CHARLOTTESVILLE — Student leaders at the University of Virginia said they are seeking to foster cultural and institutional changes to combat sexual assault at the state’s flagship campus after allegations of a gang rape at a fraternity surfaced last week.
Campus representatives of student government and sexual assault prevention groups spoke at a news conference Monday about their efforts to unify the student body as the administration seeks to make significant reforms at the elite public university. The news conference came days after a Rolling Stone article detailed the account of a student who said she was gang-raped at the Phi Kappa Psi house during her freshman year in 2012.
Jalen Ross, president of the school’s student council, said that the assaults described in the article “fly in the face of everything we believe in.”
The victim, using an alias for the article, said a member of the fraternity led her to an upstairs room during a party, where she was pinned to the floor and raped by numerous men. The victim later described a tepid response from administration officials whom she contacted after the assault, according to the Rolling Stone account. She did not file a police report about the allegations.
The outrage about the sexual assault allegations roiled the U-Va. campus over the weekend, and on Saturday, U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan announced a freeze on all Greek activities on campus until after the new year.
The allegations also came at a particularly difficult time for the U-Va. community, which is mourning the death of sophomore Hannah Graham, 18, who disappeared Sept. 13. Graham’s body was found in October in a rural part of Albemarle County, and the man arrested in the case has been charged with abduction with intent to defile, an indication that police think he planned to sexually assault the student.
“This semester, too many tragedies have left us wrangling with doubt, anger and fear,” Ross said. “All of us, we’re hurting.”
As the semester winds down — with finals looming shortly after Thanksgiving break — students are expected to hand in term papers, finish group projects and study for exams. Retsy Holliday, a senior foreign affairs major, said those tasks have become more difficult since the school has been put in the national spotlight for such serious matters.
“It all seems so trivial compared to everything that’s gone on,” Holliday said, adding that the sexual assault allegations have seeped into everyday life for students. “Every time you get on social media or you’re walking around Grounds, people are talking about it nonstop. It’s hard to do schoolwork because it’s so distracting.”
Brian Head, president of the all-male sexual assault awareness group One in Four, said the Rolling Stone article has renewed interest in student activism.
“It has opened everyone’s eyes, and it also has opened up everyone’s ears to our message,” Head said. “People feel compelled to act.”
On Monday afternoon, male students gave flowers to young women on campus as a symbol of goodwill. The school’s Greek system, especially its fraternities, continued to take heat: The Phi Kappa Psi house was vandalized late last week and much student ire was directed at Greek culture as an element of the problems at U-Va.
Tommy Reid, president of the school’s Inter-Fraternity Council, said sexual assault is a persistent challenge for the campus. Efforts to prevent sexual assaults will require addressing “deeper attitudinal shifts” across the university, he said.
“The temporary ban [on Greek activities] gives our community time to take a breath” to find a long-term solution, Reid said. “It is not the solution.”
Some activists said the allegations in the Rolling Stone article, while shocking, were not a complete surprise and aren’t unique to Charlottesville. Ashley Brown, president of the on-campus sexual assault awareness group One Less, said the allegations “are realities we must face . . . but it’s not just a U-Va. issue. It’s a pervasive nationwide epidemic.”
Students and teachers have protested across campus. On Saturday night, students organized a rally at the popular Beta Bridge, which has been painted with the message “Take Back the Party End Rape.”
Alex Pinkleton, a junior and sexual assault peer advocate who said she survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years on campus, noted that recent efforts appear heartfelt but that more action is needed.
“We have slogans, but we need concrete plans,” Pinkleton said.
The university’s leadership has mishandled the situation, she said.
“We have been extremely disappointed by the administration and Teresa Sullivan and Dean [Allen] Groves’s response to the article, because not only have they not voiced strong enough concerns over the issue, they haven’t reached out to the advocacy community,” Pinkleton said. “We would like to see the administration take accountability for what they did know instead of talking about what details they didn’t.”
Pinkleton and Head, who were quoted in the Rolling Stone account, said the article did not accurately portray efforts by associate dean Nicole Eramo to guide students through the sexual assault adjudication process at the university. Eramo has served as the administration’s public face of sexual assault awareness and point person for students. On Monday, students distributed a letter of support for Eramo.
“She is doing a fantastic job of supporting survivors,” Head said. “I think she was unfairly scapegoated in the article.”
The woman whose account was featured in the article said in a statement Monday that Eramo has been a lifesaver and that she considers her “above and beyond the best resource the University has.”
“If it were not for her, I do not know if I could be alive today,” the woman identified in the article as “Jackie” said in the statement, released by Sara Surface, a member of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition on campus. “When I came to Dean Eramo in my first year, I was depressed and suicidal. . . . I was barely hanging on. . . . At the time, I was scared and I felt alone and I was in no position to pursue legal or University action. Dean Eramo gave me the power to make my own decisions — something so small that made me feel like I finally had some sense of control in my life.”
Rachel Soltis, a recent U-Va. graduate and a close friend and former roommate of the woman in the Rolling Stone article, criticized the administration’s overall response to the article, saying it has been weak from the start.
“I feel like it happens everywhere, but U-Va. doesn’t talk about it . . . they want to cover it up,” Soltis said. “I don’t think the administration did a fair enough job in her case.”
Soltis said she’s sickened by students who say the victim made up details and only came forward to gain attention.
“One of the biggest problems is that most kids on campus don’t believe that it happened,” Soltis said. “But something like this did happen and will continue to happen.”
Soltis said she thinks fraternity members skate through what she considers a biased system and that the university has played down the issue of sexual assault on campus.
There are many students who have been raped and the university doesn’t do anything about it, Soltis said, adding that her friend came forward “because she wanted to save the next girl and raise awareness about this issue. She doesn’t want her case to be reopened . . . it’s already happened and there’s nothing they can do about it.”