Lena Sclove of Amherst in national spotlight after speaking out about sexual assault

Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2014
Lena Sclove has shed plenty of tears since Aug. 2, 2013 — the day that changed her life.

But when a task force appointed by President Barack Obama unveiled its recommendations last week to combat sexual assaults on college campuses, the Amherst native was overcome with a type of emotion she hasn’t felt a lot of since the day she said she was raped and strangled while a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island: happiness.

“I was brought to tears when I first read it, just the fact that it’s getting federal attention and that they discuss so much of the inadequacies of what schools are doing,” Sclove said. “That really validated my experience at Brown.”

While Sclove is careful to point out that she is no expert in the politics and legal maneuvering surrounding the burgeoning national conversation about sexual assaults on campuses, the 22-year-old has become an important and articulate voice in the fight by going public with details of the attack against her and an ensuing battle against Brown over the way administrators adjudicated the case.

“I’m an expert on my story because I lived it, but there are way more people who know more about this than I do,” Sclove said during an interview this week at the Gazette. “What I can offer is just one more example of a story and what you can do with it. It’s not the only example, it’s just an example.”

Sclove never imagined a press conference she held at Brown’s front gates two weeks ago would thrust her into the national spotlight — but that’s what happened. In addition to a segment with Katie Couric, a lengthy interview on “Democracy Now!” and interviews with other publications, including Time magazine, Sclove said she’s being approached by countless women — young and old — who have been similarly attacked but have kept it to themselves for years.

After Sclove’s press conference, Brown President Christina H. Paxson responded to the criticism about the way the university evaluates charges of sexual assault and the severity of sanctions for students found responsible for sexual misconduct. In a statement to the Brown community, Paxson said the university has an “absolute obligation” to protect victims while also providing due process for the accused. “To be clear, sexual assault at Brown is not tolerated,” Paxson said. “Every student at Brown has the right to feel safe from the threat of sexual violence.”

She later added, “we are committed to taking aggressive steps to ensure that our campus is safe for everyone.” In a subsequent announcement, Paxson said Brown has formed a task force on sexual assault that will submit recommendations by December. The university said it is searching for a full-time Title IX coordinator.

Joy shattered

The journey into the spotlight is not a pretty one for Sclove, a 2010 Amherst Regional High School graduate and author who transferred from Tufts University to Brown just before the spring 2013 semester. She thrived at Brown, joining many student activist groups, participating in theater productions and reading live poetry. She decided to stay in Providence last summer to pursue these interests and spend time with friends.

That joy was shattered Aug. 2, when Sclove said she was raped and strangled by a fellow student after attending a party. She filed a complaint against the university and, after a lengthy hearing process last fall, her alleged rapist, Daniel Kopin, was found responsible for four violations of the student conduct code, including three violations of sexual misconduct. One of those included “sexual misconduct that involves one or more of the following: penetration, violent physical force or injury.”

A university panel recommended a two-year suspension, which a dean reduced to one year. Sclove’s appeal for a harsher sentence was denied.

“At that point, my health was terrible, but I thought I just needed to get through the semester, enjoy my spring semester without him here and then figure out what I’m going to do for the fall,” Sclove said.

Kopin has since announced through his attorney that he will not be returning to campus in the fall. In a statement to the press, his attorney said that Kopin’s relationship with Sclove was “consensual,” but said that he accepted the outcome of the university’s disciplinary penalties and has abided by the university’s requirements.

“This case has now become highly sensationalized,” the statement reads. “The university’s student newspaper and online media sites have repeated claims made about Daniel’s conduct — allegations and rumors that have been asserted as fact. These claims are false.”

During winter break at home in Amherst last December, Sclove began having migraine headaches and developed a cervical spine injury as a result from being strangled. She struggled to walk for two months and was forced to take a medical leave from school. While lying in bed day after day, Sclove said she began to deal with her anger at Brown administrators.

“I had processed a lot of my anger at the perpetrator ... but the injustice of it all really hit me when I found out I couldn’t go back this semester,” she said. “That meant that the next time I could go back to Brown was when he would go back to Brown.”

Out of options

The Sclove family hired an attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, best known for representing sexual abuse victims of the Catholic church. As they discussed options, Garabedian suggested she call a press conference and tell her story. The idea intrigued her.

“When he said that, my whole face lit up and I got so empowered by the idea of not having to lie to everyone anymore about why I’m home or what’s wrong with my back,” Sclove said. “The weight off my shoulders of being able to tell the truth and also the potential good that could come from doing so was thrilling.”

On April 24, Sclove stepped before a crowd of about 85 people at Brown’s front gates and told her story during a 50-minute press conference. The event was filmed by a friend and posted on YouTube, where it got 5,000 hits the first day. It now has nearly 28,000 views as of Friday.

Not only did she feel silenced by the assault, but Sclove describes feeling silenced by her university because they didn’t do enough to keep her safe. She said Brown officials originally discouraged her from going to the police. By the time she filed a police report with the Providence Police Department in late February, the evidence was gone, reducing the odds of criminal prosecution.

“Then I was injured and bed-ridden and couldn’t leave my house,” she said. “So it was like a triple silencing of not even being able to be out in the world. So to be able to tell my story ... shattered all of that suppression. It’s how I got my voice back.”

Paxson, Brown’s president, said in cases where a crime may have been committed, the student is counseled about options for filing a criminal complaint.

It’s important for Sclove to note that not every survivor will heal from assault by going public, nor should they. Survivors of assault heal in their own way and on their own schedule. For some, speaking out is akin to reliving the assault, she said.

“I’ve gotten reactions like, ‘Oh my God you’re so brave. Why can’t other survivors be so brave?’” she said. “When we get into that kind of judgment, that loses the whole point that we’re each individual people with our own paths of recovery.”

National conversation

About a week after Sclove went public, the Obama task force came out with its guidelines that increase the pressure on universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus. The recommendations urge colleges to conduct anonymous surveys about sexual assault cases, adopt anti-assault policies that have been considered successful at other universities and to better ensure that the reports of such crimes remain confidential.

The government will also open a website, NotAlone.gov, to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

The task force says that one in five female college students has been assaulted, but that just 12 percent of such attacks are reported. It also notes that one in seven males is assaulted.

“(The report is) incredibly survivor-oriented, which is really important,” Sclove said. “This new focus on survivors, survivor safety and health, is amazing and I applaud them for that.”

That announcement combined with the YouTube video thrust Sclove into a two-week frenzy of media interviews. While she’s exhausted from retelling the details of her attack, Sclove is encouraged that the way she has chosen to heal is playing a small part in a national debate to spark change.

“It’s amazing what’s happening,” Sclove said. “I’m just a tiny, tiny piece in this puzzle. What’s amazing about it is that sexual abuse is one of the most isolating things that can ever happen to you. It silences you and then the people who you thought understood you struggle to relate to what you’re going through. To suddenly be part of a movement of other survivors who totally get it and to belong to something is amazing.”

While the document is a “huge” step in the right direction, Sclove said there are shortcomings that she and other survivors would like to see addressed, namely in the arenas of sanctions and punishment.

“We need to be finding the people responsible,” Sclove said. “My case is amazing in that they found the person responsible but for so many survivors that’s not the case ... there’s a lot at stake for them (universities) in hiding this and I think the sanctions and punishment piece was really weak in the report.”

Sclove said that while it’s important to have a narrow focus on college campuses, she would also like to see the national conversation deal with all walks of life and all ages. Sexual assault, she said, is not limited to one’s time in college, but many people don’t have access to resources that a university can provide, or they aren’t comfortable dealing with police or others in positions of authority.

“I think there needs to be more conversations about sexual abuse that happens on the street and in bars and at home, regardless of whether you’re 5 or 14 or 60,” she said.

Sclove said it’s important to name the privileges that allowed her to step forward into the public eye — the emotional and financial support from her parents and her upper middle class background as a white woman. But other survivors should not be judged for not reporting an assault, especially if they have an inherent distrust of the justice system, she said.

“That said, I’m still a survivor,” she said. “It doesn’t make it OK what happened to me. It doesn’t make it OK how Brown treated me, but I feel like I should have been the best scenario coming forward, and it was atrocious how they handled my case.”

Aside from politics, Sclove said speaking out has helped her heal in other ways. She gets private Facebook messages every day from people confiding their experiences in her. Sclove is honored to be trusted with these personal connections.

“Speaking out has opened the space for more people to tell their stories, even if it’s just to one person,” she said. “In the light of all this national stuff, we can’t lose sight of that one phone call or that one person, who never felt safe enough telling anybody, who is now calling a family member or close friend and telling them.”

As for her personal journey, Sclove said she will not return to Brown in the fall, even though Kopin won’t return to the university either. At some point she may decide to finish her final two semesters at college, but not now.

“I have a lot of healing left to do and I have a lot of recovery left to do,” Sclove said. “All this activism and media and speaking out is part of it and then part of it is private.”

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.