Pervasive rape culture in college administrations: Amherst College edition *TRIGGER WARNING*

Today the Amherst Student– the college newspaper– ran an article called “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College.” The piece, written by former Amherst class of 2014er Angie Epifano, outlines in excruciating detail the ways in which the administration of Amherst failed to support her in the wake of her rape on May, 25, 2011. Not even 12 hours after the article was posted, the Amherst Student website is consistently giving an error message suggesting that the number of hits has crashed their server.

In the over 5000-word piece, Epifano describes the administration’s response– or lack of response– to her reported rape. The school’s sexual assault counselor discouraged her from reporting the rape to the police, saying that since the student who raped Epifano would be graduating soon and there was nothing the school could do. They wouldn’t let her change dorms. Epifano’s account was questioned– was it really rape? She was discouraged from going through the college’s disciplinary process. And when the pressure of living in a community that was protecting her rapist made her suicidal, Amherst forcibly admitted Epifano to the Psychiatric ward of Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Before I detail the rest of her story, I’d like to put this part in focus: Amherst actively discouraged Epifano from seeking justice for herself and punishment for her rapist, but the moment she suggested hurting herself, they became involved and removed her from the campus. Amherst’s message to rape survivors is this: you are the problem.

Cooley Dickinson was no more supportive. A doctor told Epifano that, “A school like Amherst wouldn’t allow you to be raped.” She was not allowed to leave the hospital, being told that her depression was not normal, that she was a danger to herself. And after four days, she was told that Amherst would not allow her back even if she “recovered” sufficiently enough to be discharged.

According to her piece, Epifano’s social worker told her that: “In order for students to be allowed back they had to have parental supervision while on campus in order to make sure that the student did not relapse into substance abuse again (the most common reason for student admittance into the Ward). This meant that a parent would stay in a hotel near campus and would then follow their child around for two weeks until the “all clear” period was reached.” Epifano does not have parents. Therefore, there was no way for her to return to Amherst College.

That’s right: after forcing a rape survivor off campus against her will, Amherst used the reason of her very admission to Cooley Dickinson as grounds for not allowing her back on campus.

Epifano’s social worker had words with Amherst and she was allowed to return. She put on a happy face and forgave the administration. But in a meeting with her dean weeks after her return to campus, she was told that she would not be allowed to study abroad, as she had planned, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Again, let me pause here to point out a second aspect of this story: the suggestion that Africa, as a continent, is a trigger for rape survivor. Epifano paraphrases her dean: “Africa is quite traumatizing, what with those horrible third-world conditions: disease…huts…lions! You’ll be much better off here at Amherst where we can watch over you. It will give you some time to think about…you know…that…unfortunate incident…” Wow, what a nuanced explanation of why you’re making a rape survivor stay the summer in the place that she was assaulted. Wow, what a world-class institution of education Amherst must be to have a dean who thinks that Cape Town, South Africa– the hub of IT for all of Africa, the most popular tourist destination in all of Africa, the site of the 2010 World Cup, home of the tw0 top-ranked universities in all of Africa– is basically a Hollywood stereotype of Sub-Saharan Africa. Or maybe this was just a racist excuse for why Epifano was not allowed to study abroad.

No one told Epifano prior to this meeting that she would not be allowed to study abroad. Not the study abroad dean. Not the administration. Not her dean. She was trapped on the Amherst campus for the summer, becoming depressed again, and feeling unsafe in a dorm with men. Again she was told it would not be possible for her to change dorms.

Epifano joined a survivor group (at UMass Amherst); she began to heal herself. But again, at the beginning of her next semester, her dean told her, “I know you want to do African Studies through the Five Colleges, but I don’t think I can support that decision. Africa is very traumatizing and I think that studying Africa is just a way for you to relive your real-life traumas; it’s just not a good place to be studying.” Epifano was also told that she couldn’t take Five College classes, that she would be unable to do a senior thesis, and that she would have to meet with a counselor twice a week. Again, she was restricted to Amherst by Amherst, and part of their reasoning was that she had no parents. Without a family, you’re stuck here.

Epifano decided to withdraw.

“Nobody withdraws.”

“Your lack of parental support makes you emotionally volatile and prevents you from following through with decisions that you make.”

“I think you might have an eating disorder.”

Epifano reached out to the Victim Rights Law Center, a law firm in Boston, about her rape. She was told, ” Oh Amherst? Yeah, unfortunately I know Amherst all too well. I’ve been down there many times to deal with the administration and their constant mistreatment of survivors. Our law firm keeps trying to force them to change but they just don’t seem to understand, they keep doing the same old thing.”

Epifano writes, “Amherst has almost 1800 students; last year alone there were a minimum of 10 sexual assaults on campus. In the past 15 years there have been multiple serial rapists, men who raped more than five girls, according to the sexual assault counselor. Rapists are given less punishment than students caught stealing. Survivors are often forced to take time off, while rapists are allowed to stay on campus. If a rapist is about to graduate, their punishment is often that they receive their diploma two years late.

I eventually reported my rapist.

He graduated with honors.

I will not graduate from Amherst.”

Read the article– it’s difficult, but important. Here is the link to the article, here is a cached version, and if you can’t acccess either, you can email hellohydra@gmail.com requesting a Word version.

It’s easy to read this and be filled with rage; it’s easy to say, as the student who posted the first link to the piece on SmithConfessional “I’m so glad I go here.” Amherst? Fuck those elitist misogynist pricks. Smith is better. Smith is women for women, supporting each other.

Colleges are required by law to make their crime statistics public through the Department of Education. From 2009-2011 Smith claims that there were 13 forcible sexual assaults on campus. Off the top of my head, I can name six Smithies I know who have been sexually assaulted on campus. Three of them didn’t report it. Get raped off campus? It won’t go into the stats. Colleges routinely exploit loopholes in the reporting system to lower their crime statistics. You’re watching a tour go past the library and the Gold Key guide is talking about how safe Northampton is. How safe the Valley is. The blue lights.

Do you know how hard it is to find information about sexual assault on the Smith College website? So hard that after 45 minutes of clicking around, I had to Google “Smith College Sexual Assault” to find the page. What does our alma mater advise? “New and varied social settings, a bewildering array of personal choices often faced for the first time, peer cultures that condone or encourage underage drinking or the excessive use of alcohol and other drugs, and an emphasis in popular culture on sexual activity from an early age without equal emphasis on conversations about informed consent all play a role in the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. Taking a few minutes to review this material and follow the prevention guidelines can help you maintain your own safety and security.”

That’s right Smithies: it’s on you not to get raped. You don’t know how to say no. You were drunk. You should have been with a friend, should have should have should have. Certainly, if you click down to “Rape: Myths and Reality” you are assured that no one is ever asking for it, that how you were dressed and how you were drunk don’t matter– but it does. Plus that’s followed up with the helpful victim-blaming “Rape Prevention Strategies” page.

I know students who have reported their rapes and encountered no sensitivity from Public Safety officers whatsoever. I know students who don’t have Smith’s insurance who have been turned away from support through Smith’s Mental Health services because you only get 3 appointments a semester. No one at Health Services has been specifically trained in trauma or rape counseling. Support for survivors on campus is entirely through student organizations like Students Against Sexual Assault and Take Back the Night. After we take it back, who is going to hold us and help us heal?

No rape can be “better” but we can handle it better. Colleges and universities can make it a priority to educate students about what resources are available when sexual assaults happen- not IF they happen. Rape goes underreported in American society because of the ways survivors are treated and shamed, not because it doesn’t happen. Look at Wesleyan, look at Yale. These are just recent cases. If you think this won’t happen here, you’re wrong.

This week, you’ll see that the Curriculum Committee has presented “more social justice in the curriculum” to the Board of Trustees as an institutional priority for the year. What this should mean is better support for rape survivors, sensitivity training for our medical/health staff and Public Safety/Campus Police. This means making it possible to find the Sexual Assault Resources page, and removing the victim-blaming language. This means creating institutionally supported safe-spaces and not relying on the free labor of student organizations to help survivors. A crisis hotline on an impossible to find webpage isn’t going to change the pervasive rape culture of college campuses.

What happened to Angie Epifano can happen to any of us.

How can we educate “Women for the World” if we don’t first protect them?


One Comment on “Pervasive rape culture in college administrations: Amherst College edition *TRIGGER WARNING*”

  1. Maia says:

    Hi– recent graduate from ’12 just wanting to say, I checked Smith’d today in a fit of nostalgia after getting a Sophian email and I would like to applaud the coverage Angie Epifano’s experience is receiving from Smith (what is going on at Amherst? hard to check on my end my internet is awful right now abroad…) I hope effective administrative change comes from this as I am outraged at the collegiate response. Changing our prejudice and assumptions pertaining to sexual abuse and its psychological aftermath needs to start with our generation and younger– and if we don’t have support from our own institutions…Anyway. Erin Kelly is the Smith Fellow for Safe Passage, the Northampton based domestic violence center in town which has a 24 hr crisis hotline. She could help Smithies find resources, and the ones that were posted by the Sophian are some that every Smithie should know. I would like to see an organization like Every Woman’s Center (perhaps with their support) begin in Northampton or nearer to Smith College to aid women here. Go to the CSO to find out more about Safe Passage at Smith. Thanks!


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