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Student Activists Keep Pressure On Campus Sexual Assault

Dana Bolger, who says she was raped in 2011 while a student at Amherst College, co-founded a group that seeks to educate students about their rights under Title IX.
Jennifer Ludden
Dana Bolger, who says she was raped in 2011 while a student at Amherst College, co-founded a group that seeks to educate students about their rights under Title IX.

For Georgetown University freshmen, orientation this week included a new activity: mandatory small-group discussions on sexual assault.

"For a lot of the kids, this might be the first time they ever actually talk about sexual assault or what consent means in an environment with their peers," says Chandini Jha, a junior who helped lead several discussions and who's been pushing administrators to do this for two years.

Georgetown is not among the more than 70 colleges being investigated for how they've handled sexual assault cases; in fact, it's ahead of many others on the issue. But Jha says the problem is a national epidemic. About 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college, as are some men, and Jha has become active beyond her own campus. Last winter Jha joined a group that uses social media to spread the word that schools are bound to try to protect students from sexual assault under a federal law called Title IX.

"Our goal is to get this critical mass of students educated about it," she says, "almost as a check against universities violating Title IX but also to help empower students who've been in those situations [about] things they can ask for their universities to do."

It's just the kind of information Dana Bolger wishes she had back in 2011, when she says she was raped during her sophomore year at Amherst College.

"My dean encouraged me to take time off, go home, essentially wait for my rapist to graduate and then come back to campus when it was safe to do so," Bolger says.

She did drop out for a bit. Then she returned, joined a support group and discovered she wasn't the only one who felt mistreated by her college. Bolger and others demanded meetings with Amherst officials, a list of reforms in hand. They got nowhere.

"But for a survivor who has to study in the same library as her assailant," she says, "or a survivor that has to eat in the same dining hall as his rapist, urgency is real."

So in 2012, they went public. The student paper posted one woman's searing account of her rape, and the response was electric.

"Angie Epifano was able to tell her story in the Amherst Student, and the next day there were thousands and thousands of views," Bolger says. "I don't know what that possibly could have looked like in the 1970s."

The college president reached out to Epifano and announced reforms. Suddenly, sexual assault victims across the country were seeking each other out online.

After finishing her degree, Bolger co-founded Know Your IX with Alexandra Brodsky of Yale University, to educate students about their rights. The group has a growing network of campus activists, including Jha at Georgetown. It connects assault survivors to pro bono attorneys. It staged protests at the Department of Education. That led to meetings with White House officials and members of Congress.

Such high-profile events have put these activists in the spotlight. But outside that, other students continue to act, sometimes on their own.

"I created a website that maps the data from the daily crime log," says Guillermo Rojas, who's in his last semester at Dartmouth, one of the schools under investigation for its handling of sexual assault. By law, schools are required to keep a public tally of campus crimes, including sexual assault. But, unlike many, Dartmouth College doesn't put it online. A few weeks ago, Rojas decided to do it himself.

"The college refuses to provide emailed spreadsheets," he says, "and refuses to let us take pictures."

So Rojas goes over to the Department of Safety and Security and types the data into his laptop. "I always feel like a nuisance," he says. "I get the sense that not a lot of people ask for it."

"It's just morally reprehensible that administrators are putting the burden of fixing the problems onto students like that," says Susy Struble, a Dartmouth alumna, class of '93. Struble was raped on campus, and she's thrilled with activists like Rojas, though she worries it won't be enough. Students, she says, graduate.

"College administrators know this," she says. "They know that if they can just hunker down and weather a crisis, that group of students is going to graduate sooner or later. But alumni are always around. We have a lot of influence, we have a lot of money, we still have a lot of say on what kind of culture we have on our campuses."

Struble has helped found two alumni groups to keep up the pressure.

Bolger agrees this is key. Not yet a year out of college, she's quit a job to devote herself full time to Know Your IX. Yes, she says, it's great that the federal government has tightened the rules on how schools should handle sexual assault. "But at the end of the day, what we need is enforcement," she says. "Schools are operating today knowing that the department has never once sanctioned a school for these violations."

Bolger can imagine a career holding them to account. Among the other ambitious items on her to-do list: law school.

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.