On Sat. Sept. 25, students hosted a “Heaven and Hell” themed party in the Nu Complex where students dressed up as angels and devils to gather in the complex’s courtyard. Just before 1 a.m., a fight broke out in the courtyard near the complex’s grill and a makeshift DJ booth. Senior Shawn Rush suffered a Grade Three concussion and first-years Trey Daniels and Rikesh Sederstrom were knocked unconscious. Rush stated that senior Joel “Cooper” Qualls was the student who punched Daniels and Sederstrom.
Director of Campus Safety and Security Daniel Wilcox said the party was unauthorized, but that Campus Safety officers on scene mistakenly told the students who organized it that the party was approved until 1 a.m. due to a misunderstanding about college policies.
According to Wilcox, Daniels and Sederstrom filed a report with the Campus Security office around 2 a.m. on Sept. 26. saying they were assaulted. The following week, rumors about assault, battery, conduct violations and more spread rapidly across social media platforms, especially Instagram. Daniels also claimed that he was knocked unconscious by a white student because he is Black.
Sept. 26: What happened?
According to multiple eyewitnesses at the party, there were several people dancing on top of the outdoor grill by the DJ booth throughout the night, which is where the fight occurred. Junior Sarah Heller said she was dancing on the grill throughout the night with some of her friends when Daniels and Sederstrom came up.
“They kept bumping into us, they were very drunk,” Heller said. “I said, ‘It’s fine that you’re up here just please be conscientious that there’s others on here, you need to be careful.’”
During this time, Rush approached the two men, telling them to get down from the grill.
“We exchanged words and various insults and I said ‘if you’re gonna do something throw an actual punch,’ I’m not gonna throw a punch back at someone when they’re sitting there slapping me, especially with the policies that Eckerd has,” Rush said.
According to Sederstrom, there were multiple attempts to push the two men off the grill.
“We were up there for about maybe five minutes but then we got approached by some people and they told us basically to get the f*ck off,” Sederstrom said. “There were people already up there before and the only people they told to get off were me and Trey.”
When Rush turned around to talk to his friends about the situation, he says he was struck in the back of the head.
An anonymous eyewitness, a first-year who does not want to be named because of the racial implications of the incident, stated he was standing near the DJ booth when he saw Daniels kick his foot out, hitting the back of Rush’s head. He stated it did not look purposeful, but he could not be sure.
“I don’t think Daniels kicked him on purpose. He was just falling off and he sent his foot in the air and I saw someone go down,” the eyewitness said. “That didn’t look intentional but he was definitely shoving people on purpose and definitely grabbing people. [Daniels] was laughing, it didn’t look malicious, they were just drunk.”
In Qualls’ witness statement for Rush’s Incident/Investigation Report with the St. Petersburg Police Department, filed Sept. 30, Qualls said he was approximately six feet from where Daniels and Sederstrom were standing on the grill when he saw the two men beginning to slap and punch Rush in the back of his head.
Qualls stated that when Rush moved away from the grill, he saw two unidentified female students move into the space Rush had previously been standing and Daniels and Sederstrom began physically harassing them as well. When Qualls told the two students to get down, he stated they began to punch and slap him. Qualls’ statement on the police report ends after stating that he was punched and slapped.
Sederstrom denied that he or Daniels harmed anyone at the party and stated he only remembers grabbing the devil horns off one of the girls’ heads and said that it was “a joking gesture.”
Sederstrom said that he pulled a halo off one woman and devil horns off the other woman.
“When I went to go give it back, it was slapped out of my hand and wound up on the floor,” Sederstrom said.
Attempting to give the devil horns back to their owner was the last thing Sederstrom remembers before waking up in an EC-ERT golf cart. Neither Daniels nor Sederstrom remember being attacked.
“This dude had completely come up and blindsided me,” Sederstrom said. “I came to find out later that my friend, Trey, had also been attacked, blindsided and knocked unconscious.”
Senior Michael Puciul was also there that night, dancing on the grill as well. While he didn’t see the incident, he turned around to see Daniels and Sederstrom lying facedown on the ground.
“My first thought was they’re drunk, they’re hammered,” Puciul said.
First-year Cristian Montes De Oca, a friend of Daniels and Sederstrom, said he did not see the incident happen but saw both men lying on the ground so started running towards them. Montes De Oca said that people were trying to hold him back from getting to Daniels and Sederstrom.
“I was telling them, ‘I’m not trying to hurt them, these are my friends, these are the people I came with, I need to check up on them,’” Montes De Oca said.
Heller said she saw Daniels and Sederstrom knocked out after the incident too. Heller and her friend got down from the grill and began helping them, Heller getting ice and water from her Nu room.
“Even if it was just dumb boys getting into a fight, they need help, so my friend had called EC-ERT and we were just helping as much as we could,” Heller said.
After the devil horns were knocked out of his hand, Sederstrom said the next thing he remembers was the EC-ERT responders applying alcohol pads to the cuts on his face.
Sederstrom said he was not offered an ambulance and Daniels said EC-ERT Responders did not provide him medical treatment.
“I don’t think EC-ERT even knew Daniels was there to be honest,” Montes De Oca said.
EC-ERT responders can be seen at 12:53 a.m. on Sept. 26 on St. Petersburg Police body camera footage from outside the Nu Complex.
While EC-ERT* is prohibited by their interpretation of privacy laws from commenting or confirming the names, treatments or the transfer of care method for specific patients, EC-ERT Training Coordinator, senior Joshua Cole, stated the team’s protocol is that they cannot terminate care of a patient unless they transfer care to an ambulance, or the patient signs a document stating the patient does not want responders to call an ambulance.
Cole explained that EC-ERT will often terminate care by having a patient sign an Against Medical Advice (AMA) form. “It basically relieves us of any liabilities and it says generally that we are suggesting that they go to the hospital via 911, but they are refusing to do so and they sign a paper releasing us of our liability."
Cole said that to his knowledge, there have been no calls this year that have been terminated without the patient leaving in an ambulance or signing an AMA agreement.
After Sederstrom left the care of EC-ERT responders, Daniels and Sederstrom said they both were walking around the party trying to figure out what actually happened and who attacked them.
“After that stuff happened I was really mad,” Montes De Oca said. “These are my friends so that really pissed me off.”
According to Puciul, Montes De Oca got in Puciul’s face about who attacked him.
“He’s fuming about who this guy is that jumped his friend,” Puciul said. “He was saying ‘I need to find out who this is, I’m gonna kill this kid.’”
When Sederstrom heard it was Qualls who punched him, he posted a series of pictures to his Snapchat story with captions such as, “We know your name...You’re not safe.”
“Once I heard the name, it resulted in me posting to my story trying to figure out where exactly he was,” Sederstrom said. “I posted some things that I know, looking back, that I shouldn’t have.”
Heller said she also heard the men making threats towards who attacked them that night.
Title IX Accusations
Wilcox said Daniels and Sederstrom both went to the campus safety office after leaving Nu to file a claim with his office about being assaulted.
According to Daniels and Sederstrom, they both had messages sent to their student emails on the day after the party, Sept. 26, stating there was a Title IX case being opened against them by two of the female students at the party the previous night.
“I had seen a report where a reporter, who identified herself, was concerned that there had been an incident at Nu that may have involved sexual assault and a fight,” Coordinator for Title IX, Section 504 and Equal Opportunity Michelle Espinosa said.
Espinosa said two more reports came through the Title IX form indicating there may have been a form of assault at that gathering.
The complainants have declined to comment.
On Sept. 26, Espinosa had a phone call with Wilcox, Dean of Students Jim Annarelli and Associate Dean of Community Standards Joanna Ellwood to discuss the incident and next steps. The results from this phone call were undisclosed.
Daniels said he does not know why the Title IX case was filed against him and Sederstrom.
“I don’t know where all this information is coming from or what’s going on,” Daniels said. “I was knocked out at a party and now I’m the suspect in a sexual assault case?”
On Monday, Sept. 27, Daniels said he went into Wilcox’s office for an initial conduct interrogation around the incident at the party. This was his first visit with Campus Safety since the night of the party when he and Sederstrom filed their report the night of the incident.
Rumors spread on Social Media
On Tuesday Sept. 28, social media started to overflow with rumors about the incident at the party. Posts on Instagram and YikYak, a social media app on which all users are anonymous, ranged from students claiming that Eckerd was protecting Daniels because of his large social media following, to saying they saw Daniels and Sederstrom grabbing women inappropriately at the party and that students should blame the people who violated conduct policies instead of the party itself for the ban on large gatherings.
Other posts claimed that Daniels and Sederstrom were innocent and that people were accusing them of assault because they are Black students.
“A lot of false narratives about that night kept going around anonymously. It put a lot of people in danger and in really uncomfortable situations, I don’t think people realize that,” Montes De Oca said.
Because of the large number of students posting about him, Daniels went back to Wilcox’s office on Sept. 28 saying he did not feel safe on campus with the accusations against him being posted on social media.
“Now social media is a whole different thing,” Daniels said. “Which ultimately is more dangerous than anything the school could have done.”
According to Daniels, the Title IX allegations were dropped against him that day. Daniels said he did not want to talk to a counselor or Wilcox anymore, requesting a meeting with President Damián Fernández.
In an Afro-American Society meeting that Tuesday night, Daniels told his story during an open floor discussion led by VP of AAS Briana Hashim. First-year Morgan Brown attended the meeting and heard his account.
“I remember him bringing up the fact that he had a large Instagram and social media following,” Brown said. “He was basically saying that he could totally bring down Eckerd’s reputation, he could make this a big deal.”
Daniels said he referenced his large social media following because he often speaks about injustices online.
“I wouldn’t neglect sharing my own experiences to protect a school’s reputation when they couldn’t protect mine,” Daniels said. “I am a strong advocate in the youth using their voices in a time of injustice. It would contradict everything I stand for if I didn’t speak out about this.”
On Sept. 29 Daniels and his mother met with Espinosa, Wilcox and other administrators. In this meeting, Daniels said he asked the school to clear his name because he felt unsafe on campus.
Daniels told The Current that in this meeting he asked, “Can y’all be there for me like y’all haven’t been in this whole situation? Can y’all be there for me for my safety and send out an email, send out something to the school to let them know that I’m not involved in this in any way?”
After the meeting, Daniels said the school didn’t say they would act on his request, so he went home to Tarpon Springs, Fla.
Also on Sept. 29, Rush, who was kicked in the head at the Nu party, went to the Student Health Center on-campus where he was diagnosed with a Grade Three Concussion, which he suffered from a kick to the back of the head at the party as seen from the anonymous eye-witness.
Conduct Investigation and Police Report Filed
On Thurs. Sept. 30, Annarelli and Executive Director of Inclusive Excellence Beverly Warren sent out an email stating the incident, which “involved potential verbal and physical harassment, physical assault, and the use of alcohol by underage students,” was reported to Espinosa earlier in the week, but the incident did not violate the College’s sexual misconduct policy based on the current evidence.
“It’s possible that those behaviors constitute physical assault or harassment that’s not sexual in nature,” Espinosa said to The Current.
Annarelli and Warren urged students to report any information they may have about the night of Sept. 25 or any concerns they may have that would help their investigation.
“Reporting concerns about misconduct, discrimination, and harassment allows the College to provide supportive measures and identify appropriate investigation and resolution options,” Annarelli and Warren wrote.
When asked about the email, Daniels said he did not see it until reporters from The Current showed it to him during the interview.
College officials are prohibited from commenting further on any specifics of the incident while it is under investigation.
On Sept. 30, Rush filed an Incident/Investigation Report with the St. Petersburg Police Department against Sederstrom and Daniels for simple battery and written threat to kill (case number 2021-036543).
The listed witnesses on the report are Qualls, Evan Cramer, Macy Cooper and Molly Balentine. Qualls gave a witness statement in the report.
As of Sept. 30, the St. Petersburg Police Department’s narrative on the Incident Report states, “Upon review of the videos and photographs provided by Rush, lack of physical evidence and conflicting statements, at this time there is no probable cause for simple battery or written threats to kill.”
The power of an Instagram platform
On Oct. 1, with approximately 276,000 followers on his Instagram account, Daniels posted a statement that he felt he should use his platform to speak up about his experiences at a predominantly white institution (PWI) and that he “didn’t come here to get knocked out at a party and wake up as a suspect in a case.” Daniels also stated he was not offered any medical treatment and had to find his own way to the hospital. He concludes his post with, “Eckerd College let me down and it’s time for the world to know. This is a hate crime. I’m a victim. They will have to pay for this. Y’all picked the right student to go against because I’ve been training and I’m taking all measures necessary to get the justice I need.”
When asked why he waited until almost a week after the incident to post on social media, Daniels said he wanted to see how it all played out.
“After asking them to protect my reputation and they didn't, I decided I wasn’t going to protect the school’s reputation anymore,” Daniels said, citing the meeting that took place on Sept. 29.
As of Oct. 11, Eckerd is contracting with Cozen O’Connor law firm to investigate formal complaints of racial discrimination and harrassment as well as other related conduct violations according to Espinosa. Because of the other allegations of physical assault and harassment related to this complaint, every aspect of the case is being investigated by Cozen O’Connor. Espinosa said she is prohibited by FERPA law from naming specific individuals involved in the case.
“The reason we [moved] all of that is because we now have the alleged physical harassment, we have an alleged physical assault and we have an alleged racial discrimination case,” Espinosa said. “If we were to do the alleged physical assault and harassment under student conduct, and the alleged discriminatory harassment that is related to those, we’d be running two processes with all the same parties and duplicating the investigation. There could be different outcomes with different investigations.”
Where does Eckerd go from here?
On Oct. 11, Fernández sent an email inviting all members of the Eckerd community to participate in two new initiatives. In the email, Fernández said the Eckerd Together Forum will meet the week of Oct. 18 to plan conversations and events that will “increase understanding across campus and promote unity while celebrating our individualism.” This forum will be led by Annarelli, Warren and Chaplain Doug McMahon and will consist of a committee of students, faculty and staff.
The second initiative, the Eckerd Dialogue Series, will be led by Master Facilitator and Mediator Dr. D.A. Graham. Fernández said Graham will “join us on campus to facilitate a series of dialogues on enhancing communication and conflict management skills.”
In his email, Fernández invites all students, staff and faculty to reflect on the college’s core values, saying, “One of the hallmarks of Eckerd College is a strong sense of personal responsibility and commitment to shared values. We know who we are as an institution. We are an inclusive community. We seek to ensure that our students’ understanding of citizenship and responsible engagement at the local and national levels begins here.”
While there are conflicting accusations and claims about what happened the night of Sept. 25, about ten eyewitnesses declined to go on record, citing fear of retaliation from individuals involved in the incident, and because of the sensitive subject matter with allegations of sexual assault and racial discriminations.
“I don’t want to say something stupid when I’m not fully aware of a situation’s details and catch flak for it,” said junior Kat Fiillman. “This situation has so many sides to it I don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.”
Wilcox said there will not be any more approved gatherings of more than 25 people in the near future, and campus safety officers will be on standby in complex courtyards to prevent students from setting up speakers or other amplified music. He said students would be given the choice to comply with policies, or their speakers and equipment will be confiscated.
“What are the alternatives for students, are we going to sit here and pretend that people are going to go play pattycake in their dorms on Saturdays?” Rush said. “No…they’re going to go downtown. Good luck.”
Heller also thinks there are other alternatives the college could consider to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
“I think permanently banning parties from a college campus isn’t the answer,” Heller said. “Spreading more information, hiring more security, specifically female security, would help the students feel a lot more safe.”