Amherst College rape account prompts pledge of reform
Amherst College president Carolyn "Biddy" Martin has pledged to reform the way the college responds to reports of sexual assault after a former student this week published her account of being raped. (File photo) Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — A day after the student newspaper published a first-person account by a former student who said she was raped at Amherst College, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin pledged to reform the way the college responds to cases of sexual assault.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Martin said she was proud the student stepped forward to tell her story.
“I am proud not only of her, but the other students who have taken up the issue and brought pressure to bear,” Martin said. “It is important we respond effectively.”
She said she learned of the incident with the publication of the story in the Amherst Student on Wednesday and is reviewing how the college handled the situation.
“I intend to take action where the facts suggest we should take action,” Martin said
In her account, Angie Epifano writes that she was raped in Crossett Dormitory in May 2011. She decided initially not to report the incident, and she wrote that college officials sought to downplay her concerns when she did bring them forward. Her request to change dormitories was denied, and she was counseled to “forgive and forget” and advised not to seek a disciplinary hearing for lack of physical evidence.
She decided not to seek such a hearing because the process places the accuser and accused in the same room and asks them to recount events, she wrote.
“Hours locked in a room with him and being called a liar about being raped?” Epifano wrote. “No thank you, I could barely handle seeing him from the opposite end of campus; I knew I couldn’t handle that level of negativity.”
Epifano was later committed to the psychiatric ward at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton after she told her counselor that she felt she “should just drink darkroom developer or something,” she wrote.
After returning to school, her counselors barred her from studying abroad in South Africa as she had planned. And without parents to return to for summer break, she was to remain instead on the Amherst College campus where she could be watched over by school officials, Epifano said.
The emotional burden of staying on the campus where she was raped eventually took its toll and she made the decision to leave the school and move to a dude ranch in Wyoming. School officials advised her against it, she wrote, but her decision was made.
Epifano could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in her account, she explained her decision to come forward by quoting the words of another rape survivor.
“Silence has the rusty taste of shame,” Epifano said, adding, “There is no reason shame should be a school’s policy.”
Martin said the school was working to address the issue before Epifano came forward.
Martin said she initiated a review of the college’s policies and procedures when she was named president last year. One area identified as lacking was the school’s sexual assault policy. Amherst had already begun to address the issue before this week, but further steps are under consideration, Martin said.
The Council of Six, the college’s executive faculty committee, approved changes in the spring to the way the college pursues disciplinary action in cases of sexual assault. Those changes include alternative testimony options; the chance for both parties to submit impact statements; and the use of a trained investigator to meet with all parties, gather evidence and submit a report to the disciplinary committee.
“It is clear that this student and other students feel they haven’t been served by the college’s procedures and practices,” Martin said.
Brianda Reyes, editor of the Amherst Student, said the paper decided to publish the account because sexual assault “is something that needs to be addressed” at the college.
The issue has become a focus on campus in the last two weeks after a piece was published on the student blog, AC Voice, about a shirt created last year by an underground fraternity at the school, Reyes said. The T-shirt depicted a woman in bra and underwear being roasted over an open fire, watched by a pig smoking a cigar and was accompanied by the words, “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847.”
The story created a buzz on campus and, in response, Martin wrote an email to the student body detailing the school’s steps to address sexual assault, Reyes said. Martin hosted a meeting on Sunday at which students spoke about their experiences and what the college could do to improve its response, she said.
It was at around that time Epifano submitted her story to the paper, Reyes said. The decision was made to run the story as an opinion piece, she said.
“I understand that some of the things she wrote were subjective,” Reyes said, acknowledging that aspects of Epifano’s allegations are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. “If at least the gist of it was right, and I am confident it is, then there is a problem.”
Amherst College, like others across the county, is plagued by a culture of silent acquiescence when it comes to sexual assault, Reyes said.
“Everyone admits that it’s wrong, the things happening on campus are wrong, but some of them are silenced,” she said. “I don’t think people think it is OK, but I don’t think it has been as loud and clear as a message until recently.”
But she credited the efforts of Martin to address the issue, saying Sunday’s meeting showed that the Amherst president “cares and is willing to listen to student opinion.”
The newspaper was concerned that the college’s administration would attack the story, but the opposite has happened, Reyes said.
“I think President Martin’s reaction was something that we as a student body were pleased with,” Reyes said. “Our biggest fear was that Angie herself would be attacked and called a liar.”
Martin said addressing sexual assault is among her top priorities on campus. The college needs to use Epifano’s story as an opportunity to improve and become a leader in preventing violence against women, she said.
“The fact that she has endured what she endured is horrible. There is absolutely no getting around that,” Martin said. “That she has come forward with her story has emboldened other young people to write me and speak out about their own experiences. It will sharpen our focus at Amherst on changes we already wanted to make.”