Last Friday, a student posted a controversial picture of himself with his five fellow blockmates on Instagram. The photo bore the text “Comin’ to gang bang yo bitch” and the caption “#GVT #GoodVibeTribe #weoutchea #BDN #hideyobish.” A few hours later, a friend sent a screenshot of the image to Hope Brinn ’15. Brinn reposted the photo to her Facebook page, and students and alumni began to comment — generally disapprovingly — on the appropriateness of the photo. In addition to commenting, community members took concrete action, making calls and writing emails to Interim President Constance Hungerford, Associate Director for Investigations Beth Pitts, Title IX Coordinator Kaaren Williamsen and the Public Safety office, amongst others.
Shortly afterward, Brinn received a message from one of the members of the group that said, “I would like you to take down that photo you posted before I call my lawyer. Thanks.” Brinn also made this message public in the comments section of her original post, which incited even more conversation amongst commenters.
The debate concerning the picture became lively both on the internet and on campus as more and more students heard about the photo and Brinn’s repost.
Students came upon news of the photo in Sharples and in other spaces on campus as the day progressed. The buzz was not confined to Sharples, though.
Yik Yak, a location-based social networking site which allows users to post and view anonymous “tweets,” served as a platform for further discussion of the photo and Brinn’s repost. The Yaks ranged from accusing Brinn of harassment and of blowing the photo’s harm out of proportion, to defending her actions.
Some felt that Brinn had unfairly spotlighted the young men, Brinn said.
“People accused me of ruining their lives. I literally just shared a photo they had on social media and had already created … and people seem very supportive of them,” said Brinn.
Some community members stood in solidarity with the students who posted the photo and expressed feelings of sympathy for them, asserting that they made a mistake and that the publicity that accompanied the dissemination of the photo was harmful in and of itself. Others believe that the students’ actions and those that supported them were due to a lack of first-hand knowledge about the history of sexual misconduct and sexual assault on campus.
Others insisted, mostly via Yik Yak, that the young men did not mean what they wrote.
Brinn felt that the harm caused by the photo was more important than the intention behind the post, saying, “It’s still a gross thing to say that’s intimidating and threatening. It doesn’t mean they’re any of those things, but it’s a thing that perpetuates that and makes people uncomfortable.”
In the days that followed, the student body received a slew of emails from Hungerford, the students involved (via the senior class dean) and the Student Government Organization.
The first of the emails was from the group of students, expressing deep regret for posting the picture and issuing a formal apology for undue harm that the photo may have caused.
“Our intention in this email is not to excuse our actions, but to make it clear how our mistake occurred and how sorry we are for the images and content released,” the students wrote. “It utilized language that is not acceptable under any circumstances. We recognize the magnitude of our mistake and as a group accept the responsibility of our actions.”
The students declined to be interviewed for this article.
They also emphasized that they hoped that their actions would not come to represent the groups that they are a part of or the activities in which some of them partake. In some Facebook comments, the tennis team and the Delta Upsilon fraternity were targeted, since some, though not all, of the students in the photo are members of those organizations.
“I would say we were as dismayed as anyone else on campus when we saw that caption. As far as what we did internally, since the issue didn’t directly involve us [but because] we are a vibrant social space on campus, we updated our Facebook page with a reminder that our space is safe,” said DU President Scoop Ruxin ’15.
The next day, Hungerford addressed the issue and the mounting tension on campus. Since online commentary had only increased since the day before, much of it directed toward Brinn, President Hungerford took the opportunity to remind students of the Student Code of Conduct, which contains an anti-retaliation clause prohibiting bullying and intimidation against those that make complaints.
“This incident serves as a reminder that our efforts both to eliminate sexual misconduct and discrimination on bases such as gender, sexuality, and race from our campus and to create an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome must continue to be a central priority,” Hungerford wrote.
Finally, in an email sent to the student body Tuesday, SGO Chair of Diversity Mosea Lee Esaias ’17 emphasized the gravity of words and the harmful ramifications that the language of rape and sexism have, even if they are presented as a joke.
“We would like to remind our peers to be mindful of our words and our ‘jokes’, both on this campus and off, not because they may be offensive, but because the language that we use and perpetuate contribute to a larger system of inequity and bias; and this larger system presents material consequences for many,” said SGO.
The college also began an investigation, including the President’s office, Public Safety, the deans and Title IX Coordinator Kaaren Williamsen, amongst others. The cohort reviewed all student policies, including the sexual assault and harassment policies.
“There was a pretty intensive weekend of examination and I was very impressed by the team we had working — from the Dean’s Office to Public Safety. We take this kind of complaint very seriously and immediately went to work investigating it and working toward a resolution. I really want to commend the people who were involved,” said Hungerford.
The quick response sat well with some students on campus, but remained unsatisfying for others. The college’s direct and quick first step in addressing the issue and student concerns of all sorts seemed to provide some resolution for those that were offended or harmed by the picture.
“I do think that the college responded somewhat more proactively than I would’ve expected,” said Brinn.
It is still publicly unclear whether the young men will face disciplinary action from the college. Due to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the college’s policies regarding student privacy, this information may not become publicly available at any point.
The investigation also raised a series of questions regarding social media usage, privacy, responsibility and intention versus reception.
Both Williamsen and Hungerford addressed responsible social media use and the unintended consequences of sharing unthoughtful or harmful material, even in spaces that seem “private.” “People can be offended whether comments about them are made anonymously or not … We need to keep learning how to engage with one other, both in person, and online,” added Williamsen.
“While this incident was disappointing and upsetting, it also reaffirmed my belief in and deep commitment for the need to provide ongoing education about sexual violence prevention and more generally how to be respectful community members … We may not ever be able to prevent every offensive comment, but we can try to make our community members appreciate the consequences of their words and we can respond quickly and thoughtfully if things occur,” added Williamsen. “Clearly, our work is not done.”
As the administration renews its commitment to sexual assault education and prevention programs, others are curious about further steps that the college and the student body collectively might take toward promoting a safe environment.
Brinn hopes that the community takes this incident as an opportunity to think about what the optimal response to and consequences for this type of incident should be.