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Eckerd College kicks male ELS students off campus in response to sexual assault concerns

Eckerd College no longer allows male ELS students to live on campus and imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on all ELS students.
Published Sep. 27, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — The invitation to foreign students on the Eckerd College website looks irresistible, with images of glistening beaches and sailboats knifing through the water.

Over the past 40 years, "tens of thousands of students from all over the world" have learned English at an ELS Language Center on the Eckerd campus. They can eat in the cafeterias, swim in the pool, enjoy the waterfront or work out in the gym.

This week, however, Eckerd administrators reduced those liberties.

"As of Monday, September 22, 2014, only female ELS participants will be permitted to reside in campus housing," Lorisa Lorenzo, Eckerd's associate dean for student life, wrote in an email sent Wednesday to all students.

The sudden policy shift, undertaken by Eckerd and acceded to by ELS, follows a tumultuous August. Authorities last month dealt with violations ranging from alcohol and catcalls to two allegations of sexual assault reported by female Eckerd students.

It is unclear whether either alleged attacker has been identified. Nonetheless, all four male ELS students on the campus have moved into homes or nearby hotels.

The ban also affects future ELS students and runs indefinitely, or at least until Eckerd and ELS administrators can work out an agreement that could allow male ELS students to return to a dormitory. The new policy also imposes an 8 p.m. curfew on the 42 ELS students now living off the campus, male or female, by which they must have left the property.

"We completely abide by Eckerd College's decision on how to proceed in the investigation and their interpretation of Title IX policies and procedures," said Alexandra Zilovic, the ELS senior vice president for operations and business affairs for North America. The private company provides English language education to foreign students.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education programs that get federal funds. The law has gotten national attention recently because of the investigation by Florida State University authorities into alleged misconduct by quarterback Jameis Winston.

Eckerd's action was made after a freshman told campus security on Sept. 1 she was sexually assaulted three weeks earlier, St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said.

The student said she accepted a drink from a group of ELS students from Spain and subsequently blacked out. She woke up in her dorm room "in a state of undress," Puetz said.

"A lot of her physical state seemed to suggest that she had engaged in some sort of sexual act to which she did not give her consent," he said.

She was interviewed and signed a waiver of prosecution.

That incident was after another report from August by a different female Eckerd student, who asked the school not to report her assault to police.

"We can safely say that the level of seriousness in at least one of the incidents was part of the reason we have responded as we have," said James Annarelli, Eckerd's vice president for student life and dean of students..

Some ELS students see the new policy as unfair and discriminatory.

"The problem is one or two of the men. It's not all the men," said Mariadelcarmen Jimenez, 27, of Paraguay, who has lived on the campus while studying at ELS for seven months. "Eckerd and ELS students have the same problem about drinking and drugs. The students at Eckerd don't move. But the students at ELS move."

Both sides are eager to portray recent behavioral issues among ELS students as a hiccup in a mutually beneficial relationship. English Language Services, a program based in Princeton, N.J., that does business as English Language Centers, has at least 60 schools across the United States. Students representing up to 130 countries have visited Eckerd since the 1970s.

A problem with some male ELS students became apparent about three years ago, Annarelli said, one that included "harassing language, which in the context of the United States and Eckerd College is not acceptable."

Malena Carollo, a recent Eckerd graduate, said she noticed ELS students, particularly from Saudi Arabia, making catcalls and other unwelcome gestures.

"The past couple of years there has been some tension because largely male students had a little bit of trouble assimilating properly with some of the girls," said Carollo, 22.

Eckerd's crime statistics reported to federal authorities show that hundreds of its students have violated policies and broken laws in recent years.

From 2010 through 2012, the college recorded 250 liquor law violations, 402 drug law violations and 15 sexual assaults. None of the sex offenses resulted in arrests.

Annarelli acknowledged those blemishes but said Eckerd students have cleared background screenings and submitted letters of recommendation.

Students who apply to ELS online, by comparison, need only be able to fill out the application, sign a health statement and pay $1,350 to $1,790 for a four-week course.

Both Eckerd and ELS administrators have expressed hope that they will come up with a plan to bring male ELS students back on the campus soon.

"ELS has zero tolerance for (sexual offenses)," Zilovic said. "I find it unfortunate that there has developed now an impression among the (Eckerd) students that somehow these international students may not be safe or know how to behave — because that truly is not the case."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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