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Sexual assault advocates unite in effort to empower rape victims

Shaina Mishkin/Daily Collegian

Angie Epifano’s 2012 article, “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College,” read by over 1 million people, has sparked a wave of sexual assault awareness, leading Epifano on a nationwide tour to share her experience.

She made a stop at the University of Massachusetts Friday, speaking at the sexual assault seminar “Breaking Barriers: Connecting Victims with Authorities,” hosted in the Campus Center by the Law Offices of Dunn and Phillips, Alpha Chi Omega and Students for Reproductive Justice (VOX UMass).

The panel, which consisted of Epifano and two sexual assault victims from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, addressed the need for victims to report their experiences, informed students of the resources available to them in the wake of a sexual assault and raised concerns about the process of reporting a rape on campus.

Both Epifano and Pino emphasized that coming forward after a sexual assault is an incredibly painful and difficult process. Pino said, “It took me six months to call it rape,” and Epifano waited, “about six to eight months” before she went to the Amherst College administration.

Epifano said that even after she had told the Amherst administration in October 2012, the process of coming forward was painful, saying that she was, “basically dismissed and mistreated from February until July, when the environment at Amherst College became so toxic that I eventually had to withdraw.”

Upon withdrawing, Epifano realized that her, “experience at Amherst College was not an anomaly,” but a problem that many students at the colleges in the Pioneer Valley were suffering from. According to statistics from the Jeanne Clery Act, between the years 2010 and 2012, there have been 48 reported rapes on the Amherst College campus, 40 cases reported at UMass Amherst, 32 at Hampshire College, 12 at Smith College and 5 at Mount Holyoke College.

In her time away from college, Epifano has launched a national movement of activism along with former students like Clark and Pino, who serve as valuable resources to students who need help reporting a sexual assault.

Clark created a blind reporting system for students at the University of North Carolina and through using the system, Pino realized that fellow victims failed to report because they had no one supporting them.

To raise awareness about the laws protecting students, they created the Know Your Nine Campaign (knowyourix.org), which references Title IX, a law that protects equal access to education. Equal access can be denied when pervasive sexual harassment or assault creates a hostile educational environment and forces students to deviate from their normal lives, said Pino.

Both UNC survivors urged students to explore the options of filing a federal complaint under Title IV or the Clery Act in the face of what Clark referred to as “deliberate indifference” on behalf of university administrations inclined to keep reports of rape under wraps.

When Clark reported to the University of North Carolina that she had been sexually assaulted, she was told, “rape was like a football game” and was asked as the “quarterback,” or the one “in charge,” what she would have done differently.

Pino was working in residential life at UNC at the time of her sexual assault and was told she was “just being lazy” and that she had simply experienced a “bad hookup.”

The panel emphasized the need to avoid victim blaming and debunk myths about what sexual assault really is before the process of victims connecting with authorities can be made smoother.

“Nine out of 10 sexual assault crimes are committed by somebody you know,” said Clark. “(But) we’re kind of taught, Law and Order SVU-style that it’s going to be a stranger in the bushes, very violent, which actually does happen, but at the same time it could be somebody sitting in your biology class, it could be your partner, it could be a really good friend. That’s something that’s so hard for us to conceptualize because you don’t want to think of a friend or a classmate or anyone who goes to your dream school as a rapist.”

Pino and Clark filed a federal complaint under Title IX and the Clery Act against the University of North Carolina, resulting in an ongoing Department of Education investigation into sexual assault and reporting on the Chapel Hill campus.

The university deemed the allegations “false,” but Pino stressed the necessity to “share our stories and continue sharing our stories even though it was scary, even though it took a lot of time, even though it was hard to see your face in Google searches and in the news. It was hard, but we learned that by doing it and by becoming agents of change, we could motivate other people to do it.”

She said that the collective effort of survivors like Epifano, Clark and herself is, “about empowerment and the only way we can stop rape on campus or anywhere is by coming forward and letting people know that they’re not alone.”

Clark said that a very common misconception among administrators at universities is that if rape statistics read zero across the board, it means that the school is a safe place. Clark believes that universities should be up front with their statistics, “and say ‘this is what we’re doing about it.’ I would much rather see a proactive approach than covering things up.”

The panel repeatedly emphasized the need for victims to feel validated when they come forward with their experiences.

Epifano referenced the 2012 suicide of former Amherst College student and rape victim Tre Malone, who wrote in his suicide letter that one of the reasons he took his own life was that he felt misunderstood and that his experience with sexual assault was not validated when he came forward to school administrators.

“I still can’t really talk about it without getting choked up because it rings so true with what I experienced at Amherst and what many other men and women from schools across the country experience,” Epifano said.

She added, “If someone comes to you and says they were assaulted, affirm that. Say you believe them. Say I support you and it’s not your fault. Don’t interrogate them. Validate that experience.”

The UMass Police Department also spoke at the seminar, informing students of the process the department follows in responding to a sexual assault. They stressed the need for a first-hand account from victims and the preservation of evidence as the essential first steps in investigating rape.

Eric Bosco can be reached at ebosco@umass.edu.

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