As more questions emerge about Rolling Stone magazine’s deep look at sexual assault at the University of Virginia (UVA), it’s important to remember that the article still highlighted a serious problem at UVA.
Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s feature has faced serious criticism because she never interviewed the supposed rapists. Instead, she relied on a UVA student named Jackie’s personal account of an alleged fraternity gang-rape — details of which are now being disputed
Even so, Jackie’s friends have confirmed that she likely had some kind of traumatic experience during her freshman year at UVA. In outside interviews over the past few days to a number of news outlets, several of Jackie’s friends and former suitemates have described signs of a deep depression and a distinct personality change during her first semester on campus.
Questions of Jackie’s story aside, there’s still ample evidence that UVA had enough struggles with their response to student sexual assaults to warrant an investigative feature.
Erdely notes that UVA is among the more than 80 schools under investigation by the Department of Education for how they handle sexual assault reports. However, UVA “has more reason to worry than most of its peers,” according to Erdely:
Because, unlike most schools under scrutiny, where complaints are at issue, UVA is one of only 12 schools under a sweeping investigation known as “compliance review”: a proactive probe launched by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights itself, triggered by concerns about deep-rooted issues. “They are targeted efforts to go after very serious concerns,” says Office of Civil Rights assistant secretary Catherine Lhamon. “We don’t open compliance reviews unless we have something that we think merits it.”
Later in the Rolling Stone article, UVA’s dean of students calls the OCR investigation a “routine compliance review” — a description that is a “deliberate and irresponsible” mischaracterization, according to Lhamon.
While there’s no way of knowing what specific “deep-rooted issues” OCR cited in its decision to investigate UVA, there are certain facts in Erdely’s Rolling Stone feature — which come from the university itself, and have not been challenged — that stand out as disturbing.
According to the Rolling Stone feature, 38 UVA students reached out to Dean Nicole Eramo, head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, about an alleged sexual assault last year. But only nine of these incidents led to official complaints — the rest “evaporated” — and only four resulted in Sexual Misconduct Board hearings, Erdely reports.
UVA did not disclose the outcomes of these hearings to Rolling Stone, citing student privacy concerns. In her story, Erdely noted that she had a difficult time getting even these limited statistics on sexual assaults at the school.
Additionally, Erdely reports the seemingly odd contrasting statistics of honour-code violations and sexual assault cases. While 183 UVA students have been expelled under the honour-code since 1998 — for violations such as cheating on exams, Erdely writes — the university does not expell students for rape, according to various news outlets.
UVA student media organisation WUVA spoke to Eramo in October, before the publication of the Rolling Stone feature, asking her about the school’s sexual assault policies. Eramo’s response to why the school doesn’t expel students even if they admit to rape was highlighted by BuzzFeed last month. Here’s what she said:
I feel like, in the context of an informal resolution meeting, there’s really no advantage to admitting guilt, there’s no need to admit guilt, they’re not actually in a hearing proceeding, and I feel like if a person is willing to come forward in that setting, and admit that they violated the policy when there’s absolutely no advantage to do so, that those do deserve some consideration …
I do feel like that person, admitting [guilt] in that context, shows a recognition that what they have done is wrong and a willingness to improve in a way that going through a hearing and sitting there the entire time and saying, “I didn’t do anything,” doesn’t.
As the mother of one UVA student sexual assault victim told Erdely, “In what world do you get kicked out for cheating, but if you rape someone, you can stay?”
It’s also worth noting that several of Jackie’s freshman year suitemates have confirmed that their friend likely suffered some sort of assault during her first semester.
Erdely spoke with one suitemate, Rachel Soltis, who said that about midway through the semester, Jackie’s demeanor significantly changed. “At the beginning of the year, she seemed like a normal, happy girl, always with friends. Then her door was closed all the time,” Soltis said.
Another suitemate — Emily Clark — echoed this in a letter published Monday in UVA student newspaper The Cavalier Daily. “I believe wholeheartedly that [Jackie] went through a traumatizing sexual assault … She was kind, funny, outgoing, friendly, and a pleasant person to be around. That all notably changed by December 2012, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed,” Clark writes.
Both Soltis and Clark said that Jackie would stay in bed all day, too depressed to even turn off her alarm.
A third, anonymous, suitemate described a similar situation in an email to Slate reporter Hanna Rosin, and also said that Jackie accidentally revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by a number of men.
“I remember her letting it slip to me that she had had a terrible experience at a party. I remember her telling me that multiple men had assaulted her at this party,” according to the suitemate, who also, Rosin writes, “reiterated that Jackie went from ‘friendly’ and ‘outgoing’ to morose and inert.”
UVA president Teresa Sullivan released the following statement Friday, after news of the discrepancies in Rolling Stone’s original article came out:
The University remains first and foremost concerned with the care and support of our students and, especially, any survivor of sexual assault. Our students, their safety, and their wellbeing, remain our top priority.
Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus.
We will continue to take a hard look at our practices, policies and procedures, and continue to dedicate ourselves to becoming a model institution in our educational programming, in the character of our student culture, and in our care for those who are victims.
We are a learning community, and we will continue our community-wide discussions and actions on these important issues in the weeks and months ahead. We remain committed to taking action as necessary to bring about meaningful cultural change in our University community.
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