Rape Crisis on Campus

I found this article on the Chronicle for Higher Education and thought I’d share it here on my blog….

Amherst College tries to answer outrage, avoid tokenism, and engage everybody in a discussion of ‘sexual respect’

By Sara Lipka

The harrowing account of rape and disregard that has consumed Amherst College for two weeks isn’t going away—and nobody there seems to want it to. But in fact, the story of Angie Epifano published in the student newspaper didn’t start a dialogue about sexual violence on the Massachusetts campus: It took an evolving discussion and accelerated it.

That’s uncomfortable but crucial, says Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, president of Amherst, who has praised Ms. Epifano’s courage. “All of this has created an opening,” Ms. Martin says, “for which I am very grateful.”

It’s an unusual response for the president of a campus in crisis. “Many universities, when news breaks, tend to dismiss it or make token efforts,” says Laura Dunn, a survivor of sexual assault and advocate of security in higher education. The approach of letting a controversy pass and moving on is disappointing, say Ms. Dunn and other advocates impressed by Amherst’s apparent resolve. But to confront outrage, and to engage and satisfy various constituencies, will require sustained effort.

As on many campuses, concerns about sexual misconduct had long loomed at Amherst. Last spring a fraternity promoted an annual event with a T-shirt depicting a nearly naked woman, bound at the wrists and ankles, roasting over a fire. A student frustrated with what she saw as the college’s inadequate response wrote on a campus blog in early October: “This is what sexism and misogyny look like at a so-called progressive, elite, liberal arts institution in 2012.”

A few days later, Ms. Martin, a scholar of German studies and gender theory, sent an e-mail to all students. Since arriving at Amherst last fall, she said, she had heard concerns about sexual misconduct and respect. She outlined some progress, committed to more, and asked for help, inviting students to an open conversation that Sunday evening. The following Wednesday, The Amherst Student printed Ms. Epifano’s account of why, feeling unsupported, she ultimately had withdrawn from the college.

“I reached a dangerously low point, and, in my despondency, began going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor,” Ms. Epifano wrote. “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?”

Pledges or Platitudes

Web traffic crashed the newspaper’s site. Personal stories of students and alumni poured out in online posts and e-mails to Ms. Martin. “This wasn’t just something that had happened to Angie,” says Brianda Reyes, editor in chief of The Amherst Student.

The college responded fast and forcefully—Ms. Martin, in a statement issued the next day. “Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served,” she said. “That must change, and change immediately.” Two days later, the Board of Trustees pledged “all necessary resources.”

But students were wary of such statements, Ms. Reyes says. “Everybody was reading them and saying, ‘Are they just saying this so we don’t riot, or are they saying it because they truly mean it?’” It’s hard to persuade a group leery of platitudes.

Amherst officials resolved to be direct, not defensive. “What encourages people to come forward,” says Ms. Martin, “is the acknowledgment that there are problems.” Maybe students have troubling tales to tell, or maybe they are misinformed on colleges’ obligations under antidiscrimination law. The president says she still wants to hear them.

The college has held a series of open meetings, not only for all students, but also for first-year students, staff, faculty, and parents visiting for family weekend. But while the opportunity to share experiences and opinions is vital, Ms. Martin says, it’s insufficient.

The president, a newcomer off a rocky tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has to prove that she is listening. At one meeting, students set ground rules: two minutes per speaker, with a timekeeper, a role the president declined. When everybody had spoken, she took time to summarize their recommendations.

On a new Web page dedicated to “sexual respect,” Amherst details actions taken and planned, with checkboxes. Now, for instance, students sit on the college’s Title IX committee, named for the federal gender-equity law; its Sexual Respect Task Force; and a new body, formed on Wednesday, to take stock of the campus culture and recommend improvements in student affairs and sexual education. The goal is not just to have students’ representation, but to draw on their expertise.

‘Willing to Try’

Guiding Amherst through those issues is Gina M. Smith, a lawyer who consults with colleges on sexual misconduct. A former sex-crimes prosecutor, Ms. Smith started working with the college in July to review its policies and procedures. Lately she has traveled there more often, and lingered longer. “I have not seen a response in my history of doing this quite as robust,” she says.

Some students, though, remain skeptical. A couple of Fridays ago, several of them met with trustees. Others rallied, walking from the Robert Frost Library to the Lord Jeffery Inn, which brought out coffee and cookies. Protesters felt like “the administration was just trying to shut us up,” says Ms. Reyes, the newspaper editor, to “treat us like children.” (In fact, the snack was the inn’s idea.)

When the students in the meeting emerged, their classmates were frustrated to learn that the board hadn’t immediately agreed to a series of demands, such as redesigning the first-year seminar, a required course, to cover race, gender, and sexual respect.

But despite their impatience, students have noted Ms. Martin’s openness, and her sincerity. “The trust is not back completely,” Ms. Reyes says, “but I think people are willing to try.”

In doing so, they will keep the pressure on. Students are pushing for more information on an investigation by Ms. Smith of Ms. Epifano’s case, and on the recent unexplained resignation of Gretchen Krull, a long-serving health educator and sexual-respect counselor at Amherst.

In the meeting with trustees, students named four deans they say have “breached certain ethical boundaries or have simply not been able to support survivors appropriately.” And more than 250 students and recent graduates signed a letter calling the college’s mental-health services “inadequate.”

Amherst officials acknowledge a need for better integration in student affairs, particularly between the dean of students and the counseling and health centers. A permanent dean has not been in place for a couple of years, and an open search will involve students, Ms. Martin says. So will the revision of the college’s sexual-misconduct policy, including a move away from hearing boards composed of faculty and students, which can complicate privacy on a small campus.

Rising Expectations

Changing campus culture—the big aim at Amherst—is more often a catchphrase of controversies than an achievement. And the pursuit of that goal, says Lauren Bernstein, coordinator of a sexual-respect program at Emory University, can’t be led by administrators. “We need to be working in tandem,” she says, “with students at the center.”

The endurance of both sides will be essential. Amherst plans to maintain its checkboxes, and on Wednesday it held the first of four Webcasts with Ms. Martin. The new committee will report to her in January, and its chair, Margaret R. Hunt, a professor of history and chair of women’s and gender studies, understands the college’s work ahead.

“There are definitely some ways,” she says, “in which this is a revolution in rising expectations.”

Most students are attentive now, but a challenge to change over time is indifference, says Mark Kahan, a senior biology major who plays on the tennis team and serves as a peer advocate for sexual respect. “Some people maybe feel like this is hype,” he says. “They start to shut some of it out.”

But many students have started taking more seriously their responsibility to look out for one another, especially around alcohol, says Ms. Reyes. Touchy topics, such as how much is OK to drink and whom it’s a good idea to go home with, now come up more easily, she says.

Last week Amherst tried to start more difficult conversations by canceling classes for a day of dialogue. The event, dubbed “Speaking to Silence: Conversations on Community and Individual Responsibility,” was set for Friday, November 2. But then came Hurricane Sandy, and talk of postponing the program.

Organizers polled faculty and students, who said, in essence, No way. And so the college said it would stick to its plan.

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