Amherst Sweeps Sexual Assault Allegations Under the Rug


A former Amherst College student’s account of being raped on campus — and the administration’s contemptible response — is going viral on college campuses around the nation, so much so that the Amherst Student newspaper’s website shut down for hours thanks to pageviews late last night. Some students at the elite liberal arts college say it’s about time the public realizes Amherst is more concerned with keeping up appearances than clamping down on rape culture.

“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,” wrote Angie Epifano, a former member of the Amherst class of 2014, in the Amherst Student article that’s being circulated via social media and college listservs across the country. “I had always fancied myself a strong, no-nonsense woman…May 25th [2011] temporarily shattered that self-image and left me feeling like the broken victim that I had never wanted to be.”

Epifano didn’t report the rape — which she alleges was by an acquaintance, in a dormitory — until after the following February, when she had to work with her rapist on a fundraising project and couldn’t deal with his smirks, winks, and pats on the back. She tried to seek help from Amherst’s sexual assault counselor, which didn’t go so well:

In short 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 just been a bad hookup…You should forgive and forget.
How are you supposed to forget the worst night of your life?
I didn’t know what to do any more. For four months I continued wondering around campus, distancing from my friends, and going to counseling center. I was continuously told that I had to forgive him, that I was crazy for being scared on campus, and that there was nothing that could be done. They told me: We can report your rape as a statistic, you know for records, but I don’t recommend that you go through a disciplinary hearing. It would be you, a faculty advisor of your choice, him, and a faculty advisor of his choice in a room where you would be trying to prove that he raped you. You have no physical evidence, it wouldn’t get you very far to do this.

Epifano’s 5,000 word piece details her consequent breakdown: she claims the school abruptly decided to admit her into a psychiatric ward after she made suicidal comments spurred by the despair she felt when her allegations were repeatedly ignored. Once inside, Epifano resolved to stop feeling ashamed by her rape. She returned to Amherst, experienced the same unsympathetic treatment from the administration, and ultimately decided to transfer. Her rapist graduated, with honors.

“The fact that such a prestigious institution could have such a noxious interior fills me with intense remorse mixed with sour distaste,” she wrote. “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…Why can’t we know what is really happening on campus? Why should we be quiet about sexual assault?”

Epifano’s story is harrowing on its own, but it’s not the only one coming out of the woodwork thanks to recent controversy over an offensive fraternity t-shirt and a subsequent campus-wide meeting regarding the administration’s sexual misconduct policy and issues of “sexual respect” on campus.

The clothing in question is care of “underground” fraternity Theta Delta Chi (TD), which holds an annual pig-on-a-spit “Bavaria”-themed party. Last year, the creative brothers came up with this design: a woman in her bra and thong, with bruises on her side and an apple jammed in her mouth, tied up on a spit over a fire, while a pig, cigar in hand, watches the woman roast.

“This is what sexism and misogyny look like at a so-called progressive, elite, liberal arts institution in 2012,” wrote Amherst senior Dana Bolger — an on-campus rape survivor herself — on AC Voice, a student-run blog. Bolger decried the administration for holding “an unadvertised, effectively closed-door discussion with a handful of students and frat members” to remedy the situation, during which “boys-will-be-boys” comments (“We were just a bunch of drunk guys sitting around on a Friday night designing the shirt”) and a blanket apology were deemed satisfactory. “The administration’s inadequate response to the t-shirt incident was not an anomaly and seems part of a larger pattern of forgiving instances of violence against women on campus,” Bolger wrote, continuing:

According to a Title IX committee meeting I attended last spring, Amherst has expelled only one student for rape in its entire history—and only after a criminal court sentenced him to time in jail. Meanwhile, our disciplinary committee has found other students guilty of sexual misconduct but ultimately permitted them to continue their Amherst educations. Faced with the non-choice of staying on campus with his/her rapist or leaving, many sexual assault survivors I know take time off, transfer, or drop out altogether.

Bolger’s blog post incited so much controversy that Amherst’s president, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, invited all 1,791 undergraduates to an open campus-wide discussion, which took place last Sunday, October 14th. According to the Amherst Student, a mixture of administrators, faculty, coaches, fraternity members and survivors of sexual assault attended to talk about the school’s fraternities, lax punishments for misconduct, and ways in which students could more actively help reshape Amherst’s sexual assault policy. The administration hasn’t released any sexual assault statistics*, but the Amherst Student reported that “few cases have gone the full distance in the disciplinary process at the College.” Of course, we have national statistics: 95% of campus attacks go unreported, according to the American Association of University Women. Two thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“I also want to encourage you to think about other aspects of life at Amherst, both the positive and the less than positive, and to imagine what it would take to strengthen our sense of community, enhance your education outside of the classroom, and have more fun,” Martin wrote in last Sunday’s meeting announcement. “Fun?” Catherine Bryars (’12) asked us. “See how they’re putting this in the fast route to get away from anything negative?”

Bryars, who is currently devoting her first post-grad year to pressuring Amherst’s administration to revamp their sexual assault policies — as a graduate, it’s easier for her to speak on behalf of her former peers who still have to spend every day on the small, rural campus — said that last year was an “explosive” one, thanks to the number of female students who opened up about how their on-campus sexual assaults had been mishandled. “Girls kept coming forward and saying that staff members had told them to consider sympathizing with their rapists, or go home for a period of time,” Bryars said. “I think that the campus culture overall is to stay silent, to deny, to not come forth with dissent.”

Sunday’s meeting was the administration’s first attempt to challenge that assumption. Amherst’s fraternities, which are technically banned on campus, were a big talking point; they’re not allowed to hold on-campus parties or attend on-campus meetings, but many of them live together in suites on campus, and the Bavaria party at which the t-shirt was sold was held on campus. For this reason, the TD members who attended Sunday’s meeting couldn’t publicly acknowledge their fraternity membership. “Fraternities exist in a regulatory grey area where we all sort of pretend they don’t exist,” Emma Saltzberg (’13) told the paper. “It creates a culture where the administration agrees to look the other way. When you know that you exist in a grey area and that the administration is wiling to ignore your existence, that gradually turns into a culture of brazenness and in this instance, you see that people exploited that.”

Therein lies one obvious (and bizarre) problem in need of a solution. The school’s aforementioned lenient repercussions for sexual misconduct also came up often during the meeting: according to the Amherst Student, the record of sanctions released by the College last spring show that students found responsible for sexual assault were usually suspended for two to four semesters, while punishment for theft of a laptop resulted in five semesters’ suspension. Another issue, raised by Bolger, is how students on the disciplinary committee are chosen from a very narrow pool that includes few women and is, therefore, hardly representative of the student body.

But it seems that the larger, underlying problem is Amherst’s obsession with keeping up appearances. If the college continues to prioritize its reputation over the well-being of its female students, little will change. Bryars said she feels confident that Martin, who has only been president for a year, will eventually realize that Amherst is doing its students a major disservice by refusing to take sexual assault seriously. But will Martin and her administration risk tarnishing Amherst’s storied reputation as the second best liberal arts school in the nation by doing so? Now — thanks to Epifano’s widely-circulated essay and the efforts of students like Bryars and Bolger — it seems they won’t have a choice.

Update: President Martin has issued a response to Epifano’s essay. An excerpt: “Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately.”

*Edit: According to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act Report, Amherst reported 15 on-campus forcible sex offenses in 2011.

Photo via dbrooksNY/Flickr.

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