''Vanity Fair Confidential' episode addresses sexual assault at U.Va.

Episode features assault survivor Liz Seccuro, discusses fallout from ‘A Rape on Campus'

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The episode addressed the emotional reactions on Grounds to the now-retracted Rolling Stone article, "A Rape on Campus." 

The Cavalier Daily staff | Cavalier Daily

The Feb. 5 season four premiere of  “Vanity Fair Confidential” — a television series on Investigation Discovery that delves into crime stories covered by the magazine — brought cases of sexual assault at the University once again into the national spotlight. The episode, titled “Shadows on the Lawn,” included voiced-over narratives and first-person interviews with University alumna Liz Seccuro, who was sexually assaulted during her first year at University in 1984 and received an apology from one of her attackers 21 years later. The episode also dealt with the repercussions of the now-retracted 2014 article in Rolling Stone Magazine that told the alleged story of a University student and the gang-rape she endured at a U.Va. fraternity.

“I was being told from all over that … people were telling my story,” Seccuro said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I was sort of like, ‘Well wait a minute, if anyone is going to tell my story, it should be me.’”

In 2011, Seccuro published her memoir, “Crash Into Me: A Survivor’s Search for Justice,” the same year the University underwent Title IX review for mishandling cases of sexual assault.

Seccuro is now a victim’s rights advocate, the founder of STARS (Sisters Together Assisting Rape Survivors) and she lobbies for better legislation to protect victims of violence. She spends a majority of her time speaking on college campuses, but also communicates with law firms, law enforcement agencies and the Department of Health and Human Services, among others, about her advocacy.

“I’ve been speaking up since this happened,” Seccuro said. “It wasn’t so much for me to be heard — it was in the beginning, absolutely — and then it turned very quickly into, ‘I want other people to have a voice and to see that it’s ok to speak out. I am here really for people telling their stories.”

The episode addressed many concerns over the reporting and handling of sexual assault cases. According to University Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn, the U.Va. administration was aware of Vanity Fair’s production and coverage of these two stories. 

“The University is committed to ensuring a safe, nondiscriminatory educational and work environment and takes seriously any allegation of conduct that would violate University policy,” de Bruyn said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The University will continue to confront sexual violence and implement substantive reforms to improve culture, prevent violence, and respond to acts of violence when they occur.”

The episode began with Securro’s story in September 2005, when she received an apology letter from the man who raped her while she was a student at the University. The letter was signed, “Most sincerely yours, Will Beebe.”

Seccuro enrolled at the University in 1984. On Oct. 5, she attended a fraternity rush party at Phi Kappa Psi with a group of her friends. It was there that she was drugged, raped by three brothers — two of whom were later accused and one convicted — and left bloodied and unconscious. 

She met with then-Dean of Students Robert Canevari almost 72 hours after the assault. Canevari informed Seccuro she could not report the incident to the Charlottesville Police Department, claiming the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity was under the jurisdiction of University Police Department. He therefore recommended she file the report internally.

Seccuro filed multiple reports with the University Police, yet Beebe transferred out of the University later that year and Seccuro’s case was shelved. 

“It suddenly dawned on me that no one was going to help me,” Seccuro said in the episode.

Seccuro graduated from the University in 1988. She received Beebe’s letter 21 years after the assault.

Beebe’s admission prompted Seccuro to report him to the authorities. She met with detectives in December 2005 and Beebe was arrested Jan. 4, 2007. Over the course of the trial process, Seccuro said she discovered ways in which the University mishandled her case, such as the Canevari falsely informing her the fraternity was under the jurisdiction of the UPD.

Beebe pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated sexual battery Nov. 14, 2006.

Although the University did not formally follow up on her case, Seccuro found a community of support among students and faculty and, as an undergraduate, began to speak out about her experience.

Seccuro said she worked with a faculty member while she was a student to record anonymous audio tapes describing what happened to her and to communicate her story to the student body.

“I think that’s a really important part of U.Va. is the idea that there are all kinds of students and for each thing that we care about there was a resource,” Securro said. “I feel very grateful for the people who helped me along the way to find my small voice then.”

The episode also dealt with a more recent controversy on Grounds — the publishing of the 2014 Rolling Stone Magazine article “A Rape on Campus,” detailing the alleged gang-rape of a student referred to as “Jackie” at the same Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house Seccuro was assaulted in. 

The episode addressed the emotional reactions on Grounds to such a visceral story published on such a high-profile platform.

“You saw Greek life come to a complete halt,” said Laura French, a reporter for WTVR, during the program. “You saw protests. People were enraged. Everyone joined in against the University at that time.”

In January 2015, an investigation by the CPD found no evidence of the rape alleged in the article. In April 2015, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism published a report identifying many factual errors in the article. Rolling Stone subsequently retracted the story

Former Assoc. Dean of Students Nicole Eramo, who is pictured and mentioned in the article, filed a $7.5 million defamation lawsuit against the author of the article, Sabrina Erdely, Rolling Stone Magazine and its publishing company, Wenner Media Inc. in May 2015. The case was settled in March 2017, after the jury unanimously sided with Eramo and granted her $3 million in damages in November 2016. 

The chapter of Phi Kappa Psi also filed a defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone, requesting $25 million. The case was settled in June 2017, awarding the fraternity $1.65 million.

A third and final defamation lawsuit filed by three members of Phi Kappa Psi against Rolling Stone was settled in December. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed in court.

Sarah Ellison, a University alumna and writer for The Washington Post, explored the events of 2015 at the University in an article for Vanity Fair magazine titled, “After a Rape Story, a Murder, and Lawsuits: What’s Next for the University of Virginia?” The article referenced Seccuro’s case in addition to focusing on three shocking events that occurred on Grounds in 2015 — the murder of second-year College student Hannah Graham, the brutal arrest of then-third-year College student Martese Johnson and the impact of Jackie’s false narrative and what it meant for sexual advocacy groups on Grounds.

“The main tragedy that came out of Jackie’s story was there was this sense of doubt that came with every story of a woman coming forward and alleging rape,” Ellison said in the episode. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Ellison discussed the concerns of many activists on Grounds following the Rolling Stone article. Activists expressed how focusing exclusively on this traumatic assault might make victims in the more common “gray area” of assault hesitate to come forward with their stories.

“Focusing on this incredibly traumatic gang-rape… exclusively would make other people who had experienced would you might call more ‘normal’ sexual assault or rape to have felt that their stories weren’t important enough or serious enough to come forward,” Ellison said. “So there’s obviously a big gap in reporting.”

Ellison said she believes the conversation regarding social and administrative treatment of sexual misconduct will continue to evolve as more stories come to light and are discussed in earnest. 

“I think the more we talk about it, the more people will come to a more nuanced understanding of what is ok and what is not ok,” Ellison said. “I think we still have a long ways to go.”

Correction: The article previously misstated that Rolling Stone settled with Phi Kappa Psi fraternity for $1.26 million. The correct amount is $1.65 million.

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