Account of Amherst sexual assault questions colleges’ reporting policies

Students, organizations and administrators both on campus and across the NESCAC are currently reacting to an op-ed published in The Amherst Student last week of a student’s account of her sexual assault and how it was handled by the administration.

The article, titled “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College,” was written by Angie Epifano, a former member of the Class of 2014 at Amherst. The piece detailed Epifano’s experience with the Amherst administration after reporting her rape and was published on Oct. 17. According to the op-ed,  Epifano’s rape occurred on the Amherst campus the previous spring.

Traffic to the site crashed the newspaper’s webpage for a period of time over the past week. The original post on The Student’s website had amassed 346,207 hits as of 7 p.m. on Sunday. The piece has also been reposted by websites such as The Huffington Post, Jezebel and In the ’Cac. As at many peer institutions, Epifano’s piece quickly spread throughout the College community, particularly via social media outlets such as Facebook.

Administrative response at Amherst

President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin addressed concerns regarding Amherst’s policies on sexual assault in a statement to the Amherst community on Thursday, offering support and promising action on the part of the administration.

“In response to [the op-ed], still more accounts of unreported sexual violence have appeared in social media postings and in e-mails I have received from several students and alumni,” Martin wrote. “Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately. I am investigating the handling of the incident that was recounted in The Student. There will be consequences for any problems we identify, either with procedures or personnel.”

Martin also claimed that during her first year as president at Amherst, “addressing sexual misconduct and violence has been and is one of my highest priorities,” explaining that “reviews of our policies, procedures and practices have been underway for several months and they continue.” Martin went on to detail the impending formation of a new committee to address issues of sexual assault policy on campus and the planning of open meetings to be held on campus to solicit student opinion and input on upcoming changes.

“Sexual misconduct and assault are among the toughest and most consequential problems on college campuses and in the culture as a whole,” Martin said. “Amherst is not alone in its struggles with it. But Amherst, given its values, its commitment to community and its size, should be a model of education, prevention and effective response when violations occur.”

Student and trustee response at Amherst

On Friday, the Amherst community received an e-mail from Tania Dias, student body president, indicating the formation of a student committee “to begin an important dialogue between our student body and the college leadership on sexual respect and misconduct at Amherst.” The 10-person student committee met with Amherst’s trustees, who were on campus for a previously scheduled meeting, on Friday.

Later that evening, Dias sent a follow-up e-mail to the student body, characterizing the meeting with the trustees as “a first step forward.” The student group reportedly proposed “policy changes, resource allocation and review … on sexual respect and survivor support at Amherst.” Discussion also revolved around the role alcohol and distinct party atmospheres have played in sexual assault at Amherst.

In its own communication that afternoon, the Amherst Board of Trustees stated that Martin contracted an external professional to review the institution’s policies on sexual assault at the conclusion of the 2011-12 academic year and that revisions resulting from these investigations were ongoing. Additionally, the board reaffirmed Martin’s promises to form a committee to look at sexual assault policies and practices on campus and to solicit suggestions and assistance from students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and the outside community. Finally, the board stated that going forward, Amherst would focus on “accelerat[ing] efforts to ensure that the entire College community is educated about law, policy and the appropriate responses to survivors of sexual misconduct and assault” and “continu[ing] to make necessary changes in organizational structure and personnel.”

In her second e-mail, sent on Saturday, Dias also announced the restarting of the Break the Silence Campus Survivor’s group, a peer support organization at Amherst that “explores a number of topics and shares ideas through discussion, art and other modalities.” The group had formerly existed on campus, but had ceased to meet recently. In the e-mail, the group was characterized as “generally for those who have experienced harassment, physical or emotional violence, adolescent trauma, abusive relationships and/or sexual assault.”

Dias emphasized that the week’s progress was to be seen as a starting point in Amherst’s work in relation to sexual assault on campus. “This was just the beginning of a very important student conversation with the administration, for ultimately, any student who wishes to speak, must be heard,” she wrote. “Student engagement and input must be taken seriously if meaningful policy and culture change is to occur.”

Response at the College

Campus leaders on the issue of sexual assault at the College, as well as the administration, hope that the discussion around Epifano’s op-ed will be expanded to include discussion of sexual assault on campus, moving beyond discussion of the specific situation at Amherst.

“Amongst students, we hope that the article promotes open and honest conversation about issues of consent [and] sexual assault and the Williams reporting process,” Henry Bergman ’15, co-president of Men for Consent (MFC), said. “With regards to the administration, we hope that the administration continues thinking about their reporting process and that this article helps them recognize the urgency and importance of having both an effective and supportive reporting process, particularly for the survivor.”

Bergman also expressed hope that conversations surrounding the College’s reporting process stemming from Epifano’s piece would “continue for the long term. We think that this article is going to cause a lot more student interest in the Williams reporting process,” he said.

MFC co-president Long Dang ’15 echoed Bergman’s statements regarding the reporting process. “I want the administration to be open to the idea of working with students or student groups around campus to improve the process,” he said.

Dean Bolton also stated that discussion surrounding the Amherst op-ed represents an important opportunity to talk about reporting on campus, as well as to assess College policies surrounding sexual assault. “I wanted to really talk about what our reporting process is,” Bolton said. “There’s this hard question about, if someone wants to report formally for disciplinary purposes, there has to be an investigation which is both deeply supportive to the survivor, but also gets at enough information that you can have enough detail of what took place to hold the perpetrator accountable. It requires particular training and planning to have that kind of supportive investigation.”

Bolton reiterated that problems of reporting are ones that she and others in the administration are constantly examining. In terms of reporting procedures, Bolton said that reporting is considered “a piece that requires constant attention and constant focus to see what’s the very best practice we can have around that piece, because we know that 90 percent of survivors of assault never report, either formally or informally, either here at Williams or nationally, and that’s because the process of reporting is hard.

“This question, particularly of reporting and investigation and how to do that well, is something that a number of campuses are changing their processes very quickly around how they do those things to avoid, for example, the concern that was raised in that Amherst article of somehow requiring a hearing where the perpetrator and the survivor of the assault are forced to sit in the room together,” she said. Bolton emphasized that the College’s processes do not include such a hearing.

In an all-campus e-mail yesterday, Bolton reiterated these sentiments, stating that further work focused on improving sexual assault reporting policies at the College include “support for the survivor throughout the [reporting] process” and “continually seek[ing] out the best practices in conducting high-quality investigations that will lead to the most complete understanding of what took place, so that perpetrators can be found and held accountable.”

Bolton’s e-mail also spoke to the current reporting policies in place at the College. Existing administrative structures to support survivors of sexual assault include Sexual Assault Survivor Services, run through the Health Center, and a number of supports within the deans’ office, as well as student-run initiatives (“College reports stats on sexual assault,” Feb. 22).

An official statement from the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN), released by co-coordinators Marissa Thiel ’13, Abbi Davies ’13 and Grace Lapier ’13, focused on making sure that students were aware of the policies surrounding sexual assault and its reporting on campus. “This is as good a time as any to consider reporting procedures and to examine how both students and administrators can work to make reporting a safer experience,” the statement read. “Reporting is only a small part of a survivor’s experience after an assault, and we hope to examine and address all components: academic and social consequences included.”

While no definitive plans have yet been put into place, MFC is planning to discuss the article in its upcoming meetings, which are open to the College community as a whole. Bergman also indicated that the piece and campus reporting policies as a whole may be a focus of February’s Consentfest. Bergman described Consentfest as “a weekend-long conference at Williams,” to which groups similar in scope to MFC and RASAN from other NESCAC schools will be invited “to exchange ideas and discuss issues that we have faced regarding consent and sexual assault issues at our respective schools.”

According to Dang, Consentfest “will provide a space for student groups similar to MFC and RASAN to have honest discourse about rape and sexual assault.” One of the goals of the weekend conference includes “[being] able to address rape and sexual assault as a cohesive unit throughout the NESCAC,” Dang explained.

Bolton emphasized that questions of sexual assault have been and will continue to be focuses of administrations both at the College and throughout the NESCAC. “I think [the op-ed has] kind of touched off a new conversation about things that people were – that most campuses were – in the kind of serious assessment of their policies that we are,” Bolton said.

Accordingly, in her e-mail, Bolton reiterated a promise made by President Falk in an all-campus e-mail in the spring that ensured that a further update on the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault at the College, as well as institutional policies surrounding sexual assault, are forthcoming. Specifically, Bolton promised “a fuller update on ongoing work in sexual assault awareness and prevention, and with a summary of assault incidence and reporting over the past year.”

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