For UVA victims who went public years ago, new uproar is déjà vu

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Annie McLaughlin (not pictured) and Liz Seccuro went public with their stories of being raped at UVA years before the recent publicity brought fresh scrutiny of the school. File photo. Annie McLaughlin (not pictured) and Liz Seccuro went public with their stories of being raped at UVA years before the recent publicity brought fresh scrutiny of the school. File photo.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage in the wake of the Rolling Stone story on rape at UVA. There’s more: An in-depth look at the University’s sexual assault policy, a Q&A with Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas on her reaction to the story, responses from the Rolling Stone reporter and women she interviewed, a look at an alumna’s success raising money for a victims’ defense fund, and information on victims coming forward from a Charlottesville prosecutor. 

For at least two women who were sexually assaulted at UVA, the account in Rolling Stone of a student’s brutal assault in a fraternity house and her devastation in the aftermath is hauntingly familiar.

In November 2004, Annie McLaughlin, who then went by her maiden name, Hylton, did what few women at UVA or anywhere else had done: She went public with her story. In The Hook newspaper, under the headline “How UVA Turns Its Back on Rape,” McLaughlin used her real name and offered a blistering account of her assault in the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house and the school’s failure to take any action against her accused assailant, even after the Sexual Assault Board found him guilty. Then, as now, students protested and administrators promised change to outraged alumni and faculty, and yet, as recent stories attest, despite rewritten policies and increased focus on sexual assault prevention, violence against women at the school has continued.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said McLaughlin, now 31 and a married mother of two living in Maryland. “From what I’ve been able to tell online, there was a student protest. There was a student protest 10 years ago too. What is changing? What is going to change? Clearly this is still continuing to happen, and Jackie is clearly not the only person that this has happened to.”

Liz Seccuro, too, is horrified that years after her own 1984 assault at the school came to light, another woman is reporting being gang raped in Phi Kappa Psi, the same fraternity house where Seccuro was attacked. Seccuro’s case drew the national spotlight after her assailant wrote her a letter of apology, which authorities used as evidence to get a conviction against him in 2007, more than 22 years after the crime. Since that time, Seccuro, a 1988 UVA grad, has become an activist who has regularly and publicly prodded UVA to improve its approach to sexual assault.

“I don’t understand that along with tradition, excellence, beauty and honor, there can’t be common sense,” she said, days after the Rolling Stone article was posted online. “I don’t understand how something with a beautiful shell can have such a rotten core, that something so evil is lurking there.”

Both McLaughlin and Seccuro hope that the current uproar is large enough—and lasts long enough—to bring about the kind of change they’ve been demanding for years, and they believe that change must happen from the highest level of the administration down to the student body. Both women say one of the most troubling aspects of the Rolling Stone story was Jackie’s description of her friends’ response to her rape: They encouraged her to keep it quiet to avoid drawing negative attention.

“That to me is very upsetting,” said McLaughlin, who eventually sued her assailant and was awarded $150,000. “I always had every single teammate and friend support me. I’d have thought that in 10 years we would have come even further.”

Although both agree there is a significant problem at some fraternities, neither woman believes shutting down the Greek system entirely is the answer. Both were members of sororities, and Seccuro has married twice, both times to UVA fraternity members.  Painting all fraternity men with the same broad brush, they say, is unfair.

“I had friends who were in frats who were members of One in Four,” said McLaughlin, referring to the campus men’s group that works to prevent violence against women.  “I think the problem goes beyond fraternities,” she said, mentioning athletic teams as another all-male group setting in which sexual assault happens and may be overlooked or even encouraged.

“I don’t think the answer is getting rid of frats across the board,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily help other universities figure out how to help stop sexual assault.”

Hylton believes administrators, and particularly UVA deans who have heard victims’ stories for years, hold a key to changing the culture by using the particular details of women’s accounts to create targeted action plans that might include, among other things, greater oversight or a change in rules regarding fraternity parties.

“They are hearing these women come and say ‘I was raped in a fraternity,’” she said. “Why then, did UVA not do something very specific about the details? I’m sure they know about other details that they haven’t had to report where they could also focus attention.”

Hylton and Seccuro also say there must be stronger support for victims, and they empathize with Jackie, whose case is now under investigation and continues to be the focus of intense media scrutiny.

“No one trains survivors how to work with the media,” said Seccuro. “I feel for her.”

“She should be very proud of herself,” adds McLaughlin, who said that despite the anxiety the revival of her own story brings, she does not regret going public a decade ago, and she hopes other women will follow her own and now Jackie’s lead.

“Hopefully this will bring national attention both to UVA and the larger issue of sexual assault that is desperately needed,” she said.