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Duke Students Celebrate Graduation In Wake Of Lacrosse Case

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DURHAM, N.C. — Thousands of Duke University students celebrated their graduations Sunday at the school's 144th commencement, capping an academic career that included a tumultuous final two months as the campus dealt with allegations of rape against members of the school's lacrosse team.

"It certainly hasn't been easy for the last few weeks," said graduating senior Yazan Kopty, who spoke at the ceremony where he received a degree in international studies.

Sunday's graduation came two months and a day after the March 13 lacrosse team party where a 27-year-old black woman, hired to perform as a stripper, says she was raped and beaten by three white men. A grand jury has charged two lacrosse players with rape, kidnapping and sexual assault, and a grand jury meeting Monday could consider additional indictments.

A Duke spokesperson said there were more than 4,000 students, both undergraduate and graduate, eligible to take part in Sunday's ceremony. Few were in the mood to talk about the case, which tugged at racial tensions in Durham and attracted national attention to Duke and its Gothic campus. Kopty and others speaking at Wallace Wade Stadium mostly deflected the issue, calling it a simple distraction.

"This day is really what the Duke spirit stands for," Christian Helm, who graduated with a degree in economics, said before the ceremony. "It gives everyone a chance to see Duke at its finest again."

John Hope Franklin, an emeritus professor of history at Duke and a leading scholar of African-American history, did not mention the lacrosse case during his address, choosing instead to praise students for their success, urge them to work for a better society and ask graduates to consider the lingering racism in the United States.

University provost Peter Lange blamed the "sad events and relentless media coverage" of the case for tarnishing the school's image.

"It's been a whirlwind," said Paul Sarker, graduating with a degree in economics. "There's been so much privilege here for so many years. I'm sure the whole thing has affected the public's perception of Duke."

The rape allegations led Duke to cancel the lacrosse team's season and accept the resignation of coach Mike Pressler. Duke President Richard Brodhead also initiated a series of internal investigations, one of which concluded administrators were slow to react to the scandal in part because of initial doubts about the accuser's credibility.

The school took steps to protect students as they completed the academic year, asking reporters to be mindful of the stress of final exams as they covered the lacrosse case. At graduation, the university asked all media to leave campus a short time after the ceremony ended.

"The fact that out classmates were being arrested -- that's obviously hard to ignore," said Jonathan Fisher, who graduated with a degree in English. "But there's a lot more going on in the world that we need to focus on."

The Duke lacrosse roster included 11 seniors, but it was unclear if they attended Sunday's ceremony. The two players indicted -- Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J., and Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y. -- are both sophomores. Defense attorneys have strongly proclaimed their innocence.

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