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Rape account spurs action at Amherst College

Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin

Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin Purchase photo reprints »

Amherst College students protested their school’s response to sexual assaults, staging a large demonstration last week outside a trustees meeting in light of two student accounts of rape and sexual harassment on campus.

The demonstration came amid a rising public outcry over a story published in the student paper, The Amherst Student, earlier in the week by a former student who said she was raped at the college last year.

By the end of the week, the paper’s website had received 300,000 page views since the story’s publication, while national media outlets like the Huffington Post and Salon picked up Angie Epifano’s first-person account.

In the piece, Epifano alleges that school officials urged her to “forgive and forget” the incident and sought to downplay her struggles with the emotional trauma it caused. She later withdrew from the school while the man alleged to have raped her graduated with honors.

Her story was published on the heels of a story that appeared on the student blog AC Voice two weeks ago. It spotlighted a T-shirt created by an underground fraternity on campus, which showed a scantly clad woman roasting over an open fire, watched by a pig and the statement, “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847.”

The students responsible for the shirt were never punished and the wider school community was never made aware that it existed, according to the story by Dana Bulger.

Nearly a hundred Amherst College students gathered in the rain on the Amherst Town Common last Friday outside the Lord Jeffery Inn, where a meeting of the school’s trustees was occurring. Many speakers gave personal accounts of being subjected to unwanted sexual advances and described a campus culture that condones sexual harassment.

The college’s administration has been willing to turn a blind-eye to such behavior for fear of generating bad publicity for the school, students said.

“I have many friends who experienced sexual assault,” said Cat Bryars, a 2012 Amherst College graduate who attended the protest. “We don’t feel safe on campus.”

She cited the T-shirt as an instance where Amherst downplayed sexual harassment on campus rather than educate students about it and the need to eradicate it.

“I was impressed in the worst way possible with the college’s ability to hide this,” Bryars said.

Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin said in an interview that the college should have done more about the incident.

“I think a lot of people, staff, students, were concerned about the lack of consequences,” Martin said. “I think the interim dean of students would say we should have done more.”

The trustees meeting was regularly scheduled, but addressed the allegations made in Epifano’s story. A group of 10 students met with trustees to recommend ways to improve the college’s response to cases of sexual assault.

Those included training professors on how to deal with victims of sexual assault, hiring of full-time sexual assault counselors and the creation of a women’s center to help meet the needs of victims.

Student Government President Tania Dias characterized the meeting as “very constructive” and a “positive first step.”

“The trustees have listened to our proposals,” Dias told a cheering crowd of students.

Speaking to a reporter later, Martin said that the school does not have a full-time counselor dedicated to handling cases of sexual assault.

“That will change,” she said.

And while college employees now participate in workshops and trainings on how to deal with sexual assault, Martin said more must be done to make sure all employees complete an online sexual assault training program.

Martin has said reform of the school’s sexual assault policy had been a priority even before the recent stories appeared.

A review of the college’s policies and procedures found them to be out of compliance with Title IX, the federal law requiring individuals be treated equitably and without regard to race or gender, particularly in the area of sexual assault, Martin said.

“On the basis of what I have learned to date, there may be a few relatively minor ways we are not compliant,” Martin said. She declined to be more specific, saying the compliance issues were largely “technical.”

The college already has taken steps to address the issue. Those changes largely center around the way the college pursues disciplinary actions in sexual assault cases, including alternative testimony options for the accuser and the hiring of an investigator, who will meet with accuser and accused, gather evidence and present information to the committee.

The recent stories have focused the college’s resolve to move forward with reforms, Martin said.

Despite their anger, many students said they were pleased with how Martin has handled the situation. In response to the article about the T-shirt, Martin held a meeting with students on Sunday to talk about their concerns.

And she praised Epifano in the interview with the Daily Hampshire Gazette, saying her account has galvanized the school’s efforts to address the issue.

“Biddy’s response was very positive,” said Jia Mizell, an Amherst senior.

According to the college’s annual Cleary Compliance filing, 15 cases of forcible sexual assault were reported in 2011. That was up from 14 in 2010 and seven in 2009.

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