Boston — A host of incidents across America involving sexual attacks on female students is forcing colleges and universities to face the problem of gang rape. Three men accused of raping a female student after a fraternity party at the University of New Hampshire last spring are scheduled to go on trial Oct. 5.
The Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Association of American Colleges has documented 75 gang rapes on campus in the last three years.
The incidents occurred at institutions that were small and large private, public, religiously affiliated, and Ivy League.
``It's an increasingly serious social problem,'' says Claire Walsh, director of the Sexual Assault Recovery Service at the University of Florida.
``The number of incidents is growing, just as the number of violent acts in the culture is increasing,'' she says.
Until recently, not much was heard about the problem. But victims are speaking up more. And when a charge of gang rape becomes public, it ``polarizes the campus,'' says Bernice Sandler, director the Project of the Status and Education of Women.
The campus of the University of New Hampshire was shaken by demonstrations after the school's judicial board cleared the men of violating rules against sexual assault. (Two were suspended for a quarter on lesser charges).
Faced with this kind of campus turmoil, not to mention legal problems, universities are starting to face up to the problem.
Some senior campus officials have taken firm, public stands against rape. After a student at the University of California, Berkeley reported last fall that she was raped by four members of the football team, university chancellor Ira Michael Heyman sent a letter to all members of the student body warning that ``strong disciplinary action'' would be taken against anyone found to have violated the university's regulations prohibiting sexual assault.
The University of New Hampshire held its first convocation in 14 years to communicate specific steps it was taking to tackle the problem.
``We will not tolerate such actions by members of this community against one another, and it is essential that we change our attitudes and behavior and alter our rules and laws accordingly,'' said UNH president Gordon A. Haaland. The university is planning to expand educational programs and hold discussion groups to address the issue of what constitutes moral behavior. And a task force has been appointed to review the judicial system.
Campus judicial committees need to be revamped, says Ms. Sandler, because most were set up to deal with minor things like vandalism. ``Many of the judicial procedures cannot deal with what is essentially a very serious offense,'' she says.
Some campuses are taking strong disciplinary action. After a San Diego State student reported that she was raped by four fraternity members while she was unconscious from a spiked drink, the university removed the fraternity's status as a campus organization and cited students for infractions of the school's judicial code, expelling some from the entire California State University system.
Since alcohol is a major culprit in these incidents, the university sent letters to all sorority and fraternity presidents on campus stating that if their organizations are caught serving alcohol to minors, ``the university will press for your arrest.''
But some feel the universities could do more. The Berkeley students were required only to write letters of apology, move out of the dorms, and contribute 40 hours of public service.
University officials assert that it is difficult to prove that a sexual act was forced, particularly when alcohol is involved. In several of the cases, the local district attorney's office has dropped the charges for lack of evidence. (In the San Diego incident, a bloody sheet and photos taken during the incident were not allowed as evidence.)
But women's groups say that a pervasive ``blame the victim'' mentality in society impedes proper investigation and prosecution. Only 1 percent of all reported rape cases are brought to trial, they say. The specter of a sensationalized trial, as well as harassment from the rapists and their friends, has caused many women to not press criminal charges.
But some are suing for damages. The former student at San Diego State is suing the state, the university, the fraternity, and the sorority where she was a pledge, for $2.5 million.
How do these situations arise? Experts cite a combination of factors: the general acceptance of sexual activity, drinking parties, and a male gang mentality, which can lead men to do as a group what they might not do individually and ensures a conspiracy of silence.
Gang rape is a particularly virulent form of a larger problem of sexual harassment of women. Biting women is a current fad on some campuses, one observer says. So is the ``flying blue max''; when a woman is grabbed and passed above the heads of a group of men.
``Acquaintance rape,'' when a woman knows her attacker, and ``date rape'' are prevalent enough that many colleges are starting to teach students what it is and how to avoid it.
Both sexes, says University of Florida's Ms. Walsh, vitally need information.
``Males are ignored in the educational process of value development and social skills relating to sexual intimacy. They're socialized one way: to score.
``Females are brought up not to hurt anyone's feelings. So you have two individuals responding as the culture subscribes but at cross purposes,'' Walsh says.
The Sexual Assault Recovery Services trains and sends out teams of professionals who make presentations on peer pressure, communication, and dating expectations in University of Florida classrooms, on request.
The program has received 200 requests for training from other colleges.
Fraternities, pinpointed frequently as implicated of gang rape, are also starting to make changes. National fraternal organizations have closed down chapters and expelled members accused of sexual assault.
Pi Kappa Phi has adopted a statement condemning such behavior. Last fall, the organization issued a poster to 500 colleges and universities. Under an artist's rendering of ``The Rape of the Sabine Women'' a caption reads: ``Today's Greeks call it date rape. Just a reminder from Pi Kappa Phi. Against her will is against the law.''