Shining a Spotlight on Sexual Assault
By Emily Gold Boutilier
Years from now, when today’s students point to the date when a campus movement went from a gentle simmer to a rolling boil, they’ll likely identify Oct. 17, 2012. That’s when, all around campus, people opened The Amherst Student or went to its website and found an op-ed by Angie Epifano ’14.
“On May 25, 2011,” she wrote, “I was raped by an acquaintance in Crossett Dormitory. Some nights I can still hear the sounds of his roommates on the other side of the door, unknowingly talking and joking as I was held down.”
At least as much as the rape allegation, what horrified readers was Epifano’s description of what happened a year later, when she went to college administrators and counselors. “In short,” she wrote, “I was told: No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape? It might have been a bad hookup.”
First sent to a psychiatric ward and then restricted in her academic options, according to the article, Epifano ultimately withdrew from Amherst. “I eventually reported my rapist,” she wrote. “He graduated with honors.”
Soon after the op-ed appeared, several things happened. One: the story went viral. Picked up by The Huffington Post, Jezebel, The New York Times and other outlets, it also became the most widely read article in the history of the Student’s website. An alumnus started a Facebook group, “Fixing Amherst’s Sexual Violence Problem,” that within a week had 3,800 members.
Two: other students and alumni came forward with similar stories and critiques. They shared these accounts on social media, in emails to President Biddy Martin, in letters to the Student and in ACVoice, a student-run blog. “Clearly,” Martin wrote in an Oct. 18 letter to the community, “the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately.”
Three: Martin acted. She launched an internal investigation into Epifano’s account. “No student,” she wrote in her Oct. 18 letter, “should be discouraged from reporting offenses or seeking redress.” She formed a Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct. She promised a more comprehensive Counseling Center. To help in the short term, she brought in clinicians from Harvard’s McLean Center to provide counseling and policy advice. At her direction, the college launched a “Sexual Respect and Title IX” website that, among other things, explains students’ options for reporting sexual misconduct. The college also started working with the Center for Women and the Community at UMass, which provides 24-hour on-call crisis intervention and other services.
Martin and Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call canceled classes and closed offices for a Nov. 2 “day of dialogue and reflection,” which drew some 1,900 students, faculty and staff. Gretchen Krull, assistant director of health education and the college’s sexual respect counselor, resigned. A letter written by 14 faculty members and signed by 128 others called for “an end to the culture of silence.” The Board of Trustees—who met with a group of 10 student leaders—issued a statement pledging change.
“I have never seen a college take the bull by the horns so quickly,” said one nationally recognized expert, former prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith, in a meeting with staff on Oct. 24. “There’s a spotlight being shone in the corners and the nooks and crannies of this problem.” The New York Times quoted another expert, S. Daniel Carter, on the prevalence of sexual assault at colleges nationwide. “The only thing that’s unique about Amherst,” Carter said, “has been the president’s response.”
In fact, some changes were already under way. Smith has been consulting with Amherst since July, when Martin hired her to assess Amherst’s policies, procedures and practices in handling reports of “sexual misconduct”—a term that covers a range of behaviors, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and discrimination. Smith’s work is ongoing. And earlier this semester, Martin agreed to improve support for victims and review penalties for those found responsible.
Amherst students have several options for reporting sexual misconduct. The new website suggests they report directly to campus police or the Title IX coordinator. (Sexual misconduct is a violation of Title IX, the federal law that bans gender discrimination in education.) Campus Police can help students get medical attention (both to treat injuries and to gather evidence) and counseling.
Campus Police can also support any student who wishes to file a report with local law enforcement officials, who, in turn, have the power to conduct a criminal investigation and refer the case for prosecution. In the wake of Epifano’s article, one common criticism has been that rape, because it is a criminal offense, is better handled by municipal police and courts than by internal college systems. However, as Smith explains, the vast majority of rape cases lack physical evidence, making them extremely difficult to prove in criminal court. District attorneys are reluctant to prosecute cases that they are likely to lose, and so most DAs simply do not take these so-called “credibility cases.”
Liya Rechtman ’14, a member of the new oversight committee, believes that fewer students would report sexual assault if the courts were the only option. “Having an internal disciplinary structure is incredibly important for survivors,” she says, pointing to the lower burden of proof and the shorter time frame for resolution.
At Amherst, that internal structure is the Committee on Discipline, a group of appointed students and faculty members that has the power to impose sanctions up to and including expulsion. Last spring the college approved some changes to the disciplinary hearing process specific to sexual misconduct: Instead of relying on the alleged victim to prove his or her case, the committee plans to employ a trained investigator to gather evidence. Also, a student can now testify via Skype so he or she does not have to be in the same room as the person being accused.
Some feel those changes do not go far enough. At the Oct. 19 discussion with the Board of Trustees (who were on campus for a regularly scheduled meeting), Rechtman and nine other student leaders presented specific policy ideas, among them a proposal to remove sexual assault cases from the purview of the Committee on Discipline.
A main reason for this idea has to do with Amherst’s small size. Both accuser and accused may avoid taking courses in the future with a professor who decides their case, for example. “That restricts access to education,” Rechtman maintains. Also, says Tania Dias ’13, president of the Association of Amherst Students and a member of the Committee on Discipline, both parties may encounter the student committee members in class, at Valentine and in the dorms. As Rechtman says, “These aren’t people you’ll never see again.”
Another criticism is that expulsion is too rarely used as a punishment. “Sexual assault survivors were forced to attend school—and eat in one dining hall—alongside their attackers,” reads a petition sponsored by Marina Weiss ’08, Esther Lim ’05 and Dan Cluchey ’08 and signed by almost 700 Five College students and alumni. As part of its ongoing review, the college is looking into penalties, bearing in mind that each case is different.
Cluchey (who started the 3,800-member Facebook group) would like to see the college ensure access to an independent lawyer or counselor “who has the survivor’s best interest at heart. One of the big failures that I think we saw from Angie’s story is there’s no person in place who constitutes the survivor’s own team.”
Such criticisms took on greater urgency as of Nov. 5, when a website for The Good Men Project posted a suicide note by Trey Malone ’15e, who in September 2011 had reported a sexual assault involving another Amherst student. “What began as an earnest effort to help on the part of Amherst, became an emotionless hand washing. In those places I should’ve received help, I saw none,” Malone wrote before he took his own life in June 2012. “I blame a society that remains unwilling to address sexual assault and rape.”
Martin responded to the post in an open letter to the community, saying that Malone’s note has directly “informed the ongoing changes we are making at the college.” As she explained, Malone’s reported assault was resolved through the college’s disciplinary system and resulted in a “finding of responsibility for the respondent.” She added that, after the finding, Amherst had continued to provide outreach and support to Malone. “The pain and finality of Trey’s suicide eclipse all other concerns, yet I call on us all to reflect on what we knew, accept that we cannot know everything and learn from this horrible loss.”
Many on campus hope that Amherst will emerge as a leader in tackling a national problem. According to a 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five college women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape during a typical college career. This statistic means that college women are at greater risk than their non-college-bound peers. In 80 to 90 percent of these cases, victim and assailant know each other. Alcohol is usually a factor. Most cases go unreported.
The DOJ report suggests that schools offer confidential or anonymous reporting, because some victims are embarrassed or fear reprisal, and “victims who may have been drinking before the assault might fear sanctions for violating campus policy on alcohol abuse.” (Amherst already allowed confidential reporting and now has a system for anonymous reporting. The college is also looking at its alcohol policies.)
“Students want the administration to be held accountable,” says Dias, the AAS president. “But we have to hold ourselves to the same standards. The school can change the policies, but students have a role in changing the culture.”
This is a culture in which, for example, an underground fraternity at Amherst sold a T-shirt last spring with a drawing of a woman in her underwear with bruises on her side. “There’s an apple jammed in her mouth,” wrote Dana Bolger ’14e in an ACVoice article about the shirt. “And she’s stretched out, tied up, suspended from a spit and roasting over a fire.” The shirt—which advertised a pig roast—read, “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847.” Bolger’s piece criticized the administration for not punishing those responsible for the shirt.
But it is also a culture that published Epifano’s op-ed. It is a culture that responded to that article with days and weeks of what The New York Times termed “soul searching.” It is a culture whose alumni are paying attention and offering help. It is a culture in which the president has promised to expand mental health services as a way not only to respond to sexual assault but also “to promote well-being.” It is a culture in which 10 student leaders have suggested to trustees that first-year seminars incorporate lessons on “sexual respect.”
Rechtman—who in her role as editor of ACVoice asked Bolger to write about the T-shirt—is optimistic. “I think a huge amount has happened on campus, and I’m overjoyed,” she says. “I’ve never felt such a sense of community and community action.”
The proof will be in what happens next. In January, the Special Oversight Committee will present recommendations for change to the Board of Trustees. In addition to looking into how the college can better prevent and address sexual assault, the committee is charged with advising Martin as she seeks immediate changes.
“Amherst,” Martin says, “is not immune to the problems that plague the rest of the world, but it has aspirations to be a leader in comprehensive, well-coordinated and effective approaches to student well-being and cultural change. There is no magic bullet for change of the kind we need.” To Martin, the long term key will be education and community building “that allows us to get out in front of problems, rather than merely reacting to them.”
The Nov. 2 day of dialogue drew an extraordinary 68 percent of campus. Speaking that morning to the vast crowd in LeFrak Gymnasium, Martin described Amherst as a community willing to confront difficult issues with urgency and compassion, and not by brushing problems under the rug. “The outpouring here shows what kind of community Amherst College has and is,” she said. “I commit to all of you that the administration will not take its foot off the gas.”
Photos by Rob Mattson