrote that the student has “allegedly assaulted many women.”
On Friday, Oct. 22, in light of the allegations, students led a protest outside of President Dean’s home before moving it to the front entrance of Stoke Hall. As students protested outside, Dean of Students Michael Blackman, a member of the school’s police department and an official from the school’s Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program were inside the residence hall meeting with residents about the sexual misconduct allegations.
The following week, on Monday, Oct. 25, President Dean wrote to the school community. He stated the school does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, adding not everything seen or read online should be considered truthful.
“For two reasons, it is difficult for people in our community to have an accurate understanding of what has happened and what the university has done in the aftermath of a report of sexual assault,” President Dean wrote. “First, the university does not publicly discuss the details of a sexual assault report because we respect the privacy of those involved, and so that we do not interfere with any investigation. Second, there is often a great deal of conversation on social media in the aftermath of a reported incident, and much of what is shared on social media is simply not true.”
Freshman Kai Parlett, coordinator of the Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire, which announced its formation Nov. 3, said Wednesday that President Dean’s message didn’t consider some survivors of sexual violence or misconduct share their stories on social media outlets.
Therefore, she believes his message “essentially said, ‘Don’t believe the survivors’ stories you see on social media.’”
“A lot of students were angry about that, specifically a lot of the survivors were frustrated because that’s what the president was telling them,” she said.
Second student protest led to clarification from President Dean
The second student-led protest was Oct. 25 in front of President Dean’s home. Flanked by other school administrators, the school president addressed the students about their ongoing concerns and frustration.
Nadine Petty, UNH’s chief diversity officer, stated Wednesday, as Mantz had, that as the president spoke, “there was back turning, there was profanity, there was making fun of his name, taunting and jeering."
Parlett acknowledged the students acted that way, saying it was because they were upset President Dean wasn’t listening to their concerns.
“What we were doing was gathering in front of his house and giving space for survivors to share their stories,” she said. “President Dean and other administrators came into that space and used that space for their own agenda and pushing forward of their message and a lot of students were really angry by that and really frustrated.”
As reported by UNH’s student newspaper, The New Hampshire, after several students voiced their concerns at the Oct. 25 protest, President Dean told the crowd, “Of course I want you to feel safe and I understand that you don’t. You told me that you don’t feel safe and we’re going to have to see what we can do to try and change that.”
Later in the week, President Dean released a subsequent message dated Oct. 29 to the school community titled “Sexual Violence Has No Place at UNH.”
In it, he wrote that he didn’t intend to silence the stories of anyone alleging their being victims of sexual violence through his email sent earlier in the week.
He wrote, “I said in the email that people should be careful about statements made on social media because they are often incorrect. What I did not fully appreciate then, but I do now, is that some survivors of sexual violence use social media to share their stories. Because of this, many people understood my message to be one of undermining the experiences of survivors. While this is not at all what I meant, I now understand why people interpreted it this way and were angry and disappointed at my statement. I am very sorry to have created the impression that I wanted to silence survivors.
“On the contrary, my hope, and the hope of all university leaders, is that survivors will come forward, report their experiences and allow us to support them and to seek justice,” he continued. “Again, I want to express my regret to the university community for appearing indifferent to survivors’ stories and needs, which should be at the center of any conversation on these issues. To all survivors – I believe you, UNH believes you.”
Petty reiterated Dean won’t meet with the students of the Sexual Violence Action Committee until an apology is made for the behavior at the protests.
Committee coordinator: We won't apologize
Responding to the president’s wishes, the committee wrote in a letter to Petty and Senior Vice Provost for Student Life Kenneth Holmes stating the request for an apology is “unreasonable." One reason given in the Nov. 19 letter is the committee formed Nov. 3, about a week after the second protest.
“I think he (President Dean) really needs to look into that and put aside his own personal feelings of hurt and really step up as the president of our university and realize that students don’t feel safe on campus,” Parlett said.
Petty said she and other school administrators have already met twice in-person with the Sexual Violence Action Committee and have started discussing the action items the committee presented to school officials about creating a safer campus environment. UNH has agreed to allow students to carry pepper spray, which is legal in the state but was previously banned on campus. Other requests discussed are an expansion of the alert system, more funding for Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program and screening of student applicants for sexual violence in their history.
President Dean's office directed all requests for comment to Mantz.
Update on sexual assault investigation
Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi confirmed an attorney was reviewing the alleged sex assault at Stoke Hall and a victim’s assistance employee was in contact with the student who made the report. He said Wednesday it's not yet clear if charges will be filed.
“Reviews can take anywhere between weeks and months depending on the complexity of the case and issues that could be part of the case,” Velardi said.
If you need help
Seacoast Media Group provides the following information as a public service:
Victims of sexual violence who attend any of the University of New Hampshire's three campuses can contact the university's Title IX Coordinator, Laura Buchs, at (603) 862-2930 or by email at email@example.com.
UNH's Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program offers support services for victims of sexual violence and can be reached at (603) 862-3494 or find information at unh.edu/sharpp.
UNH’s Psychological and Counseling Services can be reached at (603) 862-2090.
The school’s police department can be contacted at (603) 862-1212.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: UNH President Dean seeks apology from students fighting sex assault