Sexual assault complaints at Vanderbilt, Amherst

AP News
Posted: Nov 15, 2013 6:04 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Students and former students at Vanderbilt University and Amherst College have filed federal complaints alleging the schools responded inadequately to their reports of sexual assaults, harassment and stalking, which one rape survivor said is a common problem on campuses nationwide.

Vanderbilt senior Sarah O'Brien said Friday that she and five other women filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The filing was coordinated with the one against Amherst, and similar complaints are being prepared at other schools, O'Brien said.

O'Brien say survivors hope to change a culture that tries to silence them.

"It's not going to just end with Amherst and Vandy. It's going to keep happening across the nation," she said.

Both Amherst and Vanderbilt officials said they are working to improve their procedures to deal with such serious problems.

Angie Epifano is one of the people who filed the complaint against Amherst. She left school at the end of her sophomore year because of the way she says the administration treated her after she told them she was raped. She has spent the past year focusing on sexual assault prevention and advocacy for victims.

Epifano said she talks with women at schools all over the country who have experienced similar problems on campus. In general, she said, many schools don't adequately investigate reports of rape and sexual misconduct, don't prosecute the perpetrators and create a hostile environment for survivors.

"Under federal law your right to a harassment-free education is a civil right," Epifano said. So it is a civil rights violation "if you're living in a toxic, dangerous environment on campus where you have to see your rapist every day or where your rapist goes unpunished."

Amherst President Biddy Martin said in a statement that the school is working to confront "one of the most serious challenges facing colleges and universities across the country."

"We are committed to holding ourselves to the highest possible standards in our efforts to address the problem," she said. That includes "new policies, disciplinary procedures, and resources, but also new educational efforts aimed at cultural change."

A statement from Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Beth Fortune said it is continuously working to improve its procedures for dealing with complaints and supporting victims.

"We take the concerns of our students very seriously and share their goal of assuring that the university maintains a culture that rejects sexual violence and supports victims of sexual violence," she said.

Epifano said she and O'Brien are in touch with a group of women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who filed a federal complaint in January. That included accusations by a former assistant dean of students that the school of underreported sexual assault cases in its annual report on campus crime to the federal government.

An investigation into those allegations is ongoing.

Epifano said there is a growing online support network for student victims of sexual violence, and the women have been encouraging each other to file complaints, where appropriate.

O'Brien said the recent high-profile case of four Vanderbilt football players who were kicked off the team after they were charged with rape showed what the university can do if it acts aggressively to protect victims and punish perpetrators. But she said she feels that is not the school's normal response.

"The rape culture and hostile environment that Vanderbilt creates is something I have battled all 4 ½ years there," she said.