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Editorial: Woeful reality of campus rape must not be ignored

Two recently revealed allegations of rape at Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts suggest it’s not attacks by strangers that women most need to guard against. These two deeply disturbing incidents were reported by women who said their attackers were men they knew. They were assaulted in dorm rooms, not by predators in a dark alley.

When they enroll in college, women become subject to an increased risk of rape. One in four women in college report being victims of rape or attempted rape, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

How can life on campus be made safer? One step is to raise consciousness about the risks. Another is to harshly punish offenders. Yet another is to see rape for what it is: violence that can ruin lives.

UMass authorities Monday announced the arrest of four teenagers from Pittsfield who stand charged with repeatedly raping a UMass student in her dorm room while she went in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, the Amherst College campus is reeling from a first-person account published Oct. 17 in the Amherst Student newspaper by a former student who said she was raped in a dorm room by another student when she was a freshman in May 2011. The woman recounts the psychological fallout after the attack, which included a psychiatric hospitalization a year later.

On the UMass campus, a student reported that she returned home to her dorm room Oct. 13 to find four teenagers, all acquaintances, waiting for her. Though she knew them, she told authorities, she hadn’t invited them.

How they got into her locked dormitory is a matter UMass officials are looking into, but it appears a well-meaning though misguided student let them into the dorm and that when they arrived at the young woman’s unlocked room, they let themselves in.

Officials say the woman permitted the teens, none of whom is a UMass student, to stay in her room, where she, two female friends and the four young men socialized and drank vodka together. After the woman’s friends left, the prosecutor alleges the four teens attacked her, stripped off her clothes and each raped her multiple times. “The victim was crying, and she used the word no,” Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl said at the arraignment. She told the judge that UMass investigators interviewed the four men, who confirmed that the woman had been crying and that she was at times unconscious.

Those teenagers, Emmanuel Bile and Justin King, both 18, and Caleb Womack, 17, each pleaded not guilty to three charges of rape, while Adam Liccardi, 18, pleaded not guilty to four charges of rape.

At their arraignment in Eastern Hampshire District Court Monday, Judge Mary Hurley was so incensed, she refused to set bail at the $2,500 cash recommended jointly by the prosecutor and defense attorneys. Instead, she set bail at $10,000 cash, saying: “Never in my time on the bench have I heard such an egregious recounting of the facts.”

Meanwhile, on the Amherst College campus, soul-searching is under way as officials try to determine whether the college’s response to a student’s report of rape was appropriate. In that case, the student did not immediately report the incident to authorities, in part because, she writes, she could not tolerate having to face her attacker in the same room. Eventually, she left the college, but in the article says she decided to go public because “silence has the rusty taste of shame.”

Amherst President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, meanwhile, had initiated a review of procedures regarding sexual assault allegations when she became president last year and changes were approved that include alternate testimony options and the use of a trained investigator to report to the college disciplinary committee. On top of that, the day after the former student’s story was published, Martin pledged to further reform the college’s practices in cases of reported rapes and sexual assaults. A rally last Friday drew about 100 students, some of whom described a campus culture they said condones sexual harassment and denies the reality of sexual assault.

Many rapes go unreported. Campuses must make it easier for rape victims to report what happened to them without compounding their injuries. That appears to be one of Amherst College’s reforms, and it’s a necessary one.

Meanwhile, as the UMass case unfolds, there may be some who try to spread the blame out. We’re all for ferreting out the truth, but there should be no doubt about this basic truth: Even if she let her alleged attackers stay in her room, even if she didn’t call for help, even if she consumed alcohol, this is not her fault.

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s response was unequivocal: “We will not tolerate this violent behavior.”

It’s vital to call rape what it is — pure violence, nothing less.

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