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Editorial: Let's get serious about sexual assault

Rape on college campuses has re-emerged as a topic of national conversation since Angie Epifano published a gut-wrenching op-ed column in the Amherst Student Oct. 17. The column details her experience of being raped by a fellow Amherst College student and her decision to withdraw from the college after denials, victim-blaming and discouragement from administrators. 

"I eventually reported my rapist," Epifano wrote, after being forcibly admitted by the college to a psychiatric ward. "He graduated with honors. I will not graduate from Amherst," she wrote. Following her revelation, a host of other students who claimed they had been sexually assaulted came forward with similar accounts of poor treatment by administration officials. 

Last year, Yale came under investigation by the Department of Education for possible Title IX violations and "failing to eliminate a hostile sexual environment" created in part by Yale fraternities. A survey on sexual assault cases across six campuses in Illinois and Indiana found that of 171 reported cases since 2005, only 12 resulted in arrests and four in conviction. The generally accepted estimation is that only 10 to 20 percent of rape cases on campuses are reported. And consider that a National Public Radio investigation concluded that men found responsible for sexual assault are almost never expelled and that the victim, ostensibly a female, drops out far more often.

Brown has long been lauded for being progressive in matters of sex education - the Consent Day Fair on the Main Green always has hundreds of attendees, and many campus advocacy groups encourage awareness of sexual assault. But the University has been criticized multiple times for its internal handling of rape cases. Take, for example, the infamous 2006 rape accusation resulting in the expulsion of William McCormick III from Brown with extremely questionable due process. University officials have never given any kind of explanation for the conduct of the investigation. 

It is often difficult to prove rape, especially in a court of public opinion, where discourse can deteriorate into victim-blaming, stereotypical assumptions and debates over the nature of evidence. Forensic evidence is not the main factor in the internal University judicial system, where the case rests largely on testimony and character witnesses. This often leads to "he-said, she-said" situations that can end unsatisfactorily for all  parties. What is clear from the McCormick case, developments at Amherst, accusations of misconduct at Yale and myriad other cases reported across America is that universities are failing to address the realities of sexual assault on their campuses. 

Epifano's claims indicate that though institutional structures may exist for handling sexual assault, they are meaningless without a culture of understanding and willingness to pursue justice. Presenting freshmen with one lecture on sexual assault during orientation week is not enough. Providing resources for students in need without guaranteeing respectful treatment in light of their traumatic experience is not enough. A judicial process that treats neither the accusers nor accused with due process is not enough. We implore Brown and peer institutions to engage in a more transparent judicial process.

In the wake of the column, Amherst President Carolyn Martin released a statement detailing her administration's commitment to improve support for sexual assault survivors and redesign the "policies, procedures and practices" of its disciplinary process. This should be a wake-up call to universities across the country. Sexual assault is a difficult crime to report, prosecute and address on both an individual and societal level. This does not mean it should be ignored in favor of leaving those caught in its wake to suffer.


Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board: its editors, Daniel Jeon and Annika Lichtenbaum, and its members, Georgia Angell, Sam Choi and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to


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