The End of Silence

Campus rape at US colleges has for years gone unchecked under negligent administrations. A group of students taking legal action against six leading institutions may finally change that
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OUT IN THE WORLD  After withdrawing from Amherst, Angie Epifano (seen here in Scotland) has been working and travelling around the world (Photo: ELAINE TENG)

LOS ANGELES ~ Angie Epifano always wears the same necklace. It is simple—a round blue stone set in silver on a silver chain. When something reminds her of her rape, she holds the pendant in her palm and concentrates on how it feels. This brings her a sense of calm.

“It’s called ‘grounding,’” she says, touching the pendant during a Skype interview. It’s a technique psychological counsellors teach those who have experienced rape or other types of trauma: when something occurs in their daily life that reminds them of what happened—whether it’s seeing their rapist, or a certain smell or sound—they must concentrate on something else that will bring them back to the present.

“Some people have a memory that they think of, or a place that they felt safe in, like a wooded space. Or they’ll think of their favourite food or just anything that will bring them back to reality. If you were to run into or see your rapist—that’s the kind of tool that will help you get through the encounter.”

Angie wishes she had known about this technique earlier. After being raped by a fellow Amherst student in the spring of 2011, towards the end of her freshman year in college, she hesitated to tell anyone. During that time, she saw her rapist often—across campus at a distance, at the library when she was trying to study, at the gym when she was trying to work out.

When she finally reached out to her college administration, they did more to convince her that she was crazy than they did to help her deal with her trauma. Rather than trying to investigate her rape or making efforts to protect her from her rapist, she says, the college administration sent her to psychological counsellors who tried to make her believe that she had invented her rape.

Some administrators indicated Angie’s background had led her to misunderstand what had happened—Amherst is in America’s North-eastern state of Massachusetts, while Angie is from Florida, in the south. “They said that because I was from a different part of the US and grew up in a different environment, I didn’t understand how things worked,” Angie says, “Or that I was from a broken family, so I had imagined my rape in order to cope with things. One psychiatrist said that I was explaining away child sexual abuse with the rape. I was never sexually abused as a child.”

Instead of helping her come to grips with what happened to her and move on, Angie felt her college counsellors were trying to make her feel insane. After months trying to cope, finding no one willing to believe her or help her seek justice, Angie went to a counsellor and confessed suicidal thoughts. The Amherst administration forcibly admitted her to a psychiatric ward. Not long after she was released, Angie withdrew from one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States. She hadn’t spoken to either of her parents in three years, and had no idea what the future would be like.

In the months that followed, Angie worked at a ranch in Wyoming, and then headed to Europe to go backpacking. When she returned to the US, she visited Amherst. She met with other survivors of sexual assault on campus and found that they were experiencing the same injustices she had. She felt it was time to do something about it. Using journal entries from her time at Amherst, Angie composed an op-ed piece for the college newspaper, The Amherst Student, detailing the aftermath of her assault, her time in a psych ward and the administration’s dismissive attitude.

The article, ‘An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst’, went to press in October 2011. Amherst President Caroline ‘Biddy’ Martin responded immediately with an open letter, saying: ‘Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately. I am investigating the handling of the incident that was recounted in The Student. There will be consequences for any problems we identify, either with procedures or personnel.’ She has overhauled campus sexual assault procedures by hiring professional investigators to deal with reports. The psychological counsellor assigned to Angie has since resigned.

Responses to Angie’s story continue to surface. Countless survivors, with stories similar to Angie’s, have come forward in the blogosphere, addressing one another, and the legal system. In the past two months, six of America’s best known colleges—Occidental College, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Swarthmore College, University of California at Berkeley, The University of Southern California and Dartmouth College—have been under the US Department of Education’s scrutiny for neglecting victims of sexual assault. Students and faculty from these institutions, represented by celebrated feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, filed complaints on 18 April and 22 May 2013, charging their colleges with the violation of Title IX and the Clery Act. The Department of Education’s investigation of these institutions is well underway. If they do not change their policies to adequately protect students from sexual assault, they risk government sanctions, including loss of funding.

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Title IX is a United States law, passed in 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in government-funded educational institutions. Democratic Senator Birch Bayh, who introduced the bill, said in his remarks on the Senate floor that the intention of Title IX was to prevent universities from denying women places in colleges based on gender. He intended for it to combat the false stereotype that “women [are] pretty things who go to college to find a husband, go to graduate school because they want a more interesting husband, and finally marry, have children, and never work again”.

In 2011, not long before Angie was raped, the Obama administration amended the law to include sexual harassment and violence as forms of gender discrimination. The purpose of this clarification was to curtail sexual violence on campus by holding college administrations accountable for dealing with it. Ironically, President Obama’s own alma mater, Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, now finds itself centre-stage for having allegedly violated Title IX.

In March this year, the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC), a student and faculty group at Occidental, wrote an open letter to college president Jonathan Veitch. The letter accused Veitch of failing to deal with on-campus sexual assault, despite damning data presented to him by the OSAC more than a year earlier, and despite the numerous promises he’d made to address the problem since then.

After Veitch failed to get tough on sexual assault, another Occidental student was allegedly raped on 24 February 2013. The local media got involved, and interviewed Professor Danielle Dirks as well as another Occidental student and rape survivor, Carly Mee, both of whom are members of the OSAC. Without this media coverage, no one on campus would have been informed of the crime.

In an open letter to the campus community, Veitch tried to shame Dirks and Mee for speaking out about the assault to the media, saying that they ‘actively sought to embarrass the College on the evening news. That is their choice, and there is very little I can do about it.’ He also defended the decision to allow the accused student back on campus unnamed, saying that he posed ‘no ongoing danger’ to other students. The OSAC’s response, as stated in its letter, was to file a legal complaint against Occidental under Title IX. Since learning of the potential legal consequences of his actions, Veitch has apologised.

Danielle Dirks, a professor of criminology at the college and one of the Title IX complainants, believes that part of the reason colleges are held responsible for dealing with cases of sexual assault is that the police often fail. “In cases where there have been injuries, the police have said there’s not enough evidence,” she says in a phone interview. Even when the police don’t turn rape victims away, the standards for finding rapists guilty are tough to meet—too tough to keep campuses safe.

In an email, James Tranquada, director of communications at Occidental, says: ‘Being the subject of this kind of attention is never pleasant. But this is an important conversation to have.’ He admits that parents of prospective students have been asking, ‘“Should I send my son here? Should I send my daughter here?” And I say, absolutely. You should be sending your child to an institution that is talking about these problems.’

Simply talking about ‘these problems’, however, may be too little too late. Occidental’s reputation has already been damaged, and the college now risks losing government funding.

The OSAC’s complaint was officially filed with the Department of Education in April, after a group of 37 students and faculty at Occidental organised by the OSAC hired well-known women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred to represent them. Allred’s firm handles more women’s rights cases than any other private firm in the country, and has won millions of dollars for victims. A month later, students from five more colleges followed suit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Swarthmore College, University of California at Berkeley, University of Southern California and Dartmouth College.

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Between late April and the end of May, Allred held a series of press conferences announcing each of these complaints. Thanks to statements made by survivors and faculty at these press conferences, the depth of the negligence shown by these institutions towards sexual assault on campus has become public information.

One such statement was made by Leah Capranica, another Occidental student, who met the Director of Student Advocacy and Accountability to report a sexual assault and was discouraged from reporting her assailant. The following semester, he assaulted another female student. This time, the administration found him guilty and expelled him. He appealed the expulsion and his punishment was reduced to a suspension. He will be back at Occidental next December. “I will never feel safe walking on campus again,” Leah said in her statement.

Rachel Greenstein, also a student at Occidental, stated that she decided to report her rapist to the Occidental administration despite being told that it would be a daunting process. He was found guilty and given a one-semester suspension. He appealed the decision, and his punishment was reduced to community service and a book report. Still on campus, Rachel’s rapist, she said in her statement, did what he could to make her life hell, spreading lies and sharing private details of her case.

Annie Clark, an alumnus of UNC Chapel Hill, reported her rape to a university administrator in 2007. He responded: “Rape is like football, and if you look back on the game, [you think:] what would you have done differently in that situation?” It was clear to Annie that she was being blamed for the assault. “Rape is the only crime in society where we blame the victim instead of the perpetrator,” she said in her statement.

Andrea Pino, another UNC student, stated that she came from a “tight-knit, Hispanic family that never had the opportunity to even consider college.” Her dream of going to college became a nightmare during her sophomore year, when “my head was slammed against shiny white tile, the same colour as the graduation robe that I wore the day I last walked by my high school. He held my wrist against the walls as his hands slipped with my blood, and my vision blurred with blood filling my contact lenses.” Andrea said she decided not to report her rape after speaking to other survivors like Annie and realising that, “If I came forward, not only would I not be believed, I would be blamed for the crime committed against me.”

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Like Angie, many of the survivors involved with the complaint had to stay on campuses where their rapists walked free. Some who lived in the same building with their assailants were told that it would be a hassle for them to switch dormitories—it seems the possibility of the assailants switching living arrangements was never considered. Many had to watch their rapists graduate successfully, while they dealt with emotional trauma and struggled socially and academically.

Kenda Woolfson, one of the complainants from Occidental, says it’s difficult to watch her rapist succeed while she struggles. Both have graduated from college. “He is walking around with a good job, a steady girlfriend, and I’m kind of dwindling and don’t know what I’m doing—it’s always hard to accept that,” she says in an interview. After her rape, Kenda had to take time off from school to deal with an eating disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘I wanted… to change my body so much that my mind might be changed as well, and I might finally find myself completely and utterly different from the girl who was held down in paralysing panic that night in February,’ she wrote recently on her website. When she tried to report her rape, she was told that she would lose a lot of friends, and that it would be stressful to her mental health. “It’s been incredibly empowering in that I didn’t report my assault,” she says of the complaint, “This is the first time I’ve done something to really take my power back.”

For every complainant who decided to go public, there are many more who chose to remain anonymous. Those who did share their stories have heard hundreds more like their own, from friends and strangers alike. Now they’re taking steps to make sure that all American college students know their legal rights. Like many survivors, Mia Ferguson, a complainant from Swarthmore College, says that things might have been very different had she known her rights before. “As a student going into it, I really didn’t know what the law provided me. I didn’t know what I could demand,” she says in an interview. Mia is now part of ‘The IX Network’, which helps spread awareness of the law.

Angie, too, is working to help students know their rights. “I’m working with a lot of the girls from the other schools across the US—UNC, Swarthmore , Occidental, Yale,” she says. Many of these young women are also college rape survivors involved in the ongoing Title IX complaints. Together, they are building a website called Know Your IX, intended as a platform that enables survivors to be part of a larger community, and to become aware of their rights. “It also helps with things like how to deal with seeing your rapist, and how to work through your post-traumatic stress disorder and just some coping mechanisms to help people realise ‘You’re not alone out there’,” Angie says.

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Still, society’s pressure to silence victims is strong. Tucker Reed, a University of Southern California student, was the only complainant to name her rapist, who is also her ex-boyfriend. He is now suing her for libel. Reed has said that USC dismissed her initial complaint, despite her submission of an audio recording of him admitting it. Another USC student, The Huffington Post reports, was told by a detective with the university’s Department of Public Safety that ‘no rape occurred in her case because her alleged assailant did not orgasm.’

Even Allred, who has represented many women in sexual assault lawsuits, doesn’t recommend that all survivors speak out. “There are lots of reasons,” she says, “invasion of privacy, possible defamation, pending lawsuits, pending criminal cases.” In March this year, we got a public glimpse of how rapists are coddled in the US when two 16-year-olds from Steubenville, Ohio, were put on trial for rape. Last August, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond broadcast their brutal sexual assault of a passed-out 16-year-old girl on Facebook and Twitter. The two supplied enough evidence to establish their own guilt, but were often seen as the victims in subsequent coverage of the incident.

CNN reporter Poppy Harlow had this reaction to the guilty verdict: “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened, as these two young men that had such promising futures—star football players, very good students—literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart... when that sentence came down.” In this environment, many of the assailants identified by the young women involved in the complaint will likely walk free—including Angie’s rapist. ANGIE, NOW 21, lives in Jersey City, across the river from New York City. She wants to continue to work with the women’s rights movement, but says it is hard to think beyond the more pressing concern of finishing her college degree. She doesn’t yet know how she’ll manage. Still, she says, leaving Amherst “was the best decision I possibly could have made.” Her mental health has since improved vastly.

To pay the bills, she works in a café and tutors high school students prepare for their college entrance examinations. While she, understandably, remains sceptical that university administrations will ever truly accommodate students who report rape, she is excited about the response that her op-ed piece has elicited from other survivors. “Things have just become so powerful recently,” she says, “Survivors are actually feeling like they have a voice, which is just unprecedented in the history of the feminist movement.”

“[To] all the women and men out there who are survivors and are currently struggling,” she says: “Always remember that you are not alone, you are not dirty, and you are not broken. Most importantly, though, remember that you are loved. Be aware of what your rights are as a survivor, no matter where you are, and if you are not receiving the treatment that you deserve, then don’t be afraid to demand your rights or ask for help demanding your rights.”