After you read Angie Epifano’s account of rape and “better not mention it” culture in The Amherst Student, you may think differently about Amherst College, one of those small (1,800 undergraduate) schools in New England that is consistently referred to as “prestigious” and “academically rigorous” with a long list of famous alums to match.
As Epifano’s raw and long first-person account makes clear, Amherst’s response, or lack thereof, has itself been traumatizing. When, several months after the attack, she first tells a sexual assault counselor about her being raped, she is in effect told that,
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.
Epigano visits the counseling center and is “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.” While she is told that her rape can be reported “as a statistic,” she is urged not to go through a disciplinary hearing in which she and a faculty advisor and her rapist and his faculty advisor would meet in a room together. The onus of proving the rape would entirely be on Epigano and, without physical evidence, she is told that she will not go “very far” in the process.
In other words, the rape that leads to Epifano making suicidal statements, being placed in a locked psychiatric ward and deciding to withdraw from permanently from Amherst, is treated as any other breach of discipline at the college.
“Don’t Tell, This Is a Prestigious College”
Epifano encounters blatant evidence of a “don’t tell, this is Amherst” attitude from patronizing administrators. When she tells a dean of her decision to withdraw, she is informed that she must not be “thinking clearly” as “Amherst is one of the best schools out there, it will be a transfer down unless you go to an Ivy.”
The day after the October 17 publication of Epifano’s account (over a year after she was raped), the college’s president, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, released a statement that called for immediate action including administrative changes, a review of the conduct of administrators and an open meeting with students. This past Friday, the sexual assault counselor who advised Epifano not to report being raped resigned, says the New York Times. Martin has also noted that she is seeking to have experts in sexual assault adjudicate cases, rather than panels of professors and students.
The publication of Epifano’s account has certainly occasioned soul-searching and scrutiny in the Amherst community. The majority of rape victims do not report what has happened to them, the New York Times underscores:
In the last three years, Amherst reported an annual average of 12 “forcible sex offenses,” a broad category that includes rape, attempted rape, lesser forms of sexual contact, and possibly sexual coercion. A 2000 study by the Department of Justice, based on a survey of college students, found that for a school Amhert’s size, the expected average would be more than 100 such offenses each year, including about 18 rapes.
Circumstances are no better at other colleges and universities across the nation.
Bloomberg notes the case of a former Wesleyan University student who sued the school after she reported being assaulted at a fraternity. She received no services after the attack and no security from her assailant until he was arrested; he has pleaded guilty to assault and unlawful restraint and is serving a 15-month sentence.
“Changing the culture is much harder than changing the rules”
While President Martin’s quick response is notable, the reality is that the experiences Epifano, the Wesleyan student and who knows how many other young persons endure are the norm rather than the exception. As Colby Bruno, managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston who has worked with Epifano and other students, tells the New York Times, “Changing the culture is much harder than changing the rules.”
Even at this very moment, who knows how many high school seniors are hard at work on essays and applications to gain admission to schools including Amherst, Wesleyan and others where this “don’t tell” culture is embedded?
Rather than keeping her story silent as enjoined, Epifano took the bold step of telling all. I’m hopeful that other survivors of sexual violence on college and university campuses will tell their stories too, but I’m not so sure that other schools and administrators will respond quickly enough and with the compassion needed to make real changes for the sake of their current and future students.
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