College Accused of Mishandling Sexual Assault
Issue   |   Wed, 12/04/2013 - 01:27

On Thursday, Nov. 14, two former students filed a federal complaint against Amherst College, alleging that the College violated Title IX and the Clery Act by mishandling reports of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is currently reviewing the complaint.

The complaint is the latest development in a movement that began last October, when Epifano published an account of her sexual assault in The Amherst Student. Since then, Epifano and many others have accused the College of mistreating sexual assault survivors and of creating a culture of sexual disrespect. Since the publication of Epifano’s article, colleges across the nation have faced similar complaints, including Yale, which was recently fined $165,000 for Clery Act violations. Current and former Vandebilt students filed a complaint against their school on the same day that the Amherst complaint was filed.

Title IX aims to prevent educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex. The Department of Education considers sexual violence to be a form of sexual harassment, and thus it falls under the category of sex discrimination. The Clery Act requires federally funded educational institutions to disclose information about campus crimes.

According to Epifano, she and an unnamed Amherst alumna decided to file the complaint after they decided that the College had not adequately responded to the reports of mishandled sexual assaults that began to surface last fall.

“I really thought that the administration and the school itself was going to change without the need for a federal complaint,” Epifano said. “But in the case of Amherst, I have heard so many stories from students who are still being mistreated in almost exactly the same ways that I was mistreated, and I noticed during my visit there and from talking to people that things haven’t progressed the way that they should be and especially not at the rate that they should be.”

After visiting campus during Orientation week, Epifano described her alarm at the difference she perceived between how Amherst had responded to the problem of sexual assault and how other schools had responded.

“I’ve gone to schools where 800 people will show up to hear me talk and people will just be moved in ways that I couldn’t even imagine people at Amherst being moved,” Epifano said.

Since the school year began, she has been engaged in a public speaking tour of schools across the country. Epifano commented that other schools she visited seemed to have more active groups devoted to helping victims of discrimination and often had an abundance of signs posted around campus that provided a list of resources for survivors of sexual assault. She said that during her visit she did not perceive the same amount of support for survivors at Amherst.

Epifano added that hearing the story of her anonymous co-complainant also strengthened her resolve to file the complaint, since the co-complainant reported being mistreated after Epifano’s article was published. (The co-complainant’s story can be read on page 4.)

Like Epifano, the co-complainant reported being raped by an acquaintance at Amherst College. The co-complainant said that her rape occurred in 2012, and she began visiting the College’s counseling center two days before the publication of Epifano’s article. She said that even after the article’s publication, she was mistreated by the counseling center, culminating in her being sent to a psychiatric ward after she answered a counselor’s question about how she would kill herself “if her depression grew worse.”

Epifano provided The Student with an 83-page document that contains her portion of the complaint. In it, she described receiving similar treatment from the counseling center.

Although the Department of Education has not sent the complaint to the College, Epifano and her co-complainant decided to go public with their decision to file a complaint, so the school has been made aware that it may receive a complaint soon.
In a statement, President Biddy Martin pointed to steps the College has taken to address the issue of sexual assault and emphasized that the school has not seen the complaint.

“Led by the staff, faculty and students on the Title IX team, the college has made much-needed changes,” Martin said. “We are responding to reports of sexual misconduct and assault by taking appropriate steps to eliminate the misconduct, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.”

“Work in all these areas is, of course, ongoing (from policies and procedures to educational outreach),” added former Title IX Coordinator and Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey in an e-mail. Coffey noted that the College’s sexual respect website lists the steps that Amherst has already taken to combat sexual assault and sexual disrespect.

The website includes a checklist of 31 actions the College has taken in the past two years to address issues of sexual disrespect. These actions include hiring personnel to deal specifically with issues of sexual respect, training students in bystander intervention and including student representatives on the Title IX Committee and Sexual Respect Task Force. A collection of resources and educational videos relating to sexual respect can be found on the site as well.

The website also highlights the accomplishments of the College’s Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which in January presented a report entitled Toward a Culture of Respect: The Problem of Sexual Misconduct at Amherst College. In the report, the committee reviewed Amherst’s existing policies on sexual respect and made recommendations for change.
More recently, the College has attempted to improve its handling of sexual misconduct by hiring a new Title IX Coordinator,
Laurie Frankl. Frankl, the former Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts, will begin work at her new position today. Frankl will be the College’s first full-time Title IX Coordinator.

“My hire represents President Martin’s unwavering commitment to addressing the way Amherst manages gender equity issues, including, of course, sexual misconduct allegations,” Frankl said.

For their part, the two complainants express frustration with how the administration has responded to reports of sexual assault and mistreatment thus far.

“I think that the removal of certain administrators has been helpful, but I think there needs to be a faster more concentrated effort into doing this because this is one of the greatest issues that the college faces right now,” Epifano said.

Her co-complainant also reported being disappointed with President Martin’s statement, describing it as overly general.
“I would like to see a step-by-step breakdown of how a case would be handled right now to the best of the administrators’ hypothetical projection,” she said in an e-mail. “All we have is theory — no examples of practice.”

The co-complainant also voiced concerns that the College has not been transparent as it could have been about reports of sexual assault. She said she would like to see the College implement a policy similar to that of some other colleges that e-mail the entire student body after an anonymous report of sexual misconduct is filed.

Both Epifano and her co-complainant also said that they do not believe Amherst’s actions to increase awareness of sexual respect during First-Year Orientation have been effective.

“I think that Orientation should include an event where current students talk about legitimate obstacles they encountered during their Amherst experience,” the co-complainant said. She added that she believed such talks should not be structured in “a salesman-like way as tour guides are instructed to do” or in simple “problem-solution paradigms” such as “I was stressed, I went to the writing center, the end!”

“I also think that there should be a conversation where respect and trust are differentiated,” she said. “I fear that extreme pride fostered during orientation leads students to automatically trust everyone — this comes with the urgent desire to fit in. When we believe that everyone in our incoming class is among the utopian elite, we do not consider the possibility that somebody among us could violate us.”

Epifano said she hopes that other members of the community will add their voices to the complaint.

“We can continue adding information to the complaint basically as long as the complaint stays active,” Epifano said.

Epifano says she expects the Department of Education to finish processing the complaint soon. If the Department’s Office for Civil Rights decides to move forward with an investigation, it is likely that it will officially notify the College of the complaint some time in the coming weeks. After that, the College would have several weeks to offer up information requested by federal investigators, launching a process that would involve investigators interviewing the complainants, analyzing evidence and speaking to people on campus. Finally, the Office would submit a report saying whether the College has violated Title IX or the Clery Act, and if it has, what it should do to fix those violations. It is also possible that the Office for Civil Rights will not find grounds for an investigation.