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Reporting College Rapes: How Campuses Address Abuse

02/20/2013 10:38 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

This fall, HuffPost reconnected with Angie Epifano, a 22-year-old rape survivor who dropped out of Amherst College, an elite school that she claims ignored her report and protected her rapist instead. Months earlier, she sought to improve the support for victims of sexual assault on the Amherst College campus, believing that she hadn't done enough.

So Epifano wrote about the incident in her personal journal and submitted a version of the entry to the student newspaper "to prove to myself I wasn't crazy, that everything had happened," she said. The essay was quickly shared with readers across the country, and Epifano said she was overwhelmed by the response she received.

While Epifano sought to translate her trauma into catharsis, few are afforded the same chance, and even fewer receive justice. In July 2012, fellow Amherst College student Trey Malone jumped from a bridge near his hometown in southern Florida. His suicide note characterized -- to more than a million eventual readers -- a bright student estranged from his own life following a single instance of abuse.

In the note he left behind, Malone put a face to an abstract, complicated problem:

Every two minutes there is another victim. Ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. One in every six woman in the U.S. has been a victim of rape and one-in-33 men. Despite this, every awful myth about rape persists ... Sexual crime is viewed as inconsequential unless the fabled "dark alley with a gun" assault occurs and even then, women face the eternal, "why were you there? What were you wearing?" badgering.

By their own accounts, Epifano and Malone were raped within a year of each other at a college of fewer than 3,000, and both criticized how they were treated by the school. They appear to have been caught up in a flaw within the broader system of higher education. How college campuses respond to allegations of rape can differ depending on the department to which campus security reports and the priorities of that department's administrator.

Amherst College has promised to change its policies with student and community input. Amherst President Biddy Martin said the college was presented an opportunity to tackle an important issue.

At the University of North Carolina, 64 students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against a university they claim violated their rights as sexual assault survivors. They say that UNC often ignores claims and protects alleged rapists while victimizing students and disenfranchising assault survivor advocates.

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, however, said he is committed to taking action. "The plan is to eradicate sexual misconduct on our campus and to respond in an effective and fair way when, sadly, it does happen," he told students in an open letter in response to the complaint.

Similar accusations of institutional obstruction have been made at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Montana and other schools.

Notre Dame has defended its actions; and as the Department of Justice probes the school and Missoula County law enforcement, the county prosecutor has denied wrongdoing.

Speaking to Inside Higher Education last week, Anita Levy, the American Association of University Professors' associate secretary of academic freedom, said, "Unlike sexual harassment, which may not cross over into the realm of law enforcement, sexual assault straddles the boundary between university and local police, making it much more complicated and not as easy to provide recommendations the way that we do for other procedures on campus.

"'Gray area' may be a charitable way of putting it," she added.

For these reasons, HuffPost College has partnered with the Steve Fox's investigative journalism class at the University of Massachusetts to report on open claims of sexual violence on colleges and universities, and how the institutions are responding to them. The goal of this series and the class is not to sensationalize the issue, but to enable student reporters, who are trying to get beneath the surface, to provide colleges with a collection of best practices.

Please submit tips to college@huffingtonpost.com.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.