On Thursday November 14, federal complaints were filed against both Vanderbilt and Amherst — two schools that have had highly-publicized, ghastly rape cases in the past year — alleging that the college administrations both mishandled reports of sexual assault and permitted a hostile sexual environment to flourish on campus. This comes on the heels of a Title IX complaint filed against UConn by seven students and former students earlier this month. Finally, thankfully, deeply necessarily, colleges are being held accountable for their willful ignorance and neglect of a campus sexual assault problem that's reached epidemic proportions. But what has galvanized and empowered so many students to take such seemingly daunting legal action?
The Vanderbilt, Amherst and UConn filings are connected to one another. They're also connected to several other high-profile sexual assault cases that occurred this year — by way of the IX Network, a coalition of nearly 800 sexual assault survivors, advocates and allies working to combat campus rape culture. Annie Clark, one of the network's founders, bills its mission as "working to support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized." Earlier this year, Annie and fellow IX Network advocate Andrea Pino began their sexual assault advocacy by filing a complaint against UNC along with three other women; in preparation, the pair listened to Supreme Court cases on their iPhones and read thousands of pages of legal documents.
Since then, the informal network they formed in order to give advice and assistance to other sexual assault survivors has grown exponentially. In an interview with News Observer, Clark explained their agenda thusly: "The goal is just to present a united front against not only sexual assault, but also the way universities across the country are handling and/or not handling it [and] how they're covering it up when it does happen... we're not going to put up with it anymore." In the course of a year, the IX Network has assisted with the Title IX and Clery Act complaints at UNC, Occidental, Swarthmore, UC Boulder, Dartmouth, USC, Berkeley, Emerson and UConn; Amherst and Vanderbilt were the 10th and 11th consecutive complaints to be filed with the coalition's help.
Members of the network have also launched an educational campaign, Know Your IX, meant to provide students with the information necessary to "advocate for themselves when reporting violence, demand that their schools live up to their legal responsibilities, and push for campus-wide change if students' rights are not respected." In an email, Annie told me:
The wave of federal complaints in 2013 has been intentionally connected, and has been primarily student driven. We aren't talking about expensive lawyers who have filed these complaints; we're talking about a collective of young people who have connected because of a common, albeit terrible, experience. We learned the law by educating ourselves, then shared that information through social media, long phone calls, and late night Skype conversations. Our goal isn't just to file complaints, but to genuinely call attention to the fact that rape happens and that many times institutions of higher education aren't following their legal obligations to prevent it, and/or they are not treating survivors equally when they come forward. I want our schools to go beyond superficial compliance on paper and the notion of security theatre; I want change. 2014 in many ways will be a tipping point, and I'm hoping schools will proactively change.
Of the two women filing a complaint against Amherst, one is anonymous. The other is Angie Epifano, whose devastating, horrifying, remarkably brave essay about her experience dealing with a completely callous and inept administration following her rape went viral last year. Angie was denied her request to move dorms after her assault. When she went to a campus sexual assault counselor, she was asked if she was certain she'd been raped and not just had a "bad hookup" and then urged to "forgive and forget." Her rapist walked freely around campus, making her feel terrified, unsafe, and depressed; when she made a suicidal comment (about how she was depressed that no one would listen to or consider her concerns!) to a campus counselor, she was sent to a psychiatric ward. Upon her release, she learned that the administration didn't want to let her return to campus.
In the aftermath of Epifano's essay, Amherst President Biddy Martin released a statement:
"Clearly, the administration's responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately. I am investigating the handling of the incident that was recounted in [Angie Epifano's essay about her sexual assault in the school newspaper] The Student. There will be consequences for any problems we identify, either with procedures or personnel."
Two weeks later, the Amherst administration canceled classes to facilitate a Day of Dialogue about sexual violence on campus and how to handle it. In a statement to the Huffington Post, Martin said that the college has "made significant improvements in policy, procedure, educational programming, and staffing" and plans to add a new Title IX coordinator in December.
The second complainant was raped in the spring of 2012. According to the Huffington Post, she went to a school counselor to speak about her depression and disclosed the details of her assault in the fall of 2012. The counselor never followed up about it. Then, on November 15, 2012 — two weeks after the "Day of Dialogue" — a college psychiatrist asked her, "If you were going to kill yourself, how would you do it?" The student replied that she had no desire to commit suicide. Later in the meeting, she was informed that an ambulance was on the way because she was a danger to herself. In the complaint, the student wrote, "My counselor chose not to respond when I talked about sexual assault. She instead led me to believe that I was depressed for other reasons. When my case became too 'complicated' to handle, I was passed on to the psychiatrist and then the hospital."
I spoke to Angie on the phone and asked why she'd decided to file the complaint now, after the administration had made a big show of taking her concerns seriously. She responded, "I genuinely wanted and hoped that Amherst would change itself. And as all the other schools began filing, that was always my mentality: 'I'll give Amherst a chance to change.'" During the summer, she met the person who would become her co-complainant. "What happened to her was very similar to what had happened to me. And it happened several months after my story came out, while Amherst was saying that it was fixing things and it was dedicated to changing everything," she told me. "Her story was so horrible... and the fact that it happened in the process of everything being fixed, as Amherst was terming it, just makes everything so much more horrific."
She added, "Visiting the campus in late August, I saw that there wasn't the kind of information that the school had promised they were going to put up, and there was nothing really being done in orientation, as the president had told me, that would comprehensively cover sexual assault. That made me realize that Amherst wasn't changing. It hadn't changed. If they couldn't do it themselves, someone needed to step up and have a federal investigation force them to change."
Angie told me that she worked closely with Sarah O'Brien from Vanderbilt, whom she met through a friend. "We decided that we were going to file on the same day as this sign that schools need to be held accountable." Both schools had said that they were in the process of fixing things, but neither was doing anywhere near enough for survivors or for the student body; it seemed that they were far more interested in rehabilitating their images than their sexual assault problems. "We tried to fix things within, and our school environments are so toxic and so unreceptive that we need to go to the highest level — the Federal Courts and the Federal Investigators — in order to keep our rights intact, which is what schools should be doing on their own and what none of these schools who have filed have done."
As Dana Bolger and John Kelly point out at Feministing, a major problem with the Department of Education (ED)'s Title IX enforcement is the lack of transparency. Because the ED doesn't publish a list of schools under investigation, the status of those investigations and the results of previous investigations, students are unaware of past and present complaints. "As a result, it's difficult — if not impossible — for current students to determine consistent patterns of administrative negligence and incompetence, thereby diminishing their ability to point out systemic institutional failure," they write. "It's isolating, leaving victims feeling 'crazy' and alone, unaware that others have suffered the same institutional mistreatment, often at the hands of the very same administrators." This is something the IX Network combats very well. Angie told me that when she first heard about O'Brien, a friend told her, "Oh, I have this really great friend from Vanderbilt. She's doing exactly what you're doing, and she feels really isolated." When students come together and collaborate on changing the grim reality of campus assault, they can erode the sense of isolation and the fear that no one will believe you or care about your case. "Having UConn file just a few weeks before was just so amazing," said Angie. "That's such a great thing to happen because they've been helping us with complaint logistics, as have the UNC students and the Yale students."
The success of the network is heartening, and it seems deeply significant — it's becoming unmistakably clear that sexual assault can no longer be ignored, brushed aside or overlooked. College women have the strength, will, intelligence and drive to be proactive about ending campus rape. Now that they also have the resources, the platform and the support, it's becoming increasingly difficult for college administrations to ignore their demands. "It really speaks to how powerful men and women and students in general can be when we all work together, which is what needs to happen for schools to really take us seriously and to institute actual change," Angie told me. "I think this is when the change will start to happen. I think people will look back in 20 or 30 years and say, 'This is when things started to improve.'"
Image via amherst.edu.