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Amherst looking inward after sex assaults, misogyny

Peter Sokaris, an Amherst College alumnus, spoke to students Ivonne Ortega and Isabelle D’Arcy, who were wearing shirts bearing a message critical of the school’s response to recent sexual assaults.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Peter Sokaris, an Amherst College alumnus, spoke to students Ivonne Ortega and Isabelle D’Arcy, who were wearing shirts bearing a message critical of the school’s response to recent sexual assaults.

AMHERST — It was a perfect morning for football — brisk air and bright blue skies — but before the start of the celebrated Amherst-Williams game last Saturday, hundreds of alumni packed into a campus chapel to talk about sexual assault.

After a series of allegations that college administrators had mishandled instances of sexual assault and misogyny on campus, President Carolyn A. Martin spoke to alumni for two hours in a question-and-answer session that ended with a standing ovation.

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“We’re all in this together,” Martin said. “Educating one another about what it means to treat ourselves and one another with respect is just as important as being educated in the fundamentals of mathematics or literature.”

But when alumni stepped outside, they were met by students bearing a different message, printed on purple T-shirts with bold letters on the front: “Amherst — sweeping sexual assault under the rug since 1821.”

Widely reported accounts of three different acts of sexual assault or misogyny on Amherst College’s campus — most recently, the publication of a student’s suicide note accusing administrators of brushing aside his assault complaint — have brought new urgency to make changes to this bucolic liberal arts college that remained all-male until 1975.

Martin, in her second year as president, has been lauded for her swift, forthright, and decisive response to the scandal. The school hired independent investigators. Ten students, including victims of sexual assault, were asked to air their grievances with the school’s Board of Trustees.

And for the first time in four decades, the president canceled classes and closed nonessential offices to gather the entire campus for a discussion on sexual assault. More than 70 percent of students, faculty, and staff attended.

But some students say that the tone and tenor of these discussions have left them feeling alienated.

Female students said they worried that staff, and even other students, hoped to put the furor behind them. Some men said they felt attacked, as much of the discussion has focused on fraternity members and male athletes as the root of the problem.

Such perspectives have provided insight into an issue fraught with complexities that is reverberating on college campuses across the country.

Kinjal Patel, a senior, acknowledged how hard it is to have conversations about rape and sexual assault with peers, even on a liberal-leaning campus where thought-provoking exchange of ideas is a point of pride.

“When we talk about sexual assault, somehow, I feel like [male students] think I’m calling them a rapist or accusing them of something,” Patel said.

The three incidents that swept up attention on campus, and nationwide, came to light in a steady succession.

On Oct. 8, a campus publication published a photo of a T-shirt designed by an off-campus fraternity. It featured a cartoon of a woman in a bra and thong underwear, roasting on a spit like a pig with an apple jammed in her mouth.

Nine days later, a female student published a scathing 5,000-word account about being raped in May 2011 by a fellow student and what she described as the insensitive responses from administrators. The student, Angie Epifano, accused the school’s sexual assault counselor of advising her against pressing charges against the alleged assailant because he would soon graduate and questioned whether what had occurred was actually rape.

“I was continuously told that I had to forgive him, that I was crazy for being scared on campus, and that there was nothing that could be done,” Epifano wrote. She withdrew from Amherst last summer.

Within days, Epifano’s account went viral. Traffic crashed the school newspaper’s website. Students organized rallies. The letter made news nationally.

Martin’s response was swift: Within days, the school established a website on sexual respect, guiding students to resources. She sent multiple letters to the campus community and held at least four open meetings with students and staff.

The school’s sexual assault counselor resigned.Students met with the Board of Trustees. Martin established a Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct.

Many of those changes, Martin said, had been in the works before the letter was published. But in the outrage that followed, she acknowledged that the school’s response had fallen short and said it was important to make transparent moves for improvement.

“Angie’s account was just . . . enormously painful for everyone,” Martin said in an interview. “It just seemed that openness in the wake of these very courageous student accounts and analyses was the right way to go.”

Then, two weeks ago, a blog published a suicide note from Thomas “Trey” Malone III, a student who jumped off a bridge in Tampa last summer.

“The sexual assault was too much,” Malone wrote. “What began as an earnest effort to help on the part of Amherst, became an emotionless hand washing. In those places I should’ve received help, I saw none.”

After Malone’s death, but before his suicide note became public, Martin hired an outside consultant who specializes in Title IX law, the federal legislation that prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational institutions and outlines steps that colleges must take to respond to reports of sexual assault. The consultant is investigating how the campus handled the cases of Malone, Epifano, and other students.

Martin is wary to assign blame to any particular campus community — even while much of the discussion among students has centered on male varsity athletic teams and off-campus fraternities, sectors of campus that some say perpetuate a hyper-masculine culture and the “old boys” tradition of Amherst of yore.

On-campus fraternities were officially banned in 1984 but exist in an administrative gray zone.

At the Saturday morning meeting, some alumni suggested that the elimination of on-campus fraternities or the mixing of genders in dormitories might be to blame for the assaults. Other alumni said they, too, had experienced a culture at Amherst that was hostile toward women.

“Do I think Amherst is a misogynistic culture? No,” Martin responded. “I would say, Amherst is part of a larger culture in which misogyny still has much of a great force.”

Some students have found administrators’ responses and the attitudes of their peers frustrating.

Dana Bolger, an Amherst junior and a victim of sexual assault who worte the original article about the sexist T-shirt in a student publication, worries that administrators’ steps are mostly for show.

At the Day of Dialogue, she recalled, students were constantly told how special they are — a sentiment repeated at the alumni gathering, when Martin declared, “It’s important to me that you know your college is still a gem.”

Bolger said she was offended when friends told her they were tired of talking about rape; they just wanted to feel proud of Amherst again.

“No one felt uncomfortable,” Bolger said. “No one was made to recognize the ways in which their actions are part of the problem.’’

Catherine Bryars, a recent graduate, agreed, saying that the day “was designed to pacify, to reassure [students] that everything is OK.”

Senior Mark Kahan, a student member of the school’s Title IX committee, a varsity athlete, and a fraternity member, said he believes the administration had handled the controversy well, but that in some ways he believes his peers have engaged in stereotypes.

“It’s a little disheartening with people looking at me as an athlete or fraternity member and instantly grouping me,” Kahan said. “It’s a disservice to all us.”

Martin said that student suggestions have inspired the school to consider establishing a class that would help students talk about social issues, and changing freshman orientation from a week-long span of sessions at the start of the school year to a series of discussions over the entire year.

“I would like to fold some of the issues that arise in student life outside of the classroom into what it means to become a thoughtful person, an educated person, a respectful person on the whole,” Martin said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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