First-year female students at Amherst College are typically the most vulnerable to sexual assaults. The pressure upperclass students can put on their younger counterparts to drink heavily borders on hazing, even exploitation. And many faculty and staff members at the college do not seem to know they must immediately go to their supervisor if a student reports a sexual assault.
These were among the findings by a special oversight committee formed to review school policies and make specific recommendations that would help the college prevent and address sexual misconduct. The report, released last week, comes months after allegations of sexual assault and misogyny hit Amherst College last year, drawing nationwide attention to an elite institution that takes prides in its history of support for women’s rights.
Many on campus were outraged last October after Angie Epifano, a female student, published a 5,000-word account about being raped in May of 2011 by a fellow student, only to be told by a counselor at the college to forgive her attacker and forget about filing a complaint.
Most victims are women, but men have also faced assault. Soon after Epifano wrote her account, a blog published a suicide note from an Amherst student who jumped off a bridge in Tampa after he was sexually assaulted. The student wrote that his attempts to get help from the college resulted in an “emotionless hand washing.’’
By then, college president Carolyn “Biddy’’ Martin had hired an outside consultant to investigate how the campus handled the cases. Still, many students began wearing purple T-shirts emblazoned with this message in bold white letters: “Amherst — sweeping sexual assault under the rug since 1821.’’
In their report, the committee, a nine-person group made up of trustees, faculty, staff, and students, described how poorly coordinated health services and untrained staff have left victims feeling alienated. But they defended the college when it comes to disclosing sexual assaults, pointing to federal data that suggests Amherst has been more effective at reporting such figures than other colleges and universities.
For example, in 2010, the college reported 14 sexual assaults compared with large state universities which reported no assaults.
“Amherst College has not been sweeping the problem under the rug,’’ the committee wrote.
Other surveys that allow students to answer questions on sexual assaults anonymously showed Amherst was in line with other elite colleges of its size.
“There are few surprises when it comes to sexual assault at Amherst and little to distinguish it from any other school,’’ the committee wrote. “But is being right at the norm with respect to the problem of sexual assault really where we want to be? We believe we can do much better.’’
The committee offered dozens of recommendations ranging from training staff and faculty on what their duties are as bystanders, to merging the college’s health and counseling centers so victims can easily access mental health services.
It also recommended that all students take, as a graduation requirement, a course focusing on issues of respecting the sexual boundaries of others. Currently, few students bother to attend voluntary classes of this nature, according to the committee.
“One suspects that students at higher risk for committing sexual assault may be even less likely to attend than others,’’ the report stated.
The committee said the college should use more campus spaces to offer social events for students, especially freshmen, who are usually welcomed to the college with a “dimly lit party scene.’’
“The college should consider opening at least one bar on campus,’’ the committee suggested. “Establishing a space that is conducive to mature and responsible drinking would be a positive step; it would also help to create some distinction on campus between legal and [underage] drinking.’’
The committee did not find that athletes or men in the college’s underground fraternities were any more likely to be perpetrators, but it did note one startling pattern among student organizations. Many rape victims who had joined a student group and then were raped by a member told the committee that after the assault their perpetrator or his or her friends in the organization intimidated them into staying silent.
“There is no need to name specific students groups here,’’ the committee reported. “Suffice it to say that the problem is widespread.’’
Dana Bolger, a senior who said she was sexually assaulted, praised the committee’s call for more bystander training. But she objected to the panel’s emphasis on alcohol as a factor in rapes, saying it failed to explore underlying causes of violence.
“By talking about alcohol as a cause of rape, the report plays into the myth of the ‘accidental rapist’ who is simply too drunk to ‘read the signs,’ ’’ she said. “To make real progress, we need to radically transform the ways in which we relate to each other and to ourselves. . . . That means calling out sexist, racist cultures on our campus, rather than saying that “there is no need to name specific student groups here.’’
Martin and committee members plan to answer questions about the report Tuesday at an open meeting. Citing the victim’s privacy, Martin declined to release the findings of the special investigator, Gina M. Smith, on the aftermath of Epifano’s assault.
“Ms. Smith’s charge was to review the facts and circumstances of the case and to assess whether the College responded promptly and appropriately to Ms. Epifano’s report,’’ Martin said in a statement. “It did not.’’
Smith will be at Tuesday’s meeting to answer questions.