Two former Amherst College students filed federal complaints against the prestigious private college this week, alleging that administrators trivialized their sexual assault reports and worked to isolate them both, even urging them to take a year off from school to recover from the trauma.
Angie Epifano, 21, who has spoken out publicly about the college’s mishandling of her alleged 2011 rape, and a second woman say the college violated two federal laws by failing to properly address their complaints. Epifano withdrew from Amherst after her alleged rape in a college dorm room, while both of the alleged attackers graduated without being punished in any way.
“I felt like I had been kicked,” Epifano said in the complaint she filed Thursday with the US Department of Education. “Amherst administrators’ actions had caused me to withdraw from their school. . . . I felt, and still feel, retaliated against by Amherst.”
The college’s handling of the assault on Epifano, which she vividly described in an open letter to the campus newspaper last year, has already prompted soul-searching at the school, and Amherst president Carolyn A. Martin said in a prepared statement that the school has made significant improvements in how it handles sexual assault since then.
“On our campus, we continue to confront one of the most serious challenges facing colleges and universities across the country: sexual misconduct and assault,” Martin said, noting that the school has not seen the women’s 113-page complaint. “We are committed to holding ourselves to the highest possible standards in our efforts to address the problem.”
The complaints against Amherst are part of a national campaign to raise awareness of how colleges and universities handle sexual assault charges. Six current and former students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee also filed federal complaints Thursday alleging that school officials failed to properly investigate their
allegations of sexual misconduct.
All of the women allege that their schools violated Title IX, which protects female college students from discrimination, and the Clery Act, which requires schools that receive federal funding to keep on-campus crime statistics and to make the information public.
If the Education Department decides to investigate, the schools could face a high-stakes review of their policies and practices in handling sexual assaults and the possibility of losing federal funding. Yale University, Dartmouth College, and the University of North Carolina face similar investigations.
Epifano’s open letter about her experience as a sexual assault victim gained national attention for the difficulty many women face in getting college authorities to thoroughly investigate. She wrote that in the spring of her sophomore year she was raped by an acquaintance, but that she did not immediately report it.
“I blocked the rape from my mind and tried to convince myself that it hadn’t happened; that it couldn’t have happened,” Epifano wrote in The Amherst Student. “But there was no denying the facts.”
When she eventually reported to a campus counselor that she had been raped, she said the counselor told her that she could not switch dorms and dissuaded her from pressing charges. Epifano said the counselor encouraged her to “forgive and forget.”
After one emotional meeting with the counselor, Epifano said she was brought to the psychiatric ward at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northhampton, where she remained for five days. Upon her release, Epifano said, she longed to leave campus and began planning to study abroad in Africa, a plan that she said Amherst administrators failed to support. Frustrated, she withdrew from school in 2012.
After her account went viral, Epifano said she received support from numerous women at Amherst and other nearby colleges, including 18 messages that she attached to her section of the complaint. Several women alleged that they have endured similar experiences.
“Things are far from fixed,” Epifano wrote in her complaint, “and the current belief that things are perfect at Amherst has created a negative apathy on the part of students and administrators.”
The anonymous woman who filed a complaint, a recent Amherst graduate, contacted Epifano last summer, saying that her report of sexual assault in 2012 had also been brushed aside by a college counselor. Like Epifano, she spent time in a psychiatric ward after meeting with the counselor. Also, like Epifano, she never reported the rape to police or sought on-campus discipline against the alleged assailant.
The anonymous complainant argues that the college’s handling of sexual assault has not improved since Epifano’s letter, saying that the counselor focused more on her struggle with depression than holding her attacker accountable.
“After answering many leading questions and being pressured to address how I would go about killing myself if my depression grew worse, I was abruptly notified that Amherst had sent for an ambulance to take me to Cooley Dickinson” Hospital, the anonymous complainant wrote.
The women called on the Education Department to review Amherst’s process of reviewing sexual assault complaints and said counselors should encourage victims to report assaults to police.
They also called for a federal investigation into “the frequency with which the counseling center carts survivors off to the psych ward.”
Finally, both women called on Amherst to stop encouraging victims to take a year off from school after sexual assault.
“The gap year suggestion puts the onus entirely on the student to ‘get better,’ and that does not promote any change in the Amherst infrastructure,” reads the complaint.
Martin has made addressing sexual misconduct a priority since she became president in 2011, promising that the institution “will do what it takes to build confidence in the college’s approach” to sexual assault. The college formed a Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which issued a scathing report last January that faulted college staff for not helping Epifano.
Epifano said she felt that the school-initiated investigation failed to expose the full scope of mistreatment at Amherst and that a federal investigation is needed.
@gmail.com. The authors are University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism students taking an investigative journalism class analyzing rape on college campuses.