More concerns at Amherst College about sexual assaults
Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin last week wrote a letter to the campus community in response to publication of a suicide note left by a former student who was sexually assaulted in September 2011. It is one of several incidents which have raised questions about how college officials have responded to reported sexual assualts on campus. Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — A suicide note from a former Amherst College student who died in June is renewing questions about how college administrators have handled reported rapes and sexual assaults.
Thomas “Trey” Malone took his life by jumping from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, near his Bradenton, Fla., home, leaving behind a commentary, focused on a sexual assault against him in September 2011. The note was recently posted on the Good Men Project website with permission from his family. The commentary appeared, along with an article, on the Huffington Post website Thursday.
While Malone described college administrators as making an “earnest effort” after first reporting the assault, he said the response eventually became “emotionless hand washing” and he saw no help available for what he experienced.
Malone’s posthumously published comments come just weeks after another former student, Angie Epifano, alleged in a commentary published in the college newspaper that college administrators downplayed her own report of a rape at Crossett Dormitory in May 2011. Epifano’s commentary has spurred student protests on campus and has led Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin and other officials to take steps, including a recent daylong dialogue for students, faculty and staff focused on sexual respect.
After Malone’s piece was first published last week, Martin wrote a letter to the Amherst College community, posted on the college’s website Nov. 6, expressing sorrow for Malone’s death, but also explaining that his writings will be used to inform the ongoing changes to the way the college responds to similar incidents.
“While these facts can seem meaningless in the face of the loss of life, I am sharing information about our response, because I believe it relevant to our community’s understanding of this tragedy and to the dialogue we have been engaged in this semester,” Martin wrote. “In recent days, this campus has come together to have frank and candid conversations about the community and culture we want and the many barriers to realizing our goals at Amherst, as elsewhere. I expect that we will face this news with the same courage, open dialogue, and care for one another that has marked our best responses to what we already knew.”
Erasing the stigma
Lisa Hickey, CEO and editor at The Good Men Project, wrote in an email Monday that the decision to publish Malone’s comments was not made lightly and was done in consultation with several editors and a suicide prevention hotline.
“In the end, every person involved thought that erasing the stigma of shame about both suicide and sexual assault against males was too important not to talk about,” Hickey said.
The Good Men Project’s goals, Hickey said, are to confront issues men are often too afraid to speak about.
Martin did not divulge any details of the assault on Malone last year, but indicated that college officials were aware of his suicide note in advance of it being published.
“Out of respect for Trey’s privacy and the privacy of his family, the college has not been public about what he experienced at Amherst,” Martin wrote. “Trey’s note, parts of which we read in the summer, causes us to pause and reflect on the insights and perspective he wished to offer.”
The campus community first became aware of the problems in the administration’s responses to rapes and sexual assaults when Epifano’s account was published in the Amherst Student Oct. 17. In that piece, the former student said her request to change dormitories was denied, she was counseled to “forgive and forget,” and she was advised not to seek a disciplinary hearing due to lack of evidence.
Her opinion piece had been preceded by a news story about a T-shirt made by an underground fraternity, which showed a derogatory image of a woman, and the fact the fraternity was never punished.
These set the stage for an Oct. 26 student protest, aimed at changing the prevailing culture on campus.
In recent weeks, both Martin and the college’s trustees have tried to get in front of the issue. At their meeting Oct. 19, held at the Lord Jeffery Inn, trustees agreed to establish a woman’s resource center and increase support for victims of sexual assault. The college has hired Gina Smith, a nationally known adviser on sexual assault cases, to review the school’s procedures and recommend areas for improvement.
And on Nov. 2, all students, faculty and staff participated in the daylong dialogue, titled “Speaking to Silence: Conversations on Community and Individual Responsibility.”
Afterward, participants were asked to submit written comments about ways in which the college could improve its culture. These are expected to assist three campus groups: the Title IX Committee, the Sexual Respect Task Force and the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct.
The college is also working with the Center for Women and Community at the University of Massachusetts to provide counseling, training and educational support, as well as 24-hour on-call crisis intervention, and is planning to hire an investigative consultant to work on cases of sexual assault. This consultant will help the college comply with Title IX, requiring organizations to provide equal treatment to all students, faculty and staff.
According to Martin’s letter, Malone reported a sexual assault involving another student in September 2011, at which time he was provided access to the college’s support and resources. The following month, the report was resolved through the college’s disciplinary system, resulting in a finding of responsibility. After this, the college continued to provide outreach and support to Malone, prior to his academic withdrawal in December.
Martin acknowledged having a brief conversation with Malone last December, at which time she explained the appeal process, offered sympathy, asked if he was getting enough help and “sought to confirm his views on sanctions for the student who was found responsible for sexual misconduct.”
This past spring, Malone met with the Office of the Dean of Students to discuss a possible return to college, according to Martin.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests issued a statement Monday from its outreach director, Barbara Dorris, expressing concern that the college’s handling of the Epifano and Malone cases has contributed to rape and sexual assault being underreported in society.
“Any time that a person reports allegations of rape or sexual assault, institutions must be prepared to accept that person, commend them for coming forward and then launch an investigation, regardless of whether the alleged crime occurred last week or last year,” Dorris said. “It is disappointing that Amherst chose to instead question the victim’s credibility instead of trying to determine the truth of what occurred.”
But Colby Bruno, managing attorney of the Victims Rights Law Center in Boston, said in a recent interview that Amherst College deserves credit for its reform efforts. The college has been proactive since April 2011, when the Department of Education issued new Title IX guidelines, including a series of changes the Council of Six, the college’s executive faculty committee, made to its disciplinary procedures related to sexual assault, Bruno noted.
“I think those are a few, but really positive steps,” Bruno said.