University of Virginia pledges zero-tolerance policy in rape cases


(CNN) — The University of Virginia has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for handling rape and sexual assault cases.

UVA’s governing board held an emergency meeting Tuesday as the university scrambled to handle the aftermath of a Rolling Stone article that detailed a horrific gang rape of a student at a fraternity two years ago and that highlighted a trend of indifference toward victims.

Flawed policies were at the heart of the discussion at the special board meeting. However, the specifics of the new zero-tolerance policy will be worked out at a later meeting, university officials said.

A few weeks before the November 19 article hit the newsstands, the student-run WUVA interviewed the associate dean of students, Nicole Eramo, who guides women through their options when they report they’ve been assaulted.

In the interview, Eramo admitted that no student had been expelled for committing sexual assault, even when there was an admission, and even though offenses such as cheating regularly lead to expulsion.

“I feel if a person is willing to come forward in that setting and admit they violated the policy when there is absolutely no advantage to do so, then I feel that deserves some consideration, that they are willing to say I have done something wrong and I am willing to take my licks and deal with it,” Eramo told reporter Catherine Valentine, explaining why no one had been expelled.

Eramo said there had been 38 reports of sexual assault last year.

“I do feel like that person admitting in that context it shows a recognition of what they have done is wrong, and a willingness to improve,” Eramo said, when pressed on the subject, adding that a two-year suspension is still “quite a stiff penalty.”

A two-year suspension, Eramo admitted, many times means that the victim and the accused remain on campus together.

“I think we are trying to balance the rights of the individual who is being accused as well as the rights of the complainant and sometimes that is very difficult,” she said. “I think you would be surprised to see the number of survivors who I’ve worked with who don’t even want to file a complaint, because they don’t want to get the accused person in trouble.”

Jackie, the woman central to the Rolling Stone article, released an open letter in support of Eramo to the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. Jackie and many other victims of assault at the school in Charlottesville said Eramo helped them tremendously as they dealt with what happened to them.

“How can we not do the same for her in her darkest moment?” asked the letter from her supporters.

“Dean Eramo has truly saved my life. If it were not for her, I do not know if I could be alive today,” Jackie wrote.

Another victim who spoke to CNN, Lyra Bartell, said that Eramo has “the hardest job at UVA” and said the problems highlighted by Rolling Stone are more about the policy than about a person.

Bartell, who graduated in May, came back to the university after reading the Rolling Stone article. She has collected more than 200 photographs of people writing messages of support to victims of sexual assault at UVA.

In the meantime, the University of Virginia has suspended all fraternities until after the winter break, and President Teresa Sullivan has called on the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate Jackie’s allegations and has pleaded for witnesses to come forward with information.

The university also announced Tuesday that the state attorney general has asked the law firm O’Melveny & Myers to do an investigation of how the school responds to reports of sexual violence, especially in cases where alleged victims choose not to go to the police.

It’s been a rough year for the prestigious university.

Students who talked to CNN said there was already a lot of sadness following the killing of first-year student Hannah Graham.

The Rolling Stone article gave them even more to reflect on. Many students said sexual assault is a problem colleges across the country are dealing with, not just the University of Virginia.

They said that once the initial shock of the piece dissolved, conversations between friends shifted from sadness to a feeling that Greek life and campus culture at the school were unfairly singled out.