Last Wednesday, Oct. 17, former student Angie Epifano shocked the campus and sparked a heated discussion about sexual respect with her personal “Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College” published in The Student, which described her experience with the administration and counseling center after being sexually assaulted in May 2011. Since the publication of her story, students and other members of the College community have attended vigils in support of survivors of sexual assault, debated the College’s policies on the treatment of sexual misconduct and consent, participated in rallies and meetings to build a movement for change and attempted to carry on with business as usual as the College fell under the scrutiny of national media outlets like The Huffington Post, Salon and Jezebel.
The article came on the heels of open forum organized in response to a post Dana Bolger ’14E by ACVoice discussing a sexist t-shirt made by off-campus fraternity Theta Delta Chi (TDX) last spring for their annual Bavaria cook-out. At the meeting several ‘action steps’ were announced to improve sexual respect on campus, including student membership on the Title IX committee, a review of penalties for those found responsible for sexual misconduct and improvements in support for survivors of sexual assault.
In response to Epifano’s account, President Carolyn Martin released a statement reading in part: “In response to her story, still more accounts of unreported sexual violence have appeared in social media postings and in emails I have received from several students and alumni. Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately.”
AAS President Tania Dias ’13 also released a statement, which expressed her sadness and support for Epifano and invited students to come to a ‘Healing Fire’ vigil on Memorial Hill in support of survivors of sexual assault. The vigil, which was an annual event already planned by the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect before the publication of Epifano’s story, drew several hundred students and other members of the College community who came to offer their support and listen to survivors’ stories, poems and calls for solidarity with Epifano and other survivors of rape or sexual assault. Analena Alcabes ’13, a Peer Advocate for Sexual Respect and organizer of the Breaking the Silence support group who helped organize the vigil, was pleased with the turnout, noting that this year’s vigil saw significantly higher turnout than similar events in the past.
On Friday, Oct. 19, Dias and nine other students met with the Board of Trustees to offer criticisms about the College’s sexual misconduct policy and suggestions about changes to improve sexual respect at the College. Dias appointed the students to the informal group – which will be replaced by a more permanent group later this week – to represent a variety of perspectives while still ensuring that representatives could speak knowledgeably about the issues.
Dias explained: “My goal was to bring to the meeting a cross-section of the student body, while also including students who could speak to issues of sexual assault and related student-life issues on campus. Our group included representatives from the survivor community, support and alliance groups, athletic teams, the Committee on Discipline and fraternities. I knew that each of these students could offer valuable and unique perspectives on the nature of sexual misconduct at Amherst and on how our social life may contribute both to that problem itself and to the broader phenomenon of the culture of silence that many students feel discourages survivors from speaking out and thus enables sexual disrespect and assault to continue.”
However, some students thought the group was not representative of all voices on campus. Alexa Hettwer ’13, a resident counselor at the Zu and an advocate of sexual respect on campus, felt the group excluded viewpoints that may have been more critical of the administrations and the Trustees.
“The selection process felt very manufactured and a lot of people who had stronger views didn’t know where they could voice their opinions. People were responding to the students who came forward and said the meeting was successful, but some people I talked to after the meeting who seemed like they were smiling when they came out, actually said they were not satisfied with what occurred,” Hettwer said.
Liya Rechtman ’14, a member of the group that met with the Trustees, felt that although these criticisms had some merit, the group was still a success.
“We only had 10 spots and we wanted to represent as broad a group as possible. For the sake of putting very well-educated people from different perspectives into conversation with each other, we wanted to pick really specific people. Structuring something that way is always going to be imperfect, but I could give you reasons why each and every member of this committee was picked,” Rechtman said.
The group of 10 was joined on its walk from Frost to the Lord Jeffery Inn, where the meeting was held, by a rally organized by students to ‘End the Culture of Silence.’ Hundreds of students from the Five Colleges marched in the rain carrying posters and umbrellas and chanting ‘What do we want? Dialogue! When do we want it? Now!’ which later changed to ‘What do we want? Action! When do we want it? Now!’ Upon reaching the Lord Jeffery Inn they gathered outside to show solidarity with the students meeting the Trustees and to pressure the Trustees and the administration to increase transparency and enforce its policies on sexual misconduct.
Hettwer, who attended the rally and also participated in the early planning stages, said that school needed more than a policy change to stop sexual assault.
“I really think that people were interested in raising larger questions than just achieving certain policy changes. I think a lot of people recognized that the policy in place isn’t the heart of the problem, but that its enforcement by the administration has been shameful. This is more than just tinkering with policy; it raises serious questions about the direction and inclusiveness of the College in the future,” Hettwer said.
Each member of the group of 10 brought specific issues and concerns with them to the meeting, but together they determined several key points to discuss with the Trustees. The group focused on reviewing the disciplinary hearing process to remove potential obstacles to victims coming forward, improving resources for survivors and changing the College’s culture to promote sexual respect. They also suggested incorporating material on sexual respect into first-year seminars, evaluating the alcohol policy for unintended consequences on safe drinking and allowing students to meet with Gina Maisto Smith, an independent expert on sexual misconduct hired by the College to review the College’s Title IX and sexual misconduct policies and search for solutions.
Josh Mayer ’13, a member of the Committee on Discipline who was among the group of 10, said that changing the school’s disciplinary procedures for sexual assault was one of his priorities.
“It does create bad situations on campus to have students and faculty on a hearing board in cases of sexual misconduct specifically, although not in other cases. If you would like to take a course with a faculty member in the future or even just interact academically – which is almost unavoidable in a school like Amherst – it could be troublesome in an academic relationship. In terms of students, as a student sitting on the committee, I have seen two cases where I knew the complainant, and this is such a small community that it can be hard to avoid even with all the safeguards against it,” said Mayer.
The group of 10 raised several problems with the College’s resources for survivors of sexual assault and sexual respect in general, noting the small size and poor location of the Women’s Center, the inadequacy of the Counseling Center and the lack of a full-time sexual assault counselor. Rechtman noted that many survivors were often referred off-campus for treatment because their cases were too difficult for the Counseling Center to handle.
“In many ways,” Rechtman said, “Angie’s case is the exception to the rule; other survivors have had their own experiences. However, issues with the Counseling Center are a pretty universal experience with survivors.”
President Martin agreed that resources for survivors needed to be improved, and as a short term measure brought in counselors from Harvard University’s McLean Center to support students and faculty and supplement the Counseling Center’s capacity to deal with sexual assault.
“I agree with students that our resources are not adequate. I have talked to the Board since last spring about my own assessment and the need for more resources in the broad area of student life, including counseling for both survivors of sexual assault and students generally that need support for whatever reason,” President Martin said. “I want a counseling center – perhaps even an accredited counseling center – that can offer more to the College. By more I mean outreach and educational programming that makes the counseling center more central to the educational mission of the College.”
Despite the current inadequacy of resources for survivors on campus, there are still places survivors can go for help.
“We [the Peer Advocates] are separate from the administration and from Title IX and all the things people have been talking about. We’ll hold your hand through all of that,” Alcabes said. “Our job is not to tell you whether to press charges or to go to a hearing. Our role is to help you do whatever you want to do and offer unconditional support.”
Lena Budinger ’15, co-president of the Gender Justice Collective and member of the group of 10, said that solutions to sexual misconduct also needed to take place on the level of culture.
“It’s really important that we look at everyday social interactions and see how these are affected by power dynamics and sexual respect. One thing is just calling people out, which is really hard. You should call people out and you should let others call you out on what you’re saying,” Budinger said.
Hettwer, however, thought that aspects of the College’s culture made it especially prone to sexual violence and other forms of misogyny.
“The prevailing culture [at the College] is a lot more conservative than other liberal arts colleges, and because we went co-ed so late there is a lot of lingering privilege that is really kind of appalling,” Hettwer said. “It’s hard too because it’s the kind of stuff that people hear about and experience and there aren’t direct ways that we’re encouraged to report this to the administration. For example, there is stuff like (sports-teams-related) scavenger hunts and ‘f***-it’ lists that are pretty self-evident examples of viewing sex as competitive and object-oriented.”
President Martin also identified problems on the cultural level, focusing on communal responsibility and addressing the relationship between drinking and sexual violence.
“We can work hard to build a community in which people act responsibly towards each other, where everyone agrees they will not be a passive bystander, and I think it’s important for us to talk as a community about the relationship between excessive drinking and sexual violence. There too I think it’s important that we commit to not just being a passive bystander because it does lead to inappropriate behavior,” President Martin said.
However, some members of the group of 10 felt that the College’s recent crackdown on beer pong and drinking in common spaces has had unintended consequences that are often counterproductive.
“We realize there’s a connection between sexual assault and alcohol consumption, but we also realize there’s a connection between college campus life and alcohol consumption. We felt like the alcohol policy is having unintended consequences, which leads to stricter enforcement of policy in places that are easy to enforce like Marsh, as opposed to the Socials, and we felt like the places that are easiest to enforce are also the safest to have parties, because they’re well lit and open and have a clear community. The way the alcohol policy is currently being enforced actual hurts survivors and promotes sexual assault on campus,” Rechtman said.
The group of 10 also pushed for closer adherence to the College’s Title IX obligations and standards of best practice. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any institution receiving federal funding. Until recently, however, many colleges and universities, including the College, did not adhere to ‘best practice’ procedures with regards to sexual violence. In April 2011, the Department of Education released the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, which outlined best practices for the handling of sexual violence cases. Since then, President Martin has begun taking steps to bring the College in line with best practice standards.
“I think the College can do better. I think we need greater clarity on policies, procedures and practices. I think we can do more on community building and cultural change so that we are working on the side of prevention, not simply reacting. In terms of how incidents are handled, again, we need clarity and we need to address several areas that students have told us might stand in the way of having them report sexual misconduct or violence,” President Martin said.
Despite the ground covered in the meeting, some students were unsatisfied with the results, noting that the Trustees had not committed to any definite course of action and had only expressed some interest in the group of 10’s suggestions.
“Following it I was pretty unsatisfied; people were pretty quick to walk away. Even though there was a call to say ‘this isn’t the end of it,’ there was definitely a feeling that it was a victory and that we had done our job, and I and a few other people were pretty upset by that since nothing really concrete was coming out of it,” said Hettwer. “Nothing solid has actually been promised, so I don’t think we should automatically celebrate, and furthermore we really need to think of this as values and consciousness and implementation and a lot more than something we just put on paper.”
Some students were also upset that neither the administration nor the Trustees spoke to the rallying students after the meeting, noting that President Martin, the only administrator to speak at all, had only asked them if they liked the cookies provided for them by the Lord Jeffrey Inn.
“I purposefully deferred to students who met with the Board because I thought that was the respectful thing to do. They were courageous to come forward and they did a fantastic job articulating their concerns and requests and engaging in a very interesting discussion with the Board about a range of issues. I thought given that this was a rally in support of those students, the most appropriate thing would be to have them speak rather than having me put myself in the forefront. If that was a mistake, then I certainly regret it and I’m happy to speak with students anytime and any place that I can make myself available,” President Martin said.
In addition, the College has set up a webpage outlining steps taken to combat sexual violence and describing future plans to promote sexual respect and improve resources for survivors. A meeting is scheduled for sophomore, juniors and seniors Wednesday, Oct. 24 at 8:30 p.m. in Kirby Theater to discuss sexual respect at the College, and the group of 10 is holding an open forum to discuss the results of their meeting with the Trustees on Thursday, Oct. 25 at 5:00 p.m. in Chapin Lounge.