Students Respond to Amherst Rape Account

By Meredith White

Last week, Amherst College’s student newspaper, the Amherst Student, published one of the most talked-about articles in recent college journalism, a former student’s chilling first-person account of being raped in May 2011.

The article sparked an international conversation about rape on college campuses and the way that college policies and administrators deal with the issue.

Angie Epifano’s account details Amherst’s neglect.

“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?”

The article shows that Amherst, Middlebury and other elite liberal arts college campuses are not exempt from this issue.

“There’s a false security of being in a community where you really let your guard down,” said Emily Pedowitz ’13, a student organizer of the Sexual Assault Oversight Committee (SAOC). In the same way that Middlebury’s small, intimate environment can make coming forth with accusations difficult, it has potential to have a positive impact.

“It can be really easy once there’s a feeling of solidarity to combat these assaults,” said Pedowitz.

This solidarity begins with awareness. It Happens Here, a student initiative headed by Luke Carroll-Brown ’14 and Margo Cramer ’12, made it its mission to raise awareness of sexual assault.

“The issue of sexual assault doesn’t get discussed. People think that it doesn’t exist if it’s not discussed,” said Brown.

It Happens Here hosted last year’s well-attended event, of the same name, the first in which students were invited to share their stories of sexual assault encounters at Middlebury.  “Students felt that they had confidence and trust in us because we had no ulterior motive but to share their stories,” said Pedowitz.

The Amherst article calls attention to the need to give students a voice in a forum that is independent of the school administration.

In response to It Happens Here and SAOC’s efforts, Middlebury’s administration has made some policy changes. The school now employs a private investigator who submits the assault case to a judicial board. The case is then reviewed at a hearing at which the perpetrator cannot be present. In the interest of confidentiality, the policy also limits the number of individuals at the hearing.

The college also created an Anti-Stalking Policy this year to try and prohibit the behaviors that cause sexual assault.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint trends on campus with such an under-reported problem. As a field, however, we are increasingly aware of the connection between sexual assault, stalking, and intimate partner violence,” said Associate Dean of Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag.

Guttentag works with the SAOC to combat sexual assault at the College, and the Amherst article led to the group e-mailing a survey out to students.

“Our recent SAOC survey made it clear how hungry our community is for more opportunities for open dialogue about all of the multiple facets of the complicated issue of sexual assault:  consent, gender role expectations, the connection between sexual assault and alcohol, sexual assault in the GLBTQ community, bystander intervention, Middlebury’s hook-up culture, etc” said Guttentag.

“People are nervous about healthy sexual relationships. They numb the nervousness with alcohol,” said Karin Hanta, director of Chellis House and Women’s Resource Center who closely correlates alcohol with sexual assault.

Yet, Carroll-Brown said that the problem goes far beyond alcohol. “Far too often, alcohol is used as a scapegoat for bad intentions,” he said.

Pedowitz chooses to keep the issue of alcohol distinct from sexual assault.

“I think there’s some really hurtful notions that it doesn’t happen here and when it does there’s this false notion that people regret what they did the morning after,” she said. Victim acceptance of the legitimacy of their assault is paramount. The College handbook’s recently expanded definitions of consent, rape and sexual assault aim to help victims appropriately recognize their situation.

The stories and speakers at last year’s It Happens Here event helped to debunk the misconceptions about sexual assault.

“It was a beautiful mix of all genders,” said Pedowitz.

Carroll-Brown emphasizes the importance of men’s involvement in the issue.

“Until the anti sexual-violence movement is one [led and supported] by men, we’ll be putting bandages on a problem that emanates from male culture,” he said.

The athletics department is taking initiative. Head of Athletics Erin Quinn developed an interactive PowerPoint to be presented to all teams.

“As a department we had identified some important community standards we wanted to promote. These are all issues that are addressed in other ways on campus, but we felt as if we have the opportunity through our teams to do some additional, meaningful education,” said Quinn in an email.

To promote their sequel to last year’s event, It Happens Here will post campus maps, on which they will invite students to put a dot on a location where they had an incident with sexual assault.

“Seeing is believing,” Carroll-Brown said.