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Editorial: College faces problem of sexual violence

Amherst College is pressing to make its campus safer for women. An open meeting Tuesday followed last week’s admission by the college that it failed to properly respond to a student’s rape.

Now, the school must be sure not to squander the deserved attention this problem is getting.

President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin admitted last week that Amherst’s response to the student’s rape was “inadequate, even if well-intentioned.” That is blunt and welcome truth-telling. Martin’s commitment to confronting sexual violence sends a clear signal that her college will not ignore this problem. And given how deep the problem of sexual violence runs, at Amherst and elsewhere, Martin will need to stay out front on this.

Students this week heard members of the school’s Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct detail what must be done to better protect students from sexual violence. They got a sense of what steps will be taken — and when — to overhaul a campus culture that has minimized assaults on women and made it hard for victims to speak up and get justice. Some changes are already in place.

We applaud the college for facing up to this issue without too much hand-wringing over its image. The bold steps recommended by an outside expert, Gina M. Smith of Ballard Spahr LLP in Philadelphia, make clear that Amherst College has so far failed to protect its female students, but can improve its performance with the right steps.

Though Martin had begun reviewing her school’s handling of sexual violence last year, it’s unlikely the issue would have gotten such prominence without the courage of Angie Epifano.

Epifano is the former student who chronicled her rape — and the college’s weak response to it — in an article in the Amherst Student newspaper that was read internationally. Her story fueled outrage among students, including some who came forward to describe how they, too, had been treated poorly. Epifano’s account stood up to examination. The college had to respect her story and answer for it.

Smith’s report to the college upheld the accuracy of Epifano’s story, including her view that Amherst did not take her claim seriously and then failed to serve her academic and social needs in the wake of the attack.

Amherst can redeem itself by moving swiftly to implement changes the oversight panel recommends. Chief among them: Expose unhealthy social patterns that contribute to sexual violence and marginalize its victims. Build more diverse ranks of student leaders who can press the college to improve its social climate. Educate all students, especially those just arriving, about the community it wishes to be — one that takes women’s safety and respect seriously and will punish those who violate this expectation.

Setback at Wentworth

An inspired conservation project in Amherst suffered a setback last week. Drenching rain Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 caused flooding at the Wentworth Farm Conservation Area that washed out plantings along a spillway below Owens Pond.

Now, parts of the popular area will not be accessible to visitors, as the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and its contractors work with the town’s Conservation Commission on remedies. The first goal is to stop ongoing erosion.

The project last year did away with an old structure and pipe system at the western edge of the pond — once part of a dairy farm. The alternations were designed to restore more natural water movement in the area and reconnect the pond with the Fort River, ending barriers to fish migration.

WMECO had spent $80,000 on the project in exchange for work it was allowed to do on power transmission lines in wetlands in Leverett and Montague.

Now, work at the conservation area is going to cost a bit more, but the investment is worth it.

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