Rape cases highlight campus safety
Caroline (Biddy) Martin, Amherst College president, in her office Thursday morning.
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A boy and girl converse outside a dormitory on the Amherst College campus Saturday night. Purchase photo reprints »
While looking for a stand alone feature photo at sunset in September, I saw the UMass Marching Band practicing on the practice fields near the Mullins Center. Band practices, with their various instruments and other equipment strewn about, often create interesting visual forms. When I saw the tuba players lined up in a semicircle, I knew I could get a good shot. It wasn't until I found the angle where I could see Aaron Staluppi, center, directing the group with the brightest part of the sunset behind him that I was satisfied I'd made the best picture I could. In addition to the color and light, I like this picture because, initially, it takes a second of looking to recognize the forms. Purchase photo reprints »
“I can’t think of an issue I feel is more important.”
So said Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin in an interview with the Gazette this month.
Was she talking about faculty tenure, grade inflation, responsible college investing? No, she was referring to campus rapes, and the direct and insidious ways they make college campuses unsafe for all students.
The issue took the Amherst College campus by storm this fall, but it also affects all campuses across the nation, and for that reason ought to be of great concern in the Pioneer Valley, the great diaspora of college students.
The issue barreled into the Valley’s consciousness with ugliness at both Amherst College and neighboring University of Massachusetts Amherst in October.
The UMass incident that shocked a campus and beyond involved the alleged Oct. 13 gang rape of a first-year student at the university. Four teenagers from Pittsfield, acquaintances of the young woman who had been socializing with her in the hours before the incident, have been charged with multiple counts of rape.
There seems to be little disagreement that alcohol abuse was a factor in what transpired in the UMass dorm room, where, detectives allege, the student became heavily intoxicated, and then, while passing in and out of consciousness, was raped repeatedly after being left alone with the four suspects.
Three 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old have been indicted by a Hampshire County grand jury on multiple charges of aggravated rape each, which means the details of what took place will be argued over by defense attorneys and the prosecutors in a case that, no doubt, will be closely watched. The four are due back in court sometime in March, but it will be months before these criminal cases are resolved.
Meanwhile, campus officials are taking steps to address the issue of campus rape and security, including hiring a consultant to review security procedures in its residence halls.
The issue caused anguish on the Amherst College campus after former student Thomas “Trey” Malone killed himself in June, addressing his rape and the college’s response to his allegation in his suicide note.
Another former student’s account of a rape and the insensitivity on the part of the college went viral after being published in October in the Amherst Student, a campus publication. Former student Angie Epifano’s essay recounted her experience and faulted the college for adding to her injuries in an essay Biddy Martin later described as shocking.
Though neither of these incidents at Amherst College led to criminal charges, they prompted great soul-searching on campus. Martin canceled classes for a daylong forum on sexual violence, and has initiated changes to make it easier for students to report sexual assaults and to improve the college’s response.
A 2011 report by the federal justice department offers these chilling statistics:
∎ Students are most at risk of rape by acquaintances within the first few weeks of their freshman and sophomore years;
∎ Ninety percent of campus rapes are committed by perpetrators known to the victims;
∎ Most of these rapes take place not on dates but when students are in group settings — at parties, for example, or studying in a dorm.
These statistics underscore that some of the efforts launched to address campus rapes are squarely on the right track.
These things may sound obvious, but apparently they are not: College students need to know what consent really means — namely, that someone who is heavily intoxicated is in no position to consent to sex. And campuses need to empower students as part of the arsenal against campus rapes by teaching them about the important role bystanders play in intervening when a situation is heading in a dangerous direction.