ST. MARY'S CITY -- On an unseasonably warm afternoon last week, a flock of giggling St. Mary's College students joined ducks for a dip in a pond. Chatter among those heading to class concerned exams and weekend plans. Traffic stopped to let pedestrians and bicyclists cross Route 5, the main road that bisects the small campus.
Earlier in the week, a Guatemalan court had convicted three men of raping and robbing a group of St. Mary's students on a study trip there in January of last year, handing down 28-year sentences. A fourth suspect was arrested last week.
While that has brought a sigh of relief and sense of justice, it brought a renewed feeling that college life goes on as normally -- and as privately -- as possible, with the crime slowly receding into the past.
"We don't want it to be a defining experience for the campus," said Michael A. Freeman, dean of student affairs.
Here, this public college has become something of a private intensive care unit, with students protecting their friends and fellow students. A year after the attack, that hasn't changed because, students say, the nature of their school is to be a tight community.
"People care about each other. That's partly what this school is based on," said Tara Jensen, a senior from Annapolis. "We are a close-knit family."
With about 1,500 students, St. Mary's has a smaller student population than many public high schools. Next to the St. Mary's River and on a history-steeped peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake Bay, it is sufficiently isolated that students and faculty easily recognize strangers on campus.
The identities of the victims of the crime, widely known on campus, remain undisclosed at their request, and students remain remarkably protective of them.
'Very respectful' of feelings
"We really made an effort not to expose the people. Maybe that wouldn't have happened on a bigger campus," said Aarati Kasturirangan, a senior from Wilmington, Del. "We tend to be very respectful of each other's feelings."
Here, knowing one or more of the crime victims carries no status. Nearly all upperclassmen do. Many will not talk about those friendships beyond saying they offer whatever comfort they can.
"Have you seen the movie 'Six Degrees of Separation'?" asked Dan Finan, a senior from Silver Spring. "Here there's maybe half a degree. Notoriety is not so important. To say, 'I know that girl' -- yeah, well, so does everybody else. They are the best friends that you can have," he said.
With previous tragedies affecting the campus, the administration held a public gathering of some form. Students returning from Guatemala did not want that, and the administration honored the request. Such a small school could not give the victims anonymity, but it could preserve their privacy.
At a college where crime is so alien that expensive bicycles perch unlocked in racks, the Guatemala attack was the first time many students realized they are not invincible.
Some sought advice from the campus counseling service. Approaching counselors was easy, students said, because they know them from less traumatic situations. The counseling center runs "stress-free zones," replete with massage therapy and squeeze balls, during the crunch weeks of midterms and finals.
Much of the overt hostility students showed news media that invaded the campus in January 1998 -- including "go home" signs -- has dissipated. Now, students want to look ahead.
"It's a subject that people don't want to be reminded of," said Adrian Deal, a junior from Severna Park and editor of the weekly student newspaper, the Point News. "We're pretty distanced from it now. It's been a year."
Los Angeles psychologist Robert R. Butterworth, who studies group response to trauma, says that is common.
"When you get such a small school, it becomes like an extended family, and then it becomes us vs. them. They really can't go after the people in Guatemala that they are angry at. So they are angry at the other people who come in," he said.
While students are protecting the victims, they also are protecting themselves from the horrors of the crime, he said.
Overseas programs continue
Overseas study programs for St. Mary's students have continued, though no trip was made to Guatemala this year. Bill Roberts, the anthropology professor who organized the Guatemala program, is on sabbatical. However, 19 students took a similar trip to Thailand last month.
A college task force on study abroad programs, formed in the aftermath of the attack, recommended no big changes for the school, but suggested establishing a federal network bringing together information from schools and federal agencies that would serve as a clearinghouse on studying abroad.
Pub Date: 2/15/99