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University of Virginia fraternity rape case: Stopping sexual assault on campus (+video)

Rolling Stone magazine reports that a freshman was raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party at the University of Virginia. University officials promise to address what critics say is a culture of hidden sexual violence at UVA.

If colleges needed any more reason to address persistent episodes of sexual violence on campus, a new report involving a fraternity at the University of Virginia certainly provides it.

In a case described as “appalling” by university President Teresa A. Sullivan, a lengthy report in Rolling Stone magazine describes a scene in 2012 in which a student describes in horrific detail being raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party.

Beyond that attack on a first-year student identified only as “Jackie,” there is a culture of hidden sexual violence at UVA, writes Sabrina Rubin Erdely in the current issue of Rolling Stone.

“Rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal,” Ms. Erdely writes. “Some UVA women, so sickened by the university's culture of hidden sexual violence, have taken to calling it ‘UvrApe.’”

"University of Virginia thinks they're above the law," UVA grad and victims-rights advocate Liz Seccuro told the magazine. "They go to such lengths to protect themselves. There's a national conversation about sexual assault, but nothing at UVA is changing." 

The concept of “honor” plays a large part in the tradition and ideals at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson.

Yet since 1998, Erdely reports, 183 people have been expelled for honor-code violations at UVA such as cheating on exams, but not a single student has ever been expelled for sexual assault. (The school has a strong academic reputation, but also has been named by Playboy magazine as the number one party school.)

UVA President Sullivan has asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate the 2012 incident.

“There are individuals in our community who know what happened that night, and I am calling on them to come forward to the police to report the facts,” she said in a statement Saturday. “Only you can shed light on the truth, and it is your responsibility to do so. Alongside this investigation, we as a community must also do a systematic evaluation of our culture to ensure that one of our founding principles– the pursuit of truth – remains a pillar on which we can stand. There is no greater threat to honor than secrecy and indifference.”
 
 In recent years, fraternities have become the focus of criticism for sexual assaults, binge drinking, and sometimes-deadly hazing.

Last month, the Kappa Sigma chapter at Kansas University was placed on interim suspension while allegations of sexual assault are being investigated. Last summer, the New York Times published a lengthy report on a case of alleged sexual assault involving Kappa Sigma members at Hobart College in Geneva, New York.

In May, the US Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. As of October 22, the list had grown to 86 postsecondary institutions.

As reports of such incidents increase, some fraternities have formed an organization to address problems of sexual misconduct, binge drinking, and hazing.

Called the Fraternal Health and Safety Initiative, the organization now includes eight fraternal organizations:  Lambda Chi Alpha, Phi Delta Theta, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Mu, Sigma Chi, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Triangle fraternities.

“Representing over 75,000 collegiate members on more than 550 campuses, the Consortium is committed to working together to implement prevention strategies to improve the health and well-being of their members and their campus communities,” the group states on its web site.

Citing research showing that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college, the group asserts that “fraternities are well-positioned to address the topic of sexual misconduct, assault, and relationship violence prevention from a values based perspective.”

“Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world, let alone on the campuses and grounds of our nation’s colleges and universities,” UVA President Sullivan declared in her statement Saturday. “We know, and have felt very powerfully this week, that we are better than we have been described, and that we have a responsibility to live our tradition of honor every day, and as importantly every night.”

Here again, she quotes the university’s founder: “It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”

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