Gags off: Students speak out on rape

Less than a week after UVA fourth year Annie Hylton revealed the details of her alleged first-year rape in a Hook cover story, hundreds of students gather in front of Garrett Hall to protest– without words– what they call UVA's "code of silence."

"Look at them," says Hylton, standing in front of the line of more than 400 students stretching from the Lawn around the Amphitheater to the Colonnades. Many at the November 17 are wearing symbolic pink or red gags.

"It's just amazing," she says, shaking her head at the outpouring of support.

Though many of the students acknowledge they've been inspired by Hylton's personal story– including her decision to file a civil suit against her alleged attacker, Matthew Hamilton– it is the greater sense that UVA has routinely "turned its back" on victims of on-campus sexual assault that has driven many of the students to gather at midday on a fall Wednesday.

As revealed in the November 11 Hook cover story, it's possible for an attacker to be found guilty by the school's Sexual Assault Board and yet remain enrolled while the victim is officially forbidden to talk about the case.

"I think it's imperative the school do something about how they've been handling the situation," says third-year participant Lauren Tozzi. The administration, she adds, needs "to address it, not ignore it."

Evidence of the problem, Hylton says, is that in the past five years, no one found guilty of sexual assault has been expelled or suspended, even though administration sources put guilty verdicts at 50 percent. By contrast, in that same five-year period, more than 50 students have been expelled for Honor Code violations– lying, cheating, or stealing.

An outraged third year named Vicki Long, a member of the student organization Sexual Assault Facts and Education (SAFE), emailed a few friends on Saturday, November 13, to organize a protest. The effort quickly snowballed with approximately 40 students gathering the next day in a classroom to plan the event.

Dean of Students Penny Rue and Associate Dean of Students Shamim Sisson, who chairs the Sexual Assault Board, stand together observing the scene.

Sisson says she's pleased to see students take an interest in "this important issue," but she insists the school has not been portrayed fairly in press accounts.

"UVA does not turn its back on rape," says Sisson, citing numerous organizations– including Sexual Assault Peer Advocacy, Sexual Assault Facts and Education, the sexual assault office at the UVA Women's Center, and the Sexual Assault Board– that are available to victims.

UVA's sexual assault procedures, she says, have existed for more than 20 years. "That's longer than most institutions have had such policies in place," she says.

Sisson also suggests that federal laws create a fine line for the school to walk. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires that a student's educational records be kept confidential, while the Clery Act requires reporting all crime, including sexual assault.

The Clery Act also requires that schools release the dates and outcomes of any Sexual Assault Board hearings upon request. Sisson says the school will now voluntarily release that information, and that UVA's sexual assault policies are being thoroughly reviewed.

"It's an area," she says, "that we've all had a lot to learn about."

Rue declined the Hook's request for comment.

While Hylton says she believes both Sisson and Rue support sexual assault survivors on a "personal level," she does not believe they have shown that support administratively.

Susan Russell, who launched the website last spring after her daughter was allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow student, agrees with Hylton. And she's upset that UVA administration seems to respond more forcefully to racial epithets than for sexual assaults.

Russell says she asked UVA Vice President Patricia Lampkin to issue a formal apology to victims of assault, as the school did in September to an African-American Lawn resident, Amey Adkins, who found a racial epithet scrawled on her car.

Lampkin turned down her request, says Russell.

Though Lampkin would not comment on specific cases, she points out that in the past week the university has issued two formal responses to the controversy.

A statement from UVA President John Casteen vows that the school "will not tolerate acts of violence against students." Casteen also seems willing to elevate the penalties for sexual assault.

"I am prepared," Casteen writes, "to consider the merits of mandatory expulsion as a single sanction."

Lampkin's office also released a four-page "community statement" defending the school's current sexual assault policies and setting January 31 as a deadline for improving them.

She says UVA's proposed plans include increasing training for Sexual Assault Board members and revising procedures for investigations, hearings, and punishment based on student suggestions.

Russell is hopeful that the new policies will help future victims of sexual assault, but she says a change in the administration's attitude is just as important.

"They're playing with lives," she says, "not just with administrative procedure."

More than 400 students turned out to protest.

Annie Hylton, who went public with her story of sexual assault and the university's response, attended the protest.

Dean Shamim Sisson says she's "delighted" that the
Hook 's article "enabled so many students to become involved in this important issue."

Jill Raney and others at the November 17 gathering donned symbolic gags to protest UVA's "code of silence."