Trust and tragedy
The University’s antiquated approach toward sexual assault re-victimizes survivors
Crime in Charlottesville should serve to remind us that the community we live in is not always a safe one. And the University’s policies and actions make such a community even less secure. The statistics do not lie: one in four college-aged women are sexually assaulted, yet the University has not expelled a single student for sexual assault in over 10 years.
“I was raped.” These are words that no family, friend, or lover ever wants to hear uttered by someone they care about. I, too, was absolutely heartbroken when my friend, who I’ll call M., uttered those words to me. I knew the statistics, I knew that universities often attempt to sweep the cases aside to preserve image, but it is a shockingly different feeling when that statistic becomes a face. For me, it was the beautiful face of a friend that I cared very deeply about and who now was suffering.
“He offered me a beer during a club meeting on Grounds,” M. said. “The next thing I knew, I woke up … naked, in pain, next to him.” She told me how she went to get pregnancy and STD tests, and about the courage she found within herself to file a complaint with the police. She went for a forensic examination, something that often triggers painful flashbacks, and then the police dropped her complaint within a week without even looking at the forensic report. It is as if, in Charlottesville, a woman has to be unconscious and carried back to a man’s place for a sexual encounter to be considered non-consensual.
And the prosecutor told her, “It was just bad sex.” Despite this outrageous and incredibly insulting claim, M. once again gathered her resolve and filed a complaint with the school, not for herself but to hopefully create a safer environment for fellow women by removing a rapist from Grounds. Four months after the attack, she was granted a hearing in which both M. and her attacker had to present evidence. M’s evidence, like the fact he had a reputation on Grounds for drugging women, was dismissed as “prejudicial.” The hearing was held in the same room, so M. was forced to sit just a few feet away from the man who violently and invasively changed her life. Her testimony was brutally questioned; in her decision letter the panel accused her of confusing the pain of losing her virginity with that of being raped. She was denied any support for her post-rape PTSD, of which the panel was well aware. Then, the University forensic nurse, whose initial findings spoke to the evidence of physical damage (later verified by an independent forensic nurse), changed her report for the hearing to say there was no physical evidence of any sexual activity: a blatant lie.
So, there M. was, having to sit and listen to a panel of University officials discredit her trauma, forced to endure her rapist’s smirks, and then she had to listen to the panel read their verdict.
They called her testimony “compelling and believable,” his behavior “crass and disrespectful,” but said that they could not come to a unanimous decision. They told M.’s rapist to “evaluate [his] actions and [his] treatment of women in the future” and suggested he undergo “counseling around the issue of consent and respecting the wishes of [his] sexual partners.”
Her parents appealed the decision alleging that the University nurse changed her findings. They verified the initial report with a second Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner whose report found even more physical damage than the nurse had first alleged. In spite of this evidence, the decision was upheld.
The nurse? She is the chair of the Sexual Misconduct Advisory Committee and wife of the deputy commonwealth attorney: a clear conflict of interest.
M.’s rapist? He has been awarded a TA position and walks free.
M.? She wrote an anonymous, heart-wrenching opinion editorial about her experience, which her lawyer posted on her Facebook on Oct. 26. It garnered attention, meriting a post by writer Neil Gaiman on his Tumblr. Then, suddenly, the Facebook page disappeared. M.’s lawyer was notified by Facebook that the post violated its policy concerning overly violent or threatening posts.
As painful as this story is, its universality is the most terrifying part. Angie Epifano, a former Amherst student, wrote about how she was raped and her school did nothing, and even went so far as to try and suppress her from complaining. A mother of a University survivor was so outraged at how the University dismissed and suppressed her daughter’s violent rape that she created a website to raise awareness about the University’s misconduct. Other U.Va. students have spoken out as well about how the University has betrayed the community of trust and refused to bring justice to violent criminals, even when they are convicted. In 2008, the Department of Education ruled that the University has violated federal law by threatening survivors of sexual assault with punishment if they spoke about their cases. Similarly, when police estimate that only 5 percent of college sexual assaults are reported, the way the University treats rape survivors is downright injurious and serves to discourage future survivors from coming forward.
The statistics tell the same story. One in four young women will be sexually assaulted. One in 12 men admit to perpetrating sexual assault. The FBI puts false rape allegations at 8 percent. Yet, at a University where numerous students are dismissed yearly for honor violations, the University has not dismissed a student for sexual assault in more than 10 years. The truth is the University does not inform survivors of all of their options, denies them legal assistance, and ultimately re-victimizes them. This is clearly not an issue of the past.
It is obvious that, despite the overwhelming number of complaints, the evidence of misconduct, and official reports, this University continues to perpetuate an antiquated perspective on sexual assault. They have taken away our community of trust, and I look forward to the day when the students of the University will care about their fellow men and women who have survived violent, invasive assaults as much as they cared about the dismissal of this school’s president. The time has come for change.
Jess Hrebinka is a fourth-year College student and a former social media manager for The Cavalier Daily.