Account of Sexual Assault Sparks Action
Issue   |   Wed, 12/05/2012 - 01:49

Besides coverage in national publications like The New York Times, Bloomberg and Inside Higher Ed, Angie Epifano’s Oct. 17th op-ed in The Student describing her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault at the College has also generated significant discussion at other colleges and universities around the country, inspiring some survivors to come forward with their own stories and opening up a broader dialogue about sexual assault on campuses nationwide.

Lauren Buxbaum, a senior at Northwestern Univ. said in a Facebook status that she decided to come forward with her own story of sexual assault after reading Epifano’s article.

“It was seriously like reading my own story,” said Buxbaum “I battle memories of my rape every day. It consumes me in a way I hope none of you ever experience. The only thing that was holding me together was my life here at Northwestern. And now that has been taken away, and I don’t even have the energy to battle for my life back.”

Like Epifano, Buxbaum was institutionalized against her will after she spoke to a university employee about her case, and like Epifano, she was pressured into taking time off from her education. While at the hospital, she received a letter from Northwestern stating that she had to sign a medical release form before she could return to the university, and if the university felt she was not “healthy and safe enough,” officials would “work with her to take a medical leave of absence.”

“They took an already traumatized person and just made it exponentially worse,” Buxbaum said. “And then told me it was my choice whether to go on medical leave or not. But you’ve made it so that I am a broken person now.”

At Swarthmore College, President Rebecca Chopp and Dean of Students Liz Braun wrote a letter to the Swarthmore community discussing sexual assault, which referenced Epifano’s case.

“As president and dean of students, we cannot say enough about the damage, both short-term and long-term, that sexual assault does to survivors within our community. Our deepest hope and most earnest endeavor is that the campus be made safe for everyone at all times and in all places. We write today to ask you to help us prevent sexual assault and to help us support those who have suffered from an assault,” the letter said. “In light of the recent sexual assault case at Amherst, which drew national attention, we plan to intensify our ongoing efforts and those of the Board of Managers to review and evaluate the effectiveness of our current procedures. We must also think carefully about what further measures we can take to prevent incidents of sexual misconduct and what more we can do to support survivors of such attacks.”

In addition, The Swarthmore Phoenix reported on the experiences of two survivors of assault at Swarthmore, who, like Epifano struggled to get the support they needed from the counseling center and administration. Anna Gonzales, the author of the article said that the experiences of Epifano and the two Swarthmore students, who remained anonymous, represented a cultural problem not specific to any one school.

“I think this speaks to a larger culture of rape-diminishment that is definitely a problem within the student body. Judging by the experiences of both of the students I interviewed, it appears that this has, in the past, certainly been a problem for administrators and counseling services alike,” Gonzales said. “I think every single college and the entire country and world have a serious sexual assault problem. Anywhere that sexual assault occurs in the first place is problematic, honestly.”

Harvard Univ. also felt the impact of Epifano’s story, overwhelmingly passing a historic referendum to create an affirmative definition of consent, clarify policy-related issues and provide more funding for education and sexual assault prevention programs with 85 percent of the vote. While the referendum was not binding, Assistant Dean of Student Life Emelyn dela Pena is working with student leaders to carry out the goals of the referendum. Kate Sim, a junior who helped lead the effort for the referendum said that Epifano’s op-ed helped energize the campaign.

“We were organizing before Angie’s article, but it definitely triggered response from the student body. Her story was so compelling and really brought a sense of urgency. It’s difficult not to see rape culture at play when reading Angie’s story,” said Sim.

Epifano’s story and the College’s response also sparked discussions about the best ways for colleges and universities to handle sexual violence. Katelyn Sack, a graduate student at the Univ. of Virginia who studies sexual assault, listed three priorities that administrations should take into account when addressing sexual assault: providing victims the opportunity to file civil complaints against their assailants or the institution, providing survivors with access to their complaint records and offering victims legal counsel if they choose to litigate.

Sack followed the College’s response to Epifano’s revelations and felt that the College failed to adequately reform its policies and procedures.

“Amherst’s response to Angie’s article fails in addressing all these problems. First and foremost, it is wrong to encourage criminal and university reporting, as Amherst still does. This policy reflects the fact that Amherst has lawyered up. Colleges such as the Univ. of Colorado and California State Univ.-Fresno have recently faced multi-million dollar verdicts under Title IX in rape and discrimination cases, respectively. Amherst wants to avoid this fate,” Sack said.

Additionally, Sack criticized the College for its lack of transparency about the evidentiary standards it uses to decide disciplinary hearings and the insufficiency of reporting mechanisms that could allow the College and students to determine patterns about repeat offenders. To solve this problem, she encouraged victims to create alternative reporting mechanisms themselves.

“We desperately need systematic independent research on sexual violence at American colleges. Because at a larger level, perverse incentives to doctor college sexual violence data hurt students, colleges, and society at large. The most efficient way to do this research, without generating yet more perverse incentives for institutional misconduct, is to decentralize data collection. College women need a WikiVic database for survivor-controlled crime reporting. Tools like Tor can enable anonymous reporting. Student communities can then more effectively police themselves,” Sack said. “The best way to prevent sexual violence is to not rape, but the second-best way is to make information about who perpetrators are and what they have done more widely available.”