I opened up my Facebook newsfeed last Thursday morning and found that an article about my alma mater, Amherst College, had been shared overnight an astounding 57 times. Two hours later, the article had been shared another 20 times. Three hours later, 40 more. As a recent Amherst graduate, I was stunned by the story, which has been featured on well-known blogs like Jezebel and the Huffington Post.
On October 17, the student newspaper published a story about former Amherst student Angie Epifano, who described a harrowing experience of being raped in a campus dorm room on May 25, 2011, and what she says was the administration’s mishandling of her attempts to heal. The article has sparked a national dialogue on colleges’ sexual assault and harassment policies just weeks after a sexual assault Title IX lawsuit was filed at Wesleyan University and the report of a misogynistic T-shirt incident at Amherst.
Shortly after the article went viral, a friend invited me to a Facebook group created by alumni to begin a conversation on what the Amherst community can do in addition to sharing the article. Browsing the online group, I came across some of the most touching stories and insightful comments by students I used to sit next to in class and in the dining hall who revealed that they too are survivors. They, like Epifano, say they were hurt at Amherst and did not feel they received the help they needed. They too courageously spoke out about the administration’s reported push for struggling survivors to take time off while their attackers continued their educations without interruption, of the difficulty of disciplinary hearings, and of how easy it is to feel ashamed and alone on such a small campus. As I read these stories, I heard the suffocating silence shatter as students came forward with their unhappiness at a school that has improved the lives of many but may have paralyzed many others.
When I went to click the Facebook “share” button to repost Epifano’s story on my timeline, I paused. I thought of what change sharing one person’s story could really make and quickly realized that it is the collective duty of the community to draw attention to this issue. Change begins with awareness, and social media empowers us all.
Now, my friends are sharing the story from my page. Though uncomfortable, this story must be told because too many like it go unheard. Clicking a button leads to talking about the issue, which leads to doing something about it.
I challenge you to help end dating violence and sexual assault in your community and across the United States. Use the resources out there, educate yourself and your peers, and wield AAUW’s Campus Sexual Assault Program in a Box to improve safety on your campus. Get to know your campus Title IX coordinator. If you don’t have one, ask your administration why, and report it. Advocate to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized — a Senate-passed version includes increased campus protections from the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act.
I stand by my alma mater’s efforts to right its wrongs. Soon after Epifano’s story broke, Amherst President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin and the college trustees released statements promising to enact stricter and more transparent college policies regarding sexual assault. Administrators then set up a website about sexual respect and Title IX so that students could access the school’s policies and understand campus support for the issue. The website also displays a checklist of the college’s planned and completed actionable steps, such as identifying campus space for a gender resource center, hiring an external consultant to review Title IX policies, and investigation into Epifano’s story. Ending sexual assault and gender-based violence is an important fight for our generation, and the ideas we share on Listservs, through social media, and in conversations with our friends and loved ones will move us forward.
This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Amanda Villarreal.