The University of Virginia Finally Confronts Its Rape Problem

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Last Wednesday, Rolling Stone magazine published a graphic and horrifying story on a gang rape that allegedly occurred at a University of Virginia fraternity house in the fall of 2012. The student, named Jackie, did not report her assault to the police but did share her story with a UVA dean responsible for dealing with sexual assault. Jackie later tried to find statistics about sexual assaults at UVA but couldn’t find any—in part because, as she contends, a university dean later told her, “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.” Even after further complaints about gang rapes at the same fraternity, the school apparently did not open an investigation until this year.

The piece exploded the national media and the Internet, and the UVA community has exploded right along with it. The pretty little college town that was shattered this fall by the abduction and murder of Hannah Graham, and has yet to recover from the murder of Yeardley Love in her apartment in 2010, is eating itself alive over what has become a national scandal: Parents send their daughters to colleges where they may be raped and violated by young men who will never be held to account.* The gist of the piece is that survivors of rape and sexual assault are shuffled into a system that all but encourages them to stay silent and avoid the criminal justice system. The even more devastating accusation: Everyone at UVA knew this was a rape school and nobody did anything to stop it. The unspoken revelation: Your kids’ school? Probably a rape school, too.

The initial responses from the school fueled the fire. A passive statement issued by President Teresa Sullivan was full of deflection and jargon, with a promise to have the police investigate the substance of the Rolling Stone charges. Then came Rector George Martin’s staggering decision to appoint as independent counsel a former federal judge named Mark Filip. Immediately after which it was revealed that Filip had once been rush chair of a different chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the center of the campus’ gang-rape scandal. Filip was taken off the job the next day. Last week Phi Psi voluntarily suspended its operations. On Saturday, Sullivan announced in a letter to students and alumni that all the school’s fraternities have been suspended effective immediately.

Virginia’s governor, attorney general, and other elected officials have weighed in with outrage. Students have confirmed that the “rape culture” described in the article is accurate. Campus organizers and faculty held protests, slutwalks, rallies, and town hall meetings. A midnight rally, organized by faculty, took place Saturday night. The fraternity itself was vandalized last Thursday, and protesters there were arrested over the weekend. The university issued a warning Friday about possible violent reprisals and expressed concerns for Sullivan’s safety. Finally, the glee club retired the “Rugby Road Song” a century-old fight song threaded throughout the Rolling Stone piece with lyrics like “Never let a Cavalier an inch above your knee/ He’ll take you to his fraternity house and fill you full of beer/ And soon you’ll be the mother of a bastard Cavalier!” A crowd-sourced Facebook page, created by a UVA alum, called “UVrApe Alumni Defense Fund,” to generate support for a system of outside counsel for victims raised more than $14,000 by Friday morning.

An interview by Catherine Valentine, a UVA student journalist, of associate dean of students Nicole Eramo surfaced this weekend in campus media. Eramo, head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, was prominently featured in the Rolling Stone piece as a survivor’s “best advocate and den mother.” Eramo sensitively counseled and supported victims, according to the story, but she is also implicated as the indirect cause of rape allegations going unreported or being covered up. Valentine’s interview, which predated the Rolling Stone piece, probed why no UVA students found guilty of sexual assault or rape had ever been expelled from the university, but were instead suspended (at most) and most still roam the grounds—while those caught lying or cheating are expelled through the Honor System, a code dating back to 1842 that offers draconian punishments for cheating. In the video, Eramo describes the internal UVA sexual assault investigation process and the sanctions for those found guilty: a one- to two-year suspension. Eramo also seems to suggest that, if a student admits guilt, that is enough to avoid expulsion or serious sanctions.

The interview perfectly reflects the problem UVA has constructed: Eramo was tasked with handling sexual assault in a non-criminal, survivor-centered, confidential, internal setting, and she is now on the hook for not having run a crack Special Victims Unit.