The Sunday Conversation
9:13 am
Sun April 6, 2014

Rape On Campus: Painful Stories Cast Blame On Colleges

Originally published on Sun April 6, 2014 12:49 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Angie Epifano was a freshman at Amherst College when she says she was raped by another student.

Weekend Edition reached her this week after a Harvard student anonymously detailed her own alleged sexual assault on campus in a piece for the Harvard Crimson.

That student writes: "I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only — quite literally — to save my life. ... My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened."

The letter went viral, and Harvard has announced it's creating a task force to evaluate the school's sexual assault policy.

Like that Harvard student, Epifano wrote about her experience, including Amherst's response, in a 2012 op-ed published in the student newspaper.

Three years ago, Epifano tells NPR's Rachel Martin, she was invited to watch a movie by someone she describes in her story as an acquaintance. Neither was drinking, she says, but she fell asleep during the movie.

"I wake up to basically cold air, and he was on top of me," Epifano says. "And it spiraled from there."

Epifano says afterward she lay there, curled up in a ball. In the morning she grabbed her clothes and left, telling herself she wouldn't think of the incident again.

"Unfortunately, that's not how rape works in your mind," she says. "It always comes back."

Nine months after the assault, at the suggestion of a friend, Epifano went to the school's sexual assault guidance counselor. That, she says, was the beginning of the end of her time at Amherst.

She started working on a photo project to help cope with her assault, but Epifano says it wasn't well received by her peers and was even mocked when she presented it. Upset, she went to see the counselor again.

"She said, 'That's how Amherst was, and that's how men will be,'" Epifano says. "And I just broke down."

Epifano went to see another guidance counselor, who started asking her about suicide and if she had ever intended to commit suicide. Epifano answered honestly and said, "Yes, I had thought about suicide."

The counselor then left, Epifano says, and returned a short time later with the head of the counseling center. They told her they'd called an ambulance and the police and that she was being taken to the local hospital for "suicidal intent."

Epifano was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Cooley Dickinson Hospital for five days.

When she returned to school shortly before the end of the semester, she put what amounted to a restraining order against her alleged assailant, just to make sure she could avoid him during those last few weeks.

Since then, Epifano says life has been up and down. It's very difficult to withdraw from college and attempt to transfer, and she says this is the unspoken problem of what happens to sexual assault survivors.

"Now that the Harvard letter has come out, and the reality of what's going on at these elite institutions becomes more and more clear, the options of where to go to school and still feel safe feel like they're just falling through your fingers," she says.

Epifano wrote about her experience after withdrawing from school. Her article prompted an immediate response from Amherst President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, who promised to take action. NPR reached Martin this week for comment, and she offered this statement:

"Angie Epifano's account of her rape, her painful efforts to deal with it on her own, and her subsequent experiences when she sought help on campus are horrifying."

Martin also says the school has since made several changes, including hiring more counselors and staff trained to handle sexual misconduct and overhauling the judicial process for reviewing sexual assault reports.

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Transcript

ANGIE EPIFANO: Amherst is such a dream school. And it wasn't until I began talking with some of the upperclassman about sexual assault, specifically, that I realized that Amherst was not all bright sunshine and happiness. And that was only a few weeks before my rape actually occurred.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That is the voice of Angie Epifano. She was a freshman at Amherst when she says she was raped by another student. We reached her this past week after a Harvard student anonymously detailed her own alleged sexual assault on campus in a piece for the Harvard Crimson. That student writes, quote, I'll be moving out of my house next semester, if only, quite literally, to save my life. My assailant will remain unpunished and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. That letter went viral and Harvard announced it's creating a task force to evaluate the school's sexual assault policy. Like that Harvard student, Angie Epifano wrote about her assault, an Amherst response in an op-ed published in 2012 by the student newspaper. Angie Epifano is our Sunday conversation.

EPIFANO: He had invited me over to watch a movie and neither of us were drunk or on drugs or any of those questions that people typically ask when they are talking about rape, unfortunately. And I basically dozed off during the movie, because I was really exhausted and it was pretty late at night at this point. And I just wake up to basically cold air. And he was on top of me. And it just - it spiraled from there. And afterwards, I just laid there, curled up in a ball. And woke up the next morning and just took my clothes and ran as fast away from the room as I could. And told myself I would never think about it again. And unfortunately that's not how rape works in your mind. It always comes back.

MARTIN: You did try to put it away for a while. When you did make the decision, though, to report what happened to you, where did you go? Who did you tell? What did you say?

EPIFANO: It was the second semester of my sophomore year in February. And I'd basically had this huge emotional breakdown with a friend of mine. And he suggested I go to the Amherst sexual assault guidance counselor. And I didn't even know we had a sexual assault guidance counselor and...

MARTIN: So this was nine months after the assault?

EPIFANO: Yes. And so I went to see this woman. And I think I spent like two hours in her office and most of it was just crying before I eventually told her why I was there. And that was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end of my time at Amherst.

MARTIN: At some point, school officials believe it's best that you are sent to a psychiatric institution. Can you take us back to that day? What conversations preceded it? How did you - how did you get there?

EPIFANO: It was, honestly, the worst day of my life. And it started with presenting a photo project that I had done for my photography class that I was in. And it was basically a project to work through my trauma. And it wasn't received well and it was mocked by some of my peers. So I went to the sexual assault guidance counselor and told her about this, what had just happened. And she said that that was how Amherst was and that's how men will be. And I just broke down. I was so devastated so I went to the other guidance counselor and that's when she started asking these questions about suicide and if I had ever intended to commit suicide.

And being a very type A person, I answered very honestly that, yes, I had thought about suicide. And I kept saying, I don't want to, but if I were, this is how I would do it. And next thing I know she's left of the room and the door is locked and this woman comes in that I've never seen before who's apparently the head of the counseling center. And she tells me they've called an ambulance and the police and I am being sent to the local hospital for suicidal intent.

MARTIN: We should also say you are estranged from your parents, so they were not a source of support for you through this.

EPIFANO: Yeah.

MARTIN: So you are taken to the psychiatric facility against your will. How long were you there?

EPIFANO: I was on the psych ward for five days.

MARTIN: You returned to campus - did ever return run into your assailant again?

EPIFANO: I didn't. I went back and there were only a few weeks left in school. And I had found out while on the ward that I can have basically a restraining order put against him on campus, which I had never been told about. And I had that put on him just to make sure that, in his last few weeks on campus, I would not see him.

MARTIN: How have things been going for you since then? What's life like?

EPIFANO: Life has been up and down, to be honest. It's very difficult withdrawing from college and attempting to transfer. And I think this is something that is basically the unspoken problem of what happens to sexual assault survivors, especially after they withdraw. And especially now that the Harvard letter has come out and the reality of what's going on at these elite institutions becomes more and more clear, the options of where to go to school and still feel safe feel like they're just falling through your fingers.

MARTIN: What were you studying, Angie?

EPIFANO: I was doing African art history with a concentration in women and gender studies and minoring in studio art, specifically photography.

MARTIN: And that's what you would like to finish, to get your degree in?

EPIFANO: I would. It would really depend on where I end up going and if they would offer that, but at this point I would be happy with any diploma.

MARTIN: Angie Epifano wrote about her experience after withdrawing from school. Her article prompted an immediate response from university president, Biddy Martin, who promised to take action. We reached President Martin this past week for comment and she offered this statement. Quote, Angie Epifano's account of her rape, her painful efforts to deal with it on her own, and her subsequent experiences when she sought help on campus are horrifying. President Martin also says the school has since made several changes to its policies, including hiring more counselors trained to handle sexual misconduct and overhauling the judicial review process for sexual assault complaints. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.