Amherst Overhauls Sex-Assault Reporting After Outcry

Amherst College is overhauling its policies for investigating sexual assault following a campus outcry over the school’s policies for handling complaints.

In the past week, the college brought psychological experts to campus, met with hundreds of students, pledged to assign trained investigators to examine all allegations and started a new “sexual respect” website.

The actions follow the Oct. 17 publication of an article in the student newspaper that has drawn national attention on the Internet. In the 5,000-word first-person account, a former student said she was raped last year and Amherst discouraged her from reporting it. The article sparked a campus protest last week. Even before the piece was published, Amherst President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin said she had begun reviewing sexual-assault reporting policies after hearing concerns from students. The college is investigating the former student’s allegations, she said.

“We need to do everything in our power to become a leader in encouraging victims to report sexual assault,” Martin said in a telephone interview.

The handling of sexual assaults on campus is vexing colleges across the country. Yale University changed its policies on sexual harassment -- ranging from inappropriate remarks to rape -- to resolve a federal investigation that began last year of student complaints of a hostile atmosphere for women. This month, an unidentified former Wesleyan University student sued the school after she reported an attack at a fraternity in 2010.

Wesleyan Lawsuit

Wesleyan didn’t provide the student with services after the crime and declined her requests for security before her attacker was arrested, according to the suit filed in federal court in New Haven, Connecticut. Her assailant, who wasn’t identified in the complaint, pleaded guilty to assault and unlawful restraint and is serving a 15-month jail term, the suit said. Wesleyan, in Middletown, Connecticut, doesn’t comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Lauren Rubenstein said.

With about 1,800 students, Amherst, is one of the wealthiest and most selective U.S. liberal arts colleges. It was founded as a men’s school in 1821 and began hiring women as tenure-track professors in 1962. The college began admitting women in 1975, and Martin is the first female president.

Angie Epifano, a former Amherst student from the class of 2014, wrote in the student newspaper that an acquaintance raped her in a dorm on May 25, 2011, toward the end of her freshman year. Returning to campus that fall, she struggled with memories of the attack, she said. Months later, she told a counselor, who advised her that “pressing charges would be useless” and “you should forgive and forget,” Epifano wrote. She later withdrew from the school.

‘Survivors’ Stories’

“I am sickened by the administration’s attempts to cover up survivors’ stories, cook their books to discount rapes, pretend that withdrawals never occur, quell attempts at change, and sweep sexual assaults under a rug,” she wrote.

Martin, who called the article “horrifying” in a letter posted on the school’s website, said she couldn’t discuss details of Epifano’s account. Martin, a former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, became Amherst’s president in June 2011.

The president had already identified shortcomings at Amherst. In the past, the school relied on accusers to prove their cases; now, investigators will gather evidence, she said. Amherst also included students in panels considering complaints -- a practice that might discourage classmates from reporting, she said.

The new “sexual respect” website asks victims to seek support and report offenses to campus police. The college also brought in counselors affiliated with Harvard University who are experts in addressing sexual misconduct.

Martin said she will form a special committee, including students, to consider other steps.

‘Must Change’

Epifano’s article has received more than 370,000 hits on the newspaper’s website, Brianda Reyes, editor-in-chief of the Amherst Student, said in a telephone interview.

“I was shocked,” said Reyes, recounting her reaction after reading the unsolicited article. “I had heard about people not being pleased with how cases had been handled by the administration. No one had ever been as explicit and detailed in their complaints.”

An effort to reach Epifano through the newspaper was unsuccessful.

More accounts of unreported sexual violence have since appeared on social-media sites and in e-mails to Martin, the president wrote in an Oct. 18 message to the Amherst community.

“It touched a nerve,” said Noah Gordon, a 20-year-old Amherst junior from Westchester, New York, who helped organize last week’s protest. “It has to do with a culture of silence. It’s isn’t just Amherst’s problem. It’s felt by young people around the world.”

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