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Amherst College issues report faulting response to 2012 rape

Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin. Purchase photo reprints »

The college’s investigation and self-study stemmed from an article in the Amherst Student newspaper last semester, in which former student Angie Epifano wrote about her dissatisfaction with the administration after she reported being raped in spring 2012. Her account of college authorities not taking her claim seriously and restricting her academics led to an outpouring of similar reports from former and current students.

Amherst College hired a nationally recognized expert in sexual misconduct, Gina M. Smith of Ballard Spahr LLP in Philadelphia, to investigate Epifano’s claim. The college also created a Special Oversight Committee to analyze its sexual assault policies and responses as well as the culture around these kind of abuses and make recommendations for improvement.

The report recommends that the college raise awareness of inequalities and unhealthy social patterns within the campus culture that both contribute to sexual violence and help silence its victims. It suggests broadening and diversifying student leadership opportunities, emphasizing the responsibilities that come with leadership and finding ways to give women and other underrepresented groups stronger roles on campus.

The report notes that building a culture free of sexual violence is an endeavor the whole community needs to take on. In particular, both men and women should be enlisted and encouraged to combat sexual violence. Educational efforts need to reach out to all constituencies at the college.

In a letter to the college community, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin said Smith’s investigation substantiated Epifano’s allegations.

“Ms. Smith reported that Ms. Epifano provided a credible account of her experience. The focus in Smith’s assessment was whether the application of policy and process to Ms. Epifano’s report constituted an effective response by the college. It did not,” Martin wrote in the letter, which was posted on the college’s website Wednesday. “The result was an inadequate, even if well-intentioned, set of efforts to respond to and support Ms. Epifano.”

Martin went on to say that Smith’s recommendations to improve how sexual assault is addressed on campus are consistent with those made by the oversight committee and that some of these steps are already in the process of being put in place. The committee’s report, “Toward a Culture of Respect: The Problem of Sexual Misconduct at Amherst College,” is also posted on the college’s website.

Other recommendations made by the Special Oversight Committee, paraphrased from the report, include:

∎ redoubled efforts to build an equitable and inclusive community that promotes respect and good citizenship;

∎ better coordination and communication within student affairs, particularly with respect to the counseling center, the health center and the dean of students office, which may include merging some services;

∎ better crisis management, the adoption of clear and transparent protocols, clearer personnel responsibilities, and up-to-date staff training;

∎ more attention on integrating first-year students, especially first-year women, into the Amherst community;

In addition, because the link between sexual violence and excessive alcohol consumption is incontrovertible, the college should revisit its alcohol policies and its student programming with a view toward encouraging healthier drinking habits and more low-alcohol or alcohol-free social alternatives.

The report also encourages the college to develop appropriate spaces for social activity that can help promote a safe environment in which the risk of sexual misconduct is minimized. It appears the college has a shortage of such spaces — specifically, larger and more open spaces in which students interact openly and without fear of being “cornered” or “stuck” in a small room of a suite, a corridor or a staircase.

On Tuesday, the college will host an open meeting for the campus community in Johnson Chapel in which members of the Special Oversight Committee will discuss their recommendations and answer questions. At this time the college will also provide a draft timeline for consideration of key recommendations.

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