Following Angie Epifano’s account of rape in the Amherst College student newspaper, Swarthmore survivors have claimed that the college’s handling of sexual assaults mirrors Amherst’s horrific mistreatment of Epifano. Administrators and counseling sources say that in the past year and a half there have been major changes in the ways in which the college deals with allegations of sexual assault and that the current process reflects these changes.Two current students, survivors of sexual assault perpetrated on Swarthmore’s campus, described their experiences of seeking support from confidential counseling services or from administrators as re-traumatizing. At every step of the process, both survivors were endlessly questioned as to the legitimacy of their rapes, discouraged from reporting their assailants, and blamed for their assaults.One survivor (Student 1), a current senior who was raped during her freshman year, said that the assault was so diminished by her friends and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff, and that she was so heavily discouraged from reporting her rapist, that she never even made it to the administration. She was warned that her attempt to bring her rapist to justice would be a drawn-out and fruitless struggle. “I didn’t think it would be a good idea to say anything because I had been told that no one would believe me, that even if someone did I’d have to fight at every step, and that it would be so emotionally draining that even if I got the result I wanted I’d be too miserable by then to feel like it mattered,” she said. “So I was silent.”
As at Amherst, Student 1 was made to feel — by both the CAPS counselor and her friends — that she was to blame for the rape. “I was asked if I had led them on, if I’d been drinking, if I’d given consent and forgotten,” the survivor said. “I was told that I shouldn’t complain because after all, hadn’t I gone out to get some?” Student 1 was asked to repeat exactly what had happened and if she was sure it was rape so many times that she could not remember what had actually occurred and what she had adopted into her narrative.
Student 1 was also made to feel guilty as a method of discouraging her from reporting her rapist. “I was reminded that my rapist was a good person and asked if I really wanted to accept responsibility for destroying their life,” she said.
Another survivor and current student (Student 2) initially sought counseling services to help her deal with the trauma of the event and was encouraged to speak to a member of the Dean’s Office about her assault. Director of Worth Health Center Beth Kotarski, who is in charge of primary support for survivors of sexual assault, said that CAPS counselors would only encourage a survivor to report their assault if the assailant seemed to be a repeat offender and posed a danger to the community.
According to Student 2, the administrator constantly questioned the legitimacy of the rape. “They told me that sometimes what one party thought was assault was really just a big misunderstanding,” Student 2 said. When Student 2 attempted to explain the ways in which her assault felt completely different from simply going too far in a consensual hookup, she was told by the administrator that, “Many people have disembodied sexual experiences and that doesn’t make them rape.”
Like Student 1, Student 2 was also asked how much she had had to drink on the night of the assault, as though this diminished the seriousness of the sexual assault or was at all pertinent to its legitimacy. “After I answered the question, [the administrator] actually started laughing and told me ‘that’s a lot for a small person like you,'” Student 2 said.
Student 2 said the administrator also questioned her about her level of sexual experience and inquired as to why exactly Student 2 was so sexually inexperienced. “I was accused of making up an assault because I supposedly could not admit to myself that I actually wanted sex that night,” she said. Student 2 added that the administrator attributed her relative lack of sexual experience at the time to her religious views. Student 2 was frustrated that she was asked to justify highly personal choices, and that “I’m not ready for sex” did not seem to be a satisfying answer for the administrator.
The confidentiality of various college resources was not explained to Student 2, and she was told that she had to either report the assault or tell the college that it was not assault. When she chose the first option, Student 2 was accused of changing her mind as a result of being swayed by her friends.
Additionally, Student 2 was strongly discouraged from taking disciplinary or legal action against her assailant. When she stated that she did want to take action against the person who had assaulted her, Student 2 was “highly encouraged” by the administrator to sit down and have an informal chat with her assailant and the deans about what had occurred.
“It is beyond me how survivors could be expected to say exactly what happened to them just a few days later,” Student 2 said. “I was basically accused of being a liar because, in the weeks after my assault, I was able to move past my initial feelings of confusion and guilt enough to see that what happened to me was a crime and not my fault,” she said.
Student 2 did say that she eventually received the help she needed from administrators, and that her perpetrator no longer attended the college, for which she was enormously thankful. Student 1, who never reported her assault, had to wait for her rapist to graduate, and struggled through the impossible task of avoiding the assailant on Swarthmore’s relatively small campus.
When asked to comment on the experiences of Student 1 and Student 2, Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator Sharmaine LaMar said that she could not do so without a sense of when the incidents occurred, since in the past year and a half the college has undergone a close examination of its policies, practices, and types of resources available to students and resource personnel. “I believe that the experiences today would show that we’re being very supportive,” LaMar said.
As stated in a letter from President Rebecca Chopp and Dean Liz Braun, emailed to the entire college about a month after Epifano’s story broke, over the last year the college has intensified its efforts to create an effective procedure for dealing with sexual assault.
Braun echoed LaMar’s response, framing the email from Chopp and Braun in the context of the changes in how the college deals with allegations of sexual assault. Braun said that since she had arrived, she had been working closely with Chopp in collaboration with students, faculty, and staff towards improving the college’s policies. “The letter that President Chopp and I sent to the community was not meant as a response to the Amherst incident, but rather was meant to continue to raise in our community’s consciousness the seriousness of this issue,” Braun said, adding that she and Chopp wanted to encourage the entire community to participate in creating a culture of zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual misconduct at Swarthmore.
Braun said that changes in recent years have included revising policies and procedures related to sexual assault; moving primary support for sexual assault survivors to Kotarski and Patricia Fischette, a post-graduate clinical fellow who works in CAPS, both confidential reporting services; expanding community-wide educational efforts such as workshops, presentations, and creating organized lists of resources for survivors (a wheel of confidential and non-confidential resources, complete with contact information); sending a reminder of the college’s policies and resources to the entire community once a semester; adding additional training for all CJC members for cases related to sexual assault; and changing the ASAP workshops based on community feedback.
Kotarski and Fischette have been instrumental in retooling the college’s approach to issues of sexual assault. Together, they have worked closely with Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team (SMART) members and sought to implement a greater degree of education and discourse about sexual assault on campus, especially around the area of consent. Fischette said that she and Kotarski want the conversation around sexual assault to continue throughout the year and not to be simply a one-time discussion at the beginning of the year in mandatory Acquaintance and Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) workshops for new students. “This needs to be a recurring thing that happens monthly in some kind of activity, panel, presentation or discussion. We’re trying to move towards making this conversation at the forefront of the campus community,” Fischette said.
The two have also tried to recenter the process of sexual assault around the survivor. Kotarski said that unlike at Amherst, a counselor at Swarthmore would never attempt to tell a survivor that their experience was not one of sexual assault. She said that it was crucial not to re-traumatize survivors by asking them if they were sure the incident was truly rape or questioning the survivor about their clothing, drinking or other actions prior to the incident. Fischette agreed, and said that she and Kotarski, when called upon for help, intend wholly to return control to the survivor over the process, since the experience of sexual assault is one of completely losing control and being violated.
Braun and LaMar stressed that they would welcome feedback from all members of the community, including those who were dissatisfied with current policy. “If any survivor, or truly any student believes that they are not treated fairly, appropriately, or sensitively, then that’s something they should let me know about, because we’re always interested in improving the way we approach these very serious and traumatizing types of incidents,” LaMar said.
Though administrators and counseling sources say that there have been major shifts in the college’s process of dealing with allegations of sexual assault, it remains to be seen if the changes in policy and proliferation of resources and educational efforts will result in a process that prevents the recurrence of such deeply troubling stories as those of survivors of sexual assault at Swarthmore.