It was a normal Wednesday night in the Dodge Ballroom located in the Richard B. Flynn Campus Union. Upwards of 50 students and faculty gathered last week for the “Debunking the Myths: A Guide to Sexual Assault” seminar, organized by senior student Erin Knight and hosted by the Law Offices of Dunn and Phillips.
What started out as an informative presentation quickly took a disturbing, yet eye-opening turn as the panel opened up discussion to the audience.
Tears were shed, hands were held and voices were raised as students, faculty and administrators shared their opinions, questions and emotional concerns.
Sexual violence at Springfield College, along with colleges across the country, is a serious issue. The main concern shared at the seminar was that a number of people strongly believe that the college needs to do a better job of seeing victims through the painful and stressful process of reporting sexual assault and rape, and following through with it.
Every year, under law, the Department of Public Safety puts together what is called the “Clery Report.” The “Clery Report” documents all of the statistics regarding crimes on campus.
The 2012 Clery Report states that there were zero “Non-Forcible Sex Offenses” from 2009-2011 but four “Forcible Sex Offenses” from 2009-2011. These numbers are shockingly low. At first glance one could look at these numbers and feel safe, like these attacks rarely happen.
With the widespread concerns and obvious anguish that students expressed at the seminar, it is clear that the numbers from the official “Clery Report” do not begin to show the extent of the problem.
Among the administrators who led the forum was Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Associate Dean of Students Terry Vecchio. Vecchio, who became a target of criticism as the seminar went on, later acknowledged that there is in fact an issue here on campus.
“I think that the reported assaults or misconducts are a lot lower than what is actually happening, and that is a concern,” said Vecchio.
According to one study by the Center for Public Integrity, 95 percent of campus rapes across the country go unreported. There are many reasons why this is the case.
One reason, by no means unique to Springfield, is the high level of sensitivity about any crime that involves sexual activity.
“I think it is more of a culture or global issue. I don’t think that students at this campus come forward less than people in general,” said Associate Director of the Counseling Center Gary Enright. “It is an awfully tough situation. There is a lot of shame involved.”
Gary Berte, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, believes, “They are not going to feel comfortable reporting it to anyone because they are embarrassed, hurt, and angry and rage filled.”
A second reason why sexual crimes often go underreported, according to Sociology Professor Susan Joel, is that some victims and perpetrators are less apt to see date rape as being as serious an offense as a sexual crime instigated by a stranger.
“There is a sense that if you know the person then you should have been able to stop it,” said Joel. “There is also a sense that acquaintance rape isn’t as real as stranger rape even though acquaintance rape is way, way, way more common.”
A related reason is because of the general closeness of the Springfield College community.
“I think by the very nature of being a small, close-knit community, if somebody wanted to come forth and report, there may be hesitancy or reluctance,” said Berte.
Finally, some believe that the process the college uses to handle complaints needs to be more supportive of victims. This sentiment came through strongly at the seminar. This can cause a reluctance to want to come forward with these issues when the belief is that they won’t be taken care of.
One woman, a Springfield College junior, expressed this view at the seminar by characterizing the response to complaints of sexual assault in this fashion: “We are here to support you, but we are going to make you go through this awful, horrible, painful process.”
Joel, who also attended the seminar, knows that most students would rather say nothing due to the lack of belief that the process will prove helpful for them.
“Students don’t have faith in the process, or the administration, so when stuff happens they just don’t say anything,” said Joel.
Springfield College is by no means alone when it comes to the difficulty in handling a sensitive issue such as sexual assault.
Right up the road from Springfield is Amherst College. Amherst has been under a lot of scrutiny in the recent months for their college’s lack of support around cases of sexual assault and rape.
Amherst student Angie Epifano (class of 2014) wrote an op-ed piece on May 25, 2011 describing the rape she experienced from an acquaintance of hers. Epifano was told by Amherst that she couldn’t charge the dorms, pressing charges would be useless and the school even went as far to suggest that, “It might have been a bad hookup.”
The anger from students about this case was so strong that Amherst was forced to shut down classes for a day to hold a campus-wide seminar called the “Day of Dialogue” that drew over 1,900 students.
Although usually women are the victims in these sexual attacks, that is not always the case. Thomas “Trey” Malone, a 20-year-old student who attended Amherst College, tragically committed suicide on June, 17, 2012.
Malone experienced a sexual assault on campus and after coming forward to Amherst about it, he was turned away as described from a segment of the last letter he wrote. “There was no adequate form of preparation available for that and no repair afterwards. What began as an earnest effort to help on the part of Amherst became an emotionless hand washing.”
These attacks and tragedies at Amherst College are truly awful, but when the attacks are right here on our campus, it hits home even more.
Last year, a now-sophomore woman who chose to stay anonymous experienced the terror of sexual assault in her own bedroom in Gulick Hall.
“I was sitting in my room with a bunch of my floor mates on a Saturday night after a night out,” she explained in an emailed interview. “We had been drinking during the night, but by that point I had sobered up to the point where it had never even felt like I had been drinking. My friends and I noticed a random guy walking down our hall. We had never noticed him before so we were a little skeptical,” said the woman. “We noticed we had a few things in common like a specific sport when he said he would show me a few wrestling moves. At that point he had picked me up and pushed me down on to my bed and was holding my arms down. All I could really remember was him telling me I wasn’t going anywhere and I proceeded to scream to get someone’s attention. He said he was only joking and moved to let me get up. However he then pushed me even harder down onto my bed and increased his hold on me.”
After the young woman escaped, she made her way down to the Resident Director’s office with the help of her friends and filed an anonymous report.
After having another encounter with the attacker who stated he would “break the neck of whoever told on him,” the woman brought it up to her Resident Director again but claims she was told nothing could be done and that they would contact her. She says they never did. The woman now attends a different school and attributes the attack to part of her reason for transferring.
Despite its heated discussions and strong words, the seminar that took place at Springfield could have been just what the college needed to right some wrongs and move forward in a more positive and enlightening direction.
“I feel like a lot of these students here tonight have really expressed the idea of reworking the system to make it better for the students, because that is who it’s about,” expressed event organizer Erin Knight.
Along with the students, faculty and administrators who were at this event was one of the hosts, attorney Neil Phillips, who sensed the students’ frustration and knows that this is a sensitive topic that needs careful attention.
“I think they [students] need someone who is receptive to their concerns, receptive to their problems, which is that they have been sexually assaulted or raped,” said Phillips. “I think they need to have some serious hand holders, somebody [who] is going to stay with them all the way through the process. Not [somebody] who will abandon them and make them feel like they are wrong.”
The administrator who took the most heat during the seminar, Terry Vecchio, acknowledged that she misread the crowd.
“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t go into that discussion thinking what the audience would be,” she said. “I went into that discussion thinking these are folks who want to know what the process is around sexual assault and they want to educate the campus. I didn’t look at this group as a group that were survivors, so that was my error,” said Vecchio. “I am meeting with a large group of the women to…talk to them about it.”
Sexual assault and rape are some of the most serious topics on campuses across the nation. After last week’s heated seminar, Springfield students, faculty and administrators hope to be moving in a direction that will make the campus environment safer for everyone.