Amherst College student’s rape account prompts protest

Last modified: Sunday, December 09, 2012

AMHERST — Amherst College students protested their school’s response to sexual assaults, staging a large demonstration Friday 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, this week by a former student who said she was raped at the college last year.

By Friday, the paper’s website had received 300,000 page views since the story’s publication Wednesday, 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 Friday in the rain on the Amherst Town Common outside the Lord Jeffery Inn, where a meeting of the school’s trustees was occurring. Many speakers spoke in personal terms about being the subject of unwanted sexual advances and of 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 Friday 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.”

Bryars said she intends to continue to advocate for reform because she can be more outspoken as a graduate of the school.

“I don’t have to be afraid because I am not on campus,” Bryars said, adding, “It can be an isolating experience for dissenters.”

Noah Gordon, an Amherst College junior and member of student government who helped organize the protest, said he had never seen the campus so animated about an issue. The protest was largely spontaneous, he said.

Gordon said a good friend and fellow Amherst College student was raped at the school. But until Epifano’s account appeared, he had not heard of a similar story. “The fact that I haven’t heard it before says (the issue) is hiding, intentionally or otherwise,” Gordon said.

Elizabeth Monty, a senior, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Angie’s just one that spoke out. For every one that speaks out, there are 10 that are silent.”

“There is a lot of outrage, a lot of anger,” said Danielle Amandeo, a senior who was standing nearby.

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.

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.

In a speech to their fellow students afterward, the group reported that trustees were willing to consider many of the demands brought by students. 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 house such staff and 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. Martin joined the student representatives to watch them address the crowd, but did not speak.

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

“That will change,” Martin 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.

“I am extremely proud of our students coming forward to support each other and bringing their concerns to the trustees,” Martin said.

Work under way

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 in an interview Thursday. 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.

“The college is going to work to ensure its policies and procedures create an environment that is equitable and affords all its students the same access to an education,” she said.

Student views

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 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.

Amadeo, who attended the Sunday meeting, had a similar feeling.

“She listened, she gave a timetable for when things were going to happen,” she said.

Gordon, the student government member, said the issue has been swept under the rug for many years. Martin has lifted the rug and now ugly things are coming out, he said.

“I think Biddy has taken concrete steps and dedicated herself to moving in the right direction,” he said.

Then, looking out at the students assembled in the rain, he added, “I would really like to see this keep going. It doesn’t end with the rally, it begins with the rally.”


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