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October 16, 2013

Big Shame on Campus

When 1 in 5 women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her college years, you'd think schools would tackle the problem head-on. Instead, investigations are lackluster or nonexistent and rapists go unpunished. Now victims are fighting back—not against their attackers, but against the schools that violated their trust and kept them silent for too long.

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—Said to Angie Epifano, a former Amherst college student, by the school's then sexual assault counselor

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In the winter of 2012, Grace Peter, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was raped. The biology major was admittedly very drunk at an off-campus party when a stranger led her to the other side of the apartment complex and forced himself inside of her. Peter remembers saying no, screaming, shoving, and kicking to try and make him stop. She didn't know his name or that he was a fellow Tar Heel, and she didn't report it to the school or the police right away. Being raped was horrific enough—Peter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and took a semester off from school—but after learning her rapist's identity, reporting it to university officials made the nightmare worse. She had opted to go through UNC's Honor System, the student-led body that adjudicates school honor-code violations, thinking it would be swifter and less painful than a full criminal investigation. Provided with an undergraduate student "lawyer," Peter pleaded her case for seven hours before the Honor Court, seated at a table with the senior she says raped her. The questions asked ranged from insensitive to insulting: Did the antidepressants she had been taking predispose her to imagining the assault? Was her PTSD caused by something other than the attack? The members of the Honor Court felt because she and her rapist hadn't known each other, he couldn't have been aware of how drunk she was or that she didn't like being "pushed around." The verdict of not guilty devastated Peter, who filed an appeal and was granted a second hearing. But her assailant was afforded extension after extension, even as Peter begged administrators to schedule it. She missed classes to sit by the phone in case the Office of Student Conduct called with the new hearing date, but "the administration didn't seem pressed to finish it or find a solution," says Peter, now 21.

Last April, more than a year after she reported the rape, she dropped the case. "I felt like it was never going to end," she says, "and I just couldn't do it anymore." Her alleged rapist had graduated, so even if Peter had continued to push for a hearing, he likely wouldn't have been punished. (After all, you can't suspend an alumnus.) Since the attack, Peter is pursuing a less rigorous B.A. in biology instead of a B.S.; has withdrawn from her role as campus forums programmer and her position in the student union; and is counting the days until graduation in May, when she can "run away from Chapel Hill and not look back." (She chose not to transfer schools because UNC is the best public university she can afford.) "If I had known it was going to take more than a year and change so much about my experience at Carolina, I definitely would not have reported it," Peter says. "I was constantly betrayed by the university. Every step forward I took, I was defeated." Separately, before Peter's case, a UNC administrator asked 2011 graduate Annie Clark to think about what she might have done to avoid her rape: "Rape is like a football game," the administrator said, according to Clark. "If you look back on the game and you're the quarterback, is there anything that you would have done differently?"

Peter, Clark, and two other students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in January that alleges UNC violated the rights of sexual assault victims and facilitated a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault. Joining the students was Melinda Manning, the university's assistant dean of students for 11 years, who stepped down a month before the complaint was filed. Manning says other administrators applied "subtle pressure" on her to keep the number of reported rapes at a certain lower range each year. "Most schools would sweep sexual assault under the rug, minimize it, rather than fully acknowledge it. We were certainly guilty of that," she says. "At the end of the day, I felt like we were really failing our students. Until schools are willing to acknowledge the substantial problem it is, they're not going to be willing to put in the resources to really look at their policies and procedures and make sure that they are victim-friendly and fair for all parties."

A UNC spokeswoman says the university cannot comment on specific cases, but she e-mailed several statements the administration has issued in response to allegations from Peter, Clark, and other current and former students who say the school mishandled their cases. "We're focused on the safety of our students, as well as faculty and staff, and have an obligation to do everything we can to provide the care and support they need if a sexual assault occurs," then Chancellor Holden Thorp told the campus community in a March 2013 statement. In recent months, UNC formed a task force made up of students, faculty, staff, and outside experts to review the school's policies and procedures. So far, the policies have been revised to provide equal appeal rights for both the accused and the accuser, and the burden of proof has been lowered so victims need only prove a crime more likely occurred rather than occurred beyond a reasonable doubt. The university has also created three staff positions to improve UNC's response to cases of sexual violence and transferred jurisdiction from the student-led Honor Court to a committee of specially trained members that consists of one faculty member, one staff member, and one student.

Schools of all sizes and levels of prestige might take cues from UNC's efforts at course correction. College women nationwide say they're being contradicted, discouraged, ignored, and even blamed when they come forward to report a sexual assault—and not just by fellow students like those who decided Peter's case. Twenty-one-year-old Angie Epifano, a former student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, whose online account of her rape and subsequent treatment by university officials went viral last year, says she was told that pressing charges was useless because the student who raped her was about to graduate. The school's sexual assault counselor said, "Rape happens. You need to forgive and forget." (Amherst says the counselor no longer works there.) When Tucker Reed, 23, a theater major at the University of Southern California, told an administrator last year that she had been raped, she says the administrator was dismissive, even after being given an audio recording on which Reed's perpetrator can be heard admitting to the rape. "We know that all the students at this university are good people," the administrator told her. "That's why they're here." (USC issued a statement saying it takes "all reports of sexual violence extremely seriously.") Hope Brinn, a junior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, says the school's Title IX coordinator asked, "What did you do that would make him act like that?" when she reported being sexually harassed by a fellow student. (Swarthmore says that person is no longer the Title IX coordinator, though she is still employed by the university.) Kylie Angell, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Connecticut, told a campus police officer she was being stalked by the man who raped her. His response? "Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, otherwise rape is going to keep happening till the cows come home." (UConn says it was difficult to review Angell's case because the police department wasn't aware of the comment until a year after it was allegedly made.) Like Peter, many of these women and others interviewed for this story say that given the chance to do it all over, they wouldn't report the crime. And why would they, if they were made to feel as Reed did: "Like I was being continually raped dealing with these people."

But rather than continue to feel powerless and alone, hundreds of students and alumni have, like Peter and Clark, banded together to file complaints with the ED; start nonprofits; and build a survivor network too vocal and law-savvy to contradict, discourage, ignore, or blame. In their way, they refuse to be victims all over again. "It didn't start out by people saying, 'We're going to file a complaint! We're going to sue the school!'" says Reed. "It was more like, 'How could they have done this to you and you and you, and think we wouldn't end up talking to each other and figuring out the pattern?'"

College administrators are legally obligated to take steps to end sexual assault at their schools. Under Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, colleges cannot discriminate on the basis of gender. The law prohibits sexual harassment, including acts of sexual violence, because it interferes with a student's right to receive an education free from discrimination. (Rape can also be prosecuted by the criminal justice system, but because sexual assaults pose an obstacle to a student's having equal access to education, colleges are required to act. The women interviewed here did not pursue criminal charges because they, like Peter, thought going through the school would be faster and less arduous.) College officials also have an obligation under the Clery Act—named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who was raped and murdered by a fellow student in 1986—to track and disclose information about crime on or near campus. This year alone, Title IX or Clery Act complaints that allege administrators mishandled incidents of sexual assault have been filed against Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; Occidental College in California; Swarthmore College; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of California, Berkeley; and USC, in addition to UNC. (Asked for comment, all schools said they are reviewing their policies and implementing changes.) At press time, the ED was investigating 18 Title IX complaints that involved sexual violence allegations (including the one filed by the UNC students and Manning) and 14 Clery Act sexual-violence-related complaints. If found guilty, schools can be handed hefty fines—not to mention a blemish on a reputation they tried to protect at a victim's expense. In May, after a seven-year investigation, the ED fined Yale University in Connecticut $165,000 (which was later reduced to $155,000) for failing to report four incidents of forcible sex offenses in 2001 and 2002 under the Clery Act. (The ED's Office for Civil Rights [OCR] says it tries to wrap up Title IX investigations within six months but that Clery Act reviews, which are harder to prove, take several months to several years.) In September, Yale released a document to clarify the meaning of "nonconsensual sex" in response to protests that the university was not punishing perpetrators aggressively enough.

 


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