Sunday October 28, 2012

AMHERST -- This year has brought news of student athletes charged with sex crimes at Boston University and at Temple, along with countless other less publicized cases. There have been claims that Wesleyan University tolerated a fraternity house where the abuse of women was common. A gang rape at the University of Massachusetts was reported just this week.

But none has generated more soul searching, or scrutiny from beyond, than a woman’s wrenching account, published in a campus newspaper last week, of being raped in May 2011 by a fellow student at Amherst College and then being treated callously by college administrators.

"Eventually I reached a dangerously low point, and, in my despondency, began going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor," the woman wrote in The Amherst Student. "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?"

Within hours, the story of the woman, Angie Epifano, be came the most-examined epi sode in memory on this campus of 1,800 students, the subject of online commentary from around the world. It prompted other Amherst students, past and present, to step forward publicly and say that they, too, had been sexually assaulted here, treated poorly afterward and, in many cases, had left campus rather than be around assailants who were allowed to remain.

Long-time tension

Tension around the issue of sexual misconduct had been simmering for a long time here, escalating in the past year, as a group of student activists helped persuade a new college president to make it a priority.

"It was being talked about be fore, but there’s a big difference between people being will ing to talk and other people being willing to hear it and join in," said Emma Saltzberg, a senior and volunteer advocate for people who have been abused. "It’s amazing to see this campus so worked up."

The college president, Caro lyn A. Martin, who arrived in September last year, said that in her previous jobs, as a top administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University, she had dealt only in passing with the question of sexual violence. But in her first year here, after hearing from students, she made several changes, like having trained investigators look into those cases, revising the student handbook and hiring a nationally known consultant, Gina M. Smith, to review and revise Amherst’s approach.

After Epifano’s story was published, Martin, who is known as Biddy, released a statement that had neither the defensiveness nor the bland wait-and-see that are common to institutional responses, declaring that things "must change and change immediately."

She made more administrative changes and said in an interview in her office Thurs day that she is inclined to make more still, like having ex perts-- rather than shifting panels of professors and students -- adjudicate complaints.

She added to Smith’s portfolio an investigation of Epi fano’s case, including a review of the conduct of Amherst administrators. Friday, the school’s sexual assault counselor-- who was portrayed negatively, al though not by name, in Epi fano’s article -- resigned.

‘It Hap pens Here’

Among those who kept the issue alive last year, a soft-spoken but persistent student from St. Louis, Dana Bolger, played a pivotal role. Bolger, now a second-semester junior, said that after being raped, she left the school for a semester, while the rapist went unpunished.

Last spring, she and a few other women created It Hap pens Here, a website about sexual violence at Amherst, and this month, she drew a wide audience for two items she published on a student-run blog. In the first item, she wrote that last spring a fraternity printed T-shirts showing a woman being roasted like a pig on a spit but that those responsible were not disciplined. The second featured a photo essay of current and former Amherst students who said they had been sexually assaulted there, holding signs with insensitive comments they had heard from students and administrators.

Blog item prompted story

It was the blog item about the T-shirt that prompted Epi fano to write her story, published Oct. 17 by The Amherst Student, the campus newspaper, said Brianda Reyes, the editor. She said the previous record for online page views for an article was 17,000; Epi fano’s essay drew more than 100,000 views on the first day, crashing the server. By Friday it had nearly 400,000.

Epifano withdrew from Am herst this summer and is now in Europe, friends say. She could not be reached for comment.

Experts on sex crimes, and Martin, say Amherst does not need to just improve its procedures to encourage victims to report assaults quickly, provide counseling and support, investigate thoroughly and discipline the guilty. At least as important, they say, is preventing attacks through education. They argue that students need to be reminded, repeatedly, of the boundary between right and wrong, of the definitions of rape and consent, and of the duty of bystanders.

Many schools handle things badly after an assault, but even more get it wrong before, said Colby Bruno, managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, who has worked with Epifano and other college students.

"Changing the culture is much harder than changing the rules," she said.

As to the idea that there is something uniquely bad here, experts like Bruno and S. Daniel Carter, who has worked with multiple campus violence prevention groups, say probably not.

"The only thing that’s unique about Amherst has been the president’s response," said Carter, now with VTV Family Outreach Foundation, formed in response to the Virginia Tech shooting.

Student opinion here on the matter is divided. On campus, some men, in particular, say they fear that all Amherst men -- or those in certain groups, like fraternity members or athletes -- will be tarred with the same brush. Others question whether details in Epifano’s story, especially the harsh comments she attributes to college administrators, are accurate.

Most cases go unreported

Statistics are of no help in telling where Amherst stands, although federal law requires schools to report campus crime data. Studies show that most rape victims never report the assaults, and an increase in reports could mean the school is doing a better job of encouraging women to step forward. Few who do report pursue a complaint, and few complaints result in a finding of guilt. 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 Justice Department, based on a survey of college students, found that for a school Amherst’s size, the expected average would be more than 100 such offenses each year, including about 18 rapes.

"People’s bubbles are getting popped by real-world problems being exposed here, even though they were always here," said Alexa Hettwer, a senior. "I hope people don’t just rebuild the bubbles."