The freshman was raped in her dorm room as she heard his friends laugh on the other side of the door. When she finally reported it after a year of trying -- unsuccessfully -- to forget it, she was shunned by the very people she was told she could trust.
A college administrator. A counselor. The social worker. They said it was too late to seek a disciplinary hearing because she had no physical evidence. She couldn’t change dorms because everything was full. They asked her if she was sure it was rape. They sent her to the hospital and told her she shouldn’t come back. Then they acted shocked when, finally, she told them she was withdrawing.
This is the word of Angie Epifano, a former student of Amherst’s class of 2014, as she told it last Wednesday in the campus newspaper, The Amherst Student.
The story is devastating in itself, but equally remarkable is the response it triggered. Dozens more students have come forward with similar accounts of assaults met with victim-blaming, condescension and general apathy. Hundreds more have rallied on behalf of victims. Amherst President Carolyn (Biddy) Martin has met with students (including victims), faculty and staff to figure out what to do next. The college hasn't disputed the account of Epifano (or those of others), and has launched an investigation into that case specifically. On Friday, Martin will also announce the members of a new committee charged with making broader, long-term recommendations for "enhancing sexual respect" on campus.
There is rarely a time when sexual assaults publicly brought to light don’t strike at the heart of a campus. But the events unfolding at Amherst could be the catalyst for unprecedented change there – thanks in large part, experts say, to the students brave enough to speak out about a system that works against them.
“Clearly, based on the perceptions and experiences of our students, we need to do a better job."
--Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, Amherst's president
And the flaws of that system – and the trauma it can cause – spread like wildfire, said Colby Bruno, managing attorney for the national Victim Rights Law Center. She recalled one story of a student she defended whose own bad experience with administrators was brought up by an unwitting student in an education and rape class.
“Stories like this – they’re all over. Amherst is not unique. The one place, truthfully, I think Amherst is unique is this resounding response that Amherst is doing,” Bruno said. “Out of all the cases I’ve had, this is the one where the president has invited those survivors into her office. There’s a difference between an open invitation and a direct invitation, and that, to me, is certainly to be commended.”
Martin’s response should be a model for other universities, Bruno said, and they shouldn’t wait until a huge scandal breaks to get started. Martin, a scholar in gender and feminist theory now in her second year in the Amherst presidency, started work on the issue when she first took office.
Martin said at an open meeting last week -- before the publication of Epifano’s story, but after the revelation that an underground fraternity had printed T-shirts featuring a cartoon of a bruised, bikini-clad woman roasting like a pig over an open fire – that students had come to her with complaints about Amherst’s policies and procedures being inadequate. Last spring, the college altered some hearing procedures and increased training for faculty advisers. More recently, it has established an anonymous support hotline, brought in additional counselors specializing in response to sexual misconduct, and added student representation to its sexual respect task force and committee on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in education.
“Clearly, based on the perceptions and experiences of our students, we need to do a better job,” Martin said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “The one-shot deal at orientation is not adequate…. It’s not something I think colleges and universities generally have done particularly well, but my goal would be to integrate discussions about issues of this sort into the intellectual growth of our students in a fundamental way, not simply as an add-on where there are trainings and educational programs here and there.”
A collection of photos published this week on the AC Voice, a student-run blog, and organized by the online sexual violence awareness magazine It Happens Here, feature 11 survivors of sexual assault holding signs showing the victim-blaming statements that Amherst administrators, staff and students made to them about their experience.
“Are you sure it was rape? He seems to think it was a little more complicated."
“Why don’t you take a year off, get a job at Starbucks, and come back after he’s graduated?”
“If you didn’t want to have sex with him, why were you sitting on his bed two weeks before?”
That “one-shot” prevention tactic – an education session at orientation where students hear once and only once about sexual assault and related campus rules and resources – is typical of colleges, said Gail Stern, chief academic officer at the consulting firm Catharsis Productions. But it doesn’t do anything to change the culture that allows perpetrators to victimize.
“You can’t short-cut it; it’s a process, it’s going to take a long time because this is a bias that our society holds onto with a death grip, that the victim is partially or wholly responsible,” Stern said. “We want to negotiate how much responsibility the victim of a felony has, when we don’t do that for victims of any other felony. And the problem is, the people committing this crime, by and large, are people we know. And that is so emotionally and cognitively destabilizing, we punt – we say, ‘What did she do?’ because it’s so much easier to blame the victim.”
While Amherst does have additional programming and offices that address sexual assault, Martin acknowledged they could be better-coordinated. And she and Stern agree that the education about sexual assault should extend to faculty and staff as well, not just students.
“The administration is there over time and they have the responsibility of fostering a campus culture that is one where victims would want to report. Honestly, instituting better policies is only as good as the campus that supports those policies and the administrators that interpret them,” Stern said. “Many of them are seeing rape in a very literal, legal way and as an issue that is the victim’s responsibility to deal with in a very timely manner.”
Kristine Newhall, a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies at the University of Iowa who contributes to the Title IX Blog, said the students she’s talked to attribute Amherst’s issues to “this culture of elitism and male privilege, and we don’t want to ruin our reputation as an elite liberal arts institution.”
And if campus officials are really instilling doubt in students who say they’ve been raped, Newhall said, it puts further onus on the victim to convince someone who shouldn’t have to be convinced.
“It becomes this self-perpetuating cycle of, ‘If we don’t talk about it, then it must not happen, could it possibly not have happened to me?’ ” Newhall said. “If that’s true, that’s their culture pervading in places where I feel like it just shouldn’t.”
Looking back on her personal ordeal, Epifano said this in her essay:
“The fact that such a prestigious institution could have such a noxious interior fills me with intense remorse mixed with sour distaste. I am sickened by the Administration’s attempts to cover up survivors’ stories, cook their books to discount rapes, pretend that withdrawals never occur, quell attempts at change, and sweep sexual assaults under a rug…. At one point I hated Amherst with an indescribable amount of fury, but I do not hate the school anymore. Amherst took a lot from me, but they gave me some of the greatest gifts imaginable: self-confidence, my closest friends, intellectual curiosity, and endless personal strength. For these things I am forever grateful. For everything else, I stand back and behold the college with a feeling of melancholia.”
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