On November 19, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine dropped a bombshell called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article alleged that a UVA student named Jackie was gang raped at a party by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in 2012, and that the university failed to respond adequately when a traumatized Jackie reported the incident months later.
The story would ultimately prove to be false, a journalistic failure of colossal proportions. But it shone a spotlight on a very real problem. In the days immediately following its publication, a flood of UVA students and alumni shared their own stories of campus sexual assault in the article’s comment section, including experiences of reporting assaults to the university only to have their attackers go unpunished. Many claimed that UVA had a culture of sexual assault, especially at fraternity parties. On Grounds, thousands of students protested against “a culture that puts female students at risk,” as the group Take Back the Night put it. Phi Kappa Psi’s fraternity house was vandalized, and UVA officials temporarily suspended the university’s Greek system.
Under scrutiny, Jackie’s story fell apart, and after a four-month investigation Charlottesville police failed to find any evidence corroborating her claims. Following an independent review by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the article was retracted in April. But though the story was false, it prompted a public reckoning with how the university handles sexual violence. At the time, UVA was already under federal Title IX review by the Office of Civil Rights —a review that ultimately found that the university’s sexual assault and misconduct policies were in violation of federal law.
In the aftermath, the university undertook a wave of reforms, including revamping its policies and investing in additional staff, training, and resources around sexual assault. New student groups sprang up to provide support for survivors and speak out against sexual violence. But almost five years later, in October 2019, the university’s annual safety report revealed that 28 rapes were reported in 2018, with 20 occurring in student housing, the highest number since 2014. There were also 16 reports of dating violence, 14 reports of domestic violence, 43 reports of stalking, and 16 reports of fondling—all much higher than previous years.
Has anything really changed?
Talking about it
Alex Smith-Scales applied to UVA right after the Rolling Stone scandal. Now a 2019 graduate, she believes the climate surrounding sexual assault on Grounds went through an “interesting transformation process” during her four years there.
“I remember coming in and seeing the Green Dot presentation, and hearing about all the sexual assault prevention during our orientation week when we first got to Grounds,” she says. “It made me know [the university was] taking it seriously.”
Smith-Scales was a part of the first graduating class to undergo comprehensive training on sexual assault. Since 2015, all incoming first-year and transfer students have been required to complete online Title IX and alcohol education modules (and all students must take a refresher course every two years), as well as Green Dot (now called Hoos Got Your Back), a bystander intervention program. Beginning in 2016, the university also began requiring sexual misconduct training for graduate students and student employees, and the NCAA requires that all athletic department staff and student athletes receive annual training.
During her first days at UVA, Smith-Scales was also happy to learn about the many student groups against sexual assault, and knew she wanted to get involved. In her second year, she joined Take Back The Night, and later became co-chair. During her fourth year, she served on the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, the umbrella group that helps coordinate advocacy and peer education efforts on Grounds.
UVA officials have pointed to these increased outreach and education efforts, both on the part of administration and students, as the reason behind the rise in sexual assaults reported to the University Police Department, university officials, and other law enforcement.
In addition to the uptick in reported assaults in the university’s safety report, the 2019 Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey, which gathers data on student experiences and perceptions around sexual assault and misconduct, also reported an increase in sexual assaults at UVA, specifically among men, compared to the 2015 survey.
But a rise in reports doesn’t mean a rise in incidents—and in fact, may be a sign that the stigma surrounding sexual assault is lifting.
“What we find with most, if not all, interpersonal crimes, [is that] when you draw attention to it, and you tell people ‘this is not okay,’ then people who have experienced it start to feel more comfortable coming forward,” says Abby Palko, director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at UVA.
According to Sheri Owen, community outreach director at the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, the #MeToo movement could be another reason more students are reporting sexual assaults.
“In the last two and a half years, there’s just really been an explosion of support around survivors. Survivors are feeling like they are being heard and that people are listening to them,” she says.
Palko believes the movement has had a rather “complicated impact,” as there have been some people not held responsible for their crimes, “reinforcing an old message of, ‘No one’s going to believe you.’”
However, she agrees that it has brought the conversation of sexual assault to the national forefront, encouraging more survivors to come forward.
“It has people who before weren’t talking about it, talking about it, and that can help make it feel safer for survivors to share their experiences,” she says. “There have been some high-profile examples of people being held accountable afterwards; that also makes it feel safer.”
A new approach
Perhaps the biggest change is the way the university has remade its Title IX process.
Title IX is the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination; in the 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled that it can be used to require schools to respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence against students.
In 2011, the Department of Education issued what is now known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, declaring that colleges and universities receiving federal funding had responsibilities under Title IX to ensure the safety of all students from sexual assault, particularly female students.
Soon afterward, the Office of Civil Rights opened what would become a years-long compliance review of UVA’s Title IX policies, along with those of dozens of other colleges.
Meanwhile, beginning in 2014, the university performed its own comprehensive evaluation of its existing Title IX policies and practices.
In spring 2015, it developed a new interim policy for handling sexual violence complaints and made it available for public comment. After receiving more than 600 comments from members of the UVA community, the university revised and implemented the interim policy, effective July 1, 2015, with approval from OCR that it fully complied with Title IX.
The OCR’s investigation finally came to an end in September 2015, finding that the university’s previous sexual assault and sexual misconduct policies “did not provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee complaints,” and were in violation of Title IX. It determined that “a basis for a hostile environment existed for affected students” and that “the university failed to eliminate a hostile environment and take steps to prevent its recurrence,” specifically from 2008 to 2014. The investigation also concluded that, from 2008 to 2012, the Title IX coordinator did not adequately oversee and coordinate all Title IX complaints.
After an intense set of negotiations, UVA agreed, among other things, to continue to follow its new Title IX policies, provide training to students and employees, improve outreach to students, and develop a system for tracking reports and investigations of sexual misconduct. It also committed to reviewing reports from 2011-2014 to determine whether they were appropriately addressed, and allowed the OCR to review and monitor its response to reports during the 2015-16 academic year.
To better address Title IX reports, in 2015 the university hired a full-time Title IX coordinator, “who participates in the initial evaluation [of reports] and now takes the lead regarding any informal or formal resolutions of Title IX reports,” says university spokesman Brian Coy.
The same year, the university also hired an associate vice president to lead the Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights office. Since then, EOCR has grown to have seven full-time Title IX staff, including four full-time investigators.
Back in 2014, then-associate dean Nicole Eramo was one of three deputy Title IX coordinators, and as head of the Sexual Misconduct Board she was heavily featured in the Rolling Stone piece, which presented her as being more concerned about the university’s reputation than Jackie’s alleged assault. (Eramo sued the magazine for defamation, and won.) Reflecting back on her experience in a recent Facebook post, Eramo wrote: “The job as it was structured was impossible—a perspective that I believe is well supported by the fact that 7 full-time staff members and a host of others do now what was, on paper, only 50% of my job at the time.”
More money, more resources
In addition to beefing up its staff and training, UVA has given increased funding and support to organizations that assist sexual assault survivors on Grounds.
Over the past five years, Counseling & Psychological Services has nearly doubled its staff, which includes licensed social workers, counselors, psychologists, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists.
“CAPS staff are trained in a variety of interventions, including evidence-based trauma therapies, and are a confidential resource for students seeking support following sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence,” says Coy.
The Women’s Center has also received more funding and support from the university. Since 2015, it has created four new counseling positions, including two trauma counselors, a case manager, and a resident in counseling with special expertise and experience in the role of cultural, racial, gender, and sexual identity in mental health.
The center’s counselors provide trauma-informed treatment for students of all genders (not just women), while its confidential advocate “works with students who are going through the Title IX process, if they need that type of support,” says Palko, helping them with paperwork, connecting them with resources, and accompanying them to hearings.
All of the center’s counselors (with only a few exceptions) are confidential employees, meaning they are not required to share information about students or their experiences with the university’s Title IX office.
Women’s Center interns help run educational events like the survivor support network trainings, which explain the neurobiology of trauma and “help people understand what someone who has been assaulted is going through and how they can provide support to them,” says Palko.
Outside of the university, Charlottesville’s Sexual Assault Resource Agency also offers support.
Whenever a student reports a sexual assault at UVA’s Student Health center, staff calls an advocate from SARA, who provides emotional support during the physical evidence recovery kit exam, and can assist victims with follow-up medical and counseling appointments and any subsequent criminal process. Victims who choose to have that exam do not have to make a report to the police, the university, or any other agency, and evidence will not be submitted without their written consent.
“Our advocacy coordinator also works very closely with Title IX and sits with students during any type of Title IX interviews,” says Owen. “And our outreach team regularly goes and talks with fraternities and sororities…[and] trains all of the Madison House helpline volunteers.”
A change in (rape) culture?
But have all of these changes made an actual impact on what students have called UVA’s “rape culture?” What is the atmosphere surrounding sexual assault on Grounds like today?
From the conversations she has had post-graduation with UVA’s Program Coordinator for Prevention Rachel Kiliany, Smith-Scales believes that “things are on the right track.” Just this year, One Less, a female and gender nonconforming sexual assault peer education group, and One in Four, an all-male identified group, came together to create CORE (Culture of Respected Educators), a gender-inclusive sexual violence advocacy group, which Smith-Scales thinks is “a huge step in the right direction.”
“It’s really helpful to make it more of an accessible space to people who don’t fit into the gender binary, or who maybe just don’t want to be in a single gender space,” she says.
However, during her time with Take Back The Night, she struggled to diversify the conversation around sexual assault and to reach marginalized communities with the group’s events.
“There is definitely a culture and a stereotype of it just being for people who are members of white traditional Greek life,” she says.
Smith-Scales also saw an overall decrease in participation in sexual assault advocacy. By the time she became TBTN co-chair, “the people that were getting involved were people that came having a desire to fight sexual assault,” not people with a newfound interest in the cause.
“Outreach just became really difficult. I think one of the reasons was because the environment and the culture got oversaturated with causes to care about. I feel like the first one was President Trump being elected to office…and then the second one being August 11th and 12th,” she says. “That really changed…where people put their justice efforts at UVA.”
During the rise of the #MeToo movement, Smith-Scales believes there was an increase in attention on sexual assault on Grounds. However, she does not think it gained much momentum.
“Rolling Stone was so easy to unify on because it was directly affecting our community,” she says. “With #MeToo the conversations became a little bit more nuanced. They weren’t just about college students.”
She ultimately feels “like the university on their end, and also the university students…really just shifted their focus onto different things,” she says. “It was really disheartening to see that the passion wasn’t as present as when the Rolling Stone situation came about.”
In the 2019 campus climate survey, 38 percent of female respondents and 20 percent of male respondents said sexual assault and misconduct was “very” or “extremely” problematic—a significant percentage, but lower than in 2015, when those numbers were 49 percent for women and 28 percent for men.
Angela (not her real name), a fourth-year student, is one who believes that the culture surrounding sexual assault is “still a really big problem” at UVA.
“A lot of cases are still not dealt with properly,” she says. “It’s hard for survivors to come out and actually talk about things because…of the confidential/non-confidential employee [policy],” which requires all responsible employees (including professors and resident advisors) to report prohibited conduct to the university’s Title IX coordinator.
“As a survivor, I have friends who are RAs, and I can’t even talk to them about my experience because then they’d have to report it,” she says. “That’s just kind of messed up.”
And like Smith-Scales, she feels that “the Grounds-wide conversation has kind of dwindled since Rolling Stone.”
“When it’s talked about, it’s among groups that are actively trying to bring up the issue,” says another fourth-year student. “It’s not really with the general population.”
Room for improvement
Ultimately, while the university has made a lot of positive changes, students say there is still more work to be done.
Smith-Scales wishes that the university would put more momentum behind the conversations surrounding sexual assault, as well as hire more staff to assist Kiliany.
Kiliany “is incredible at her job, but she is the only prevention coordinator when other universities have dedicated teams to causes like this,” says Smith-Scales.
Others hope the university will improve its initiatives and resources for sexual assault, becoming more proactive than reactive.
“The university needs to do more than just run those programs when you’re a first-year, and the review you get when you’re a third-year,” says Angela. It also pushes “a lot of students into CAPS,” when “CAPS doesn’t have the capacity to serve all students.”
Though fraternities are not the only perpetrators of sexual assault, Rebecca (not her real name) believes the university’s frat culture is still a “big contributer” to the problem, and that administration needs to do a better job of reprimanding Greek organizations.
“There’s a lot of things that go on within those organizations that remain unchecked,” she says. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of big donors to the school that may be former members of a fraternity or a sorority. The university knows if they hand down a really harsh punishment to these groups, they’re not going to receive funding.”
“Check a basement of any frat on Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll see some questionable stuff,” she adds.
And, as students like Angela have pointed out, the university’s mandatory reporting policy needs improvement, says SARA’s Owens. She says students can be afraid to report or talk about sexual assault because of uncertainty over who is a mandatory reporter and who isn’t. “I think all intentions were good, but in some instances…[it’s] turned out to not be as good as we had hoped.”
Meanwhile, federal guidance on Title IX policies may be changing under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Pulling back from the Obama administration’s efforts to increase protections for victims, the proposed guidelines would add new requirements designed to protect the rights of students accused of sexual assault, including the ability to cross-examine accusers. They would also narrow the definition of sexual harassment and restrict administrators to investigating only certain incidents, as well as allow universities to set their own standards of evidence for finding an accused student guilty of assault.
In 2016, UVA came under a federal Title IX investigation that was sparked by an individual complaint from a former male student who claimed that he was discriminated against in the investigation process based on his gender and disability, according to a UVA spokesperson at the time. Coy declined to comment on the specifics of that case or another investigation opened in February 2018, both of which are still active.
Once the new regulations are made official, UVA will determine if any changes to its Title IX policy and procedures are necessary.
Smith-Scales believes the changes could make universities less accountable, putting an increased burden back on students to demand justice for victims.
“It also sends a message from our government that they don’t care and that the sexual assault and harassment isn’t something we will prioritize,” she says. “That message in itself will lead to losses.”
Updated 12/5 to correct the number of staff positions added to the Women’s Center at UVA