UVA story sends shock waves through more than one campus

Students and administrators must work together to promote conversation and stop sexual assualt


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An article recently published in Rolling Stone revealed a gang rape at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.

Margaret Voelzke

It has been three weeks since Rolling Stone released “A Rape on Campus,” and Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article is still making headlines and running rampant on social media.

Although the article, which told the story of the brutal, violent gang rape of a woman nicknamed “Jackie” at a University of Virginia fraternity house, has since had its veracity called into question, students at Washington and Lee University agree it has done something remarkable on campus—started a conversation.

“[These articles] give people leverage and inspire people to start talking,” said senior Anna Kathryn Barnes.

On a campus with statistics saying one in four women is sexually assaulted before graduating, talking about assault is surprisingly difficult.

“I think it goes down to the way we talk about sex,” said senior Annie Persons. “People don’t know what rape is… [And] there are probably women on this campus who have been raped and don’t even know it.”

When asked in a round-table interview whether or not students at Washington and Lee understand the severity of the university’s sexual assault problem, all four students agreed that the student body does not necessarily understand what is happening behind closed doors, and that continuing dialogue sparked by the Rolling Stone article is going to be integral to fixing the problem.

“It is really tempting to read the first part of the [Rolling Stone] article and say ‘that was a really extreme example and she was gang raped by seven men, but that doesn’t happen here so we don’t have to worry about it,’” said junior Kelly Douma. “But I think it’s something we need to keep talking about here and keep pushing and acknowledge the spectrum of it. It’s not just the super brutal, violent things that make the news… it’s also the micro-agressions in talking about rape.”

Those micro-agressions are something that the administration at Washington and Lee is aware of.

“When you work in higher education you already know that sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that we all deal with,” said Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sidney Evans.

Evans says the article addresses an issue that Washington and Lee’s administrators have been thinking about “for a long time.”

“I think we are all of the mindset that one [assault] is too many, and so until we think that it’s not happening at all in our community we are going to be working to prevent it,” she said.

Senior Ashley Humbert acknowledged that administrators like Evans are in a difficult position when it comes to handling high rates of sexual assaults on college campuses.

“One thing the article did not address is the difficult role that universities can, and have to, play when they are adjudicating felonies,” said Humbert. “They have to be counselors and supporters, and also the disciplinarians, and I don’t know that a lot of universities are prepared for that… I think that is a difficult place for them to be.”

According to Title IX Coordinator Lauren Kozak, Washington and Lee students who have been victims of sexual assault or misconduct have two options.

“When a report comes in there are two paths that we can take… [A] remedies based resolution or a more disciplinary approach,” she said. “[A] remedies-based would be anything that can help remedy the effects without doing discipline against the respondent… that can include anything from change in housing, some academic accommodations, perhaps even a no-contact directive between the parties.”

If students choose to take a disciplinary approach, Kozak and Dean of Students and First-Year Experience Jason Rodocker launch an official investigation into the victim’s claims.

From there, Kozak and Rodocker assemble a report that goes to the chair of the Student-Faculty Hearing board, who make the determination of whether or not to issue a charge against the accused.

“If a charge is issued, then a Student-Faculty Hearing Board panel will be convened,” Kozak explained. “They will read the investigative report and that will serve as the main evidence in the case, and then they can ask follow-up questions to the parties. And then they make a decision by the preponderance of the evidence whether they found that the policy was violated. If they find that the policy was violated, they will determine a sanction. If it’s a nonconsensual sexual intercourse case, the sanction is dismissal; it’s a mandatory sanction for that.”

For charges other than nonconsensual intercourse, “there is a range of sanctions the [Student-Faculty Hearing Board] can choose from,” Kozak said.

Although the process of reporting might seem simple, Barnes and Persons agreed that students choosing to report may face fears of ostracization and social fallout similar to Erdely’s account of “Jackie” in “A Rape on Campus.”

“I think people are rightly concerned that if they go through the procedure, people will find out and they will be ostracized. Particularly first-year women… I think that they wouldn’t necessarily want to hurt their chances of making friends, or getting a bid from a sorority or be that girl who reported,” said Persons.

Barnes noted that students can make small changes, like the language used to discuss sanctions for sexual assault, to counter fears of ostracization.

“Oftentimes the language we used [after someone has been dismissed from the university for sexual assault] is that the victim, he or she, got the accused, he or she, kicked out,” Barnes said. “That is unacceptable. The accused got themselves kicked out for their own actions, and I think those are the little things that we don’t think about.”

For Barnes, and students like her, the time for change is now, and that change needs to come not only from concerned administrators, but also from the students they work for.

“In many ways, we are not pretending,” said Barnes. “There are alcoholic beverages served [at parties] with inappropriate names…served with Benadryl in them… I think that these are the things that we need to start questioning a little bit. Can we look out for each other and make sure that we send the message that this isn’t okay. You can’t just say this isn’t happening here.”