UVA community reacts with shock and fury over Rolling Stone story on campus rape

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Hundreds attended a rally called in support of sexual assault victims at the UVA Amphitheater Thursday. Staff photo Hundreds attended a rally called in support of sexual assault victims at the UVA Amphitheater Thursday. Staff photo

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the impact of Rolling Stone’s story on rape at UVA. Pick up the paper on Wednesday, November 26 for a more in-depth look, including interviews with the story’s author and students involved in the reporting.

It’s been 48 hours since the publication of Rolling Stone’s scathing and graphic report alleging a culture of covering up student-on-student rape at UVA, and the fallout has begun.

University officials have issued three separate statements underscoring the school’s commitment to combatting sexual assault. Charlottesville police announced they were investigating the previously unreported 2012 gang rape detailed in the story, and looking into recent vandalism at Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity house where it allegedly happened. The governor, who said he was “deeply disturbed” by the story, called on UVA to conduct a full review of its policies and procedures. (Initially, federal judge Mark Filip was tapped to lead the independent review, but Attorney General Mark Herring announced today he would be asking someone else, as Filip was a member of Phi Psi.)

And then, shortly after a hastily organized rally of students and faculty yesterday afternoon, a letter posted to the Cavalier Daily website announced that UVA’s Phi Psi chapter was voluntarily surrendering its fraternal organization agreement with the University.

Within the UVA community, reactions have been a mix of horror, anger and indignation.

“I’m furious,” said Annie Plotkin, a third-year who showed up as yesterday’s afternoon rally at the UVA Amphitheater, which attracted hundreds, was breaking up. She had missed the speeches from faculty and students about the need for a culture change and policy reform, but like many of her peers, she had plenty to say.

“This has been going on for so long,” she said. “If this is a thing we know, if it’s a public secret that fraternities are a hotbed of sexual assault—that’s not O.K. That’s absolutely not O.K.”

Like others who have spoken up in the wake of the story—in local news reports, on social media, at the rally—she wasn’t sure what should happen next, or where people should direct their anger over the report’s depiction of an administration that failed to prevent rape on Grounds and didn’t do enough to exact justice for those reporting sexual assault.

“None of it should be happening, but the reality is that we’re not going to stop it from one day to the next,” Plotkin said. “It’s the whole culture that is a problem. But talking about what would be done differently, that’s really tough.”

Muskan Mumtaz, a third-year who helped organize the rally along with other members of UVA’s Middle Eastern Islamic Student Association, said she hoped the gathering would offer students a chance to do exactly that.

“When I was interning for Senator Warner this summer, I sat in on a Senate hearing about sexual assault on campuses, and I was absolutely shocked at the statistics I was hearing,” she said. “I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.”

But she felt like those statistics—including the fact that one in five women who attend four years of college in the U.S. will be the victim of a sexual assault during that time—weren’t generating the kind of reaction they demanded at her school

“After this article came out, I felt like something I already knew had been put in the spotlight,” she said. “I wanted to use this moment of media attention and public attention to open up this discourse, to talk about what we can do as a community, what we can do as a school, what we can do as an administration, to alleviate not only this social ill, but also this administrative gap.”

There was anger and frustration, too, over what many saw as the story’s inaccurate portrayal of their school as a place where students “brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture,” and where social status is valued more than justice for victims. That rankled, said Plotkin.

“There are lots of subcultures at UVA,” she said. “There are four different organizations working against sexual assault.”

Fourth-year James Perla said he worried that what he saw as generalizations and inaccuracies in the piece about the culture of the school* would be fuel for arguments against reform.

“A few people who have responded deflected the issue because of that portrayal,” he said. Those who would try to undermine efforts to hold students and the administration accountable can point to the unfairness of the piece, “and that sort of invalidates the authenticity of the reporting and the information,” he said. “It deflects attention from people understanding what’s at stake.”

The publication of the story coincided with the start of a public comment period on UVA’s newly updated sexual misconduct policy, and officials are encouraging members of the University community to read the rule changes and weigh in. It also came toward the end of what was already a difficult semester for UVA, which has dealt with the abduction and murder of a second-year student and now, as of yesterday afternoon, two student suicides.

“The constellation of these events would be enough to put the strongest of communities into crisis,” Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin said in a statement released Friday. “But know that we will cope, and together we will heal.”

She and President Teresa Sullivan underscored the University’s commitment to combating sexual assault and supporting victims.

“We will continue, as we always have, to encourage survivors to go to the police, to pursue the University’s disciplinary process, and most of all, to take advantage of the many support services available at UVA and in the community,” Lampkin said.

Some don’t think that’s nearly enough. Lisa Richey graduated from UVA in 2003 and still lives in Charlottesville. Shortly after the Rolling Stone story hit the Web, she created a Facebook page, “UVrApe Alumni Defense Fund,” to generate support for a system of outside counsel that would allow sexual assault victims to turn to a neutral party for advice. Her crowdrise.com site had raised more than $14,000 by Friday morning. She said UVA Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas had given $5,000.

It’s on the alumni to do something to force change, said Richey, because the story painted a picture of a school more concerned about its reputation than its students. That puts power in the hands of people who the school fears will be so upset by a damaged reputation that they won’t give, she said.

“It’s our university that failed the students,” Richey said. “We can’t unrape anybody. We can’t fix the culture necessarily. We’re not there. But we can set something up to right the wrong that the administration did. It’s our donations that pay those paychecks.”

*Language in this sentence was adjusted to clarify attribution.