A Q&A With Angie Epifano

Photo by Shaina Mishkin

Since publishing her breathtaking personal account of sexual assault and trauma at the College over a year ago, Angie Epifano has been a busy woman. She has worked at a dude ranch in Montana, a space camp in Georgia and a college in Maine. She has toured the country giving speeches about her experience as a survivor and now works with activists and advocacy groups across the country to work for change on the issue of sexual violence.

Last month, I talked with her via Skype about her work with the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses, the Title IX complaint she filed with an anonymous co-complainant against the College in November, and her thoughts on activism and the fight against gender-based and sexual violence in general. Selections from the conversation are printed below.

So how did you end up writing recommendations for the White House Task Force? Did they reach out to you or did you volunteer?

I worked with a non-profit called Futures Without Violence. I spoke for them at a Harvard convention that they hosted in October, and after Obama initiated the sexual assault task force they called me and asked if I wanted to be one of their primary writers for their recommendations. I was in San Francisco last weekend meeting with their board of directors going over what we would be writing about and what they would be doing on their front in the upcoming year to really move this forward.

What kind of recommendations are you making to the White House?

President Obama made his weekly address to the nation a few weeks ago about sexual assault, and they implemented this task force. They put out eight different things that the task force wants to look at and that they want recommendations from people across the country on how to improvement different areas of the handling of college sexual assault. It ranges from education, advocacy services, intervention programs, high school prevention programs, adjudication procedures, disciplinary sanctions, and how the federal government can be more cohesive and act as a watchdog. It basically covers everything you could think of with college sexual assault. We are writing a comprehensive document that cover each of those sections, and my primary sections have been on intervention and advocacy services and education services from middle school into college.

What are you recommending?

One of the key things we’re recommending are an education focus on the behalf of colleges, because I think a lot of schools get lost in trying to have increased reporting and they go about this process of increasing reporting by often hurting and retraumatizing survivors. A lot of confidentiality and survivor services are lost with this mentality. If students have a better understanding of their options when reporting and the level of confidentiality they can expect—and also the support services offered to them—then they’re going to be more likely to report. You have to be able to have this trust in your university that they’re going to take care of you before you want to go forward.

What else are you doing with your life right now?

I’m setting up a bunch of speaking tours at schools for March and April: I’m going to Johns Hopkins, Old Dominion University, hopefully Williams (if they get back to me), and a bunch of other ones. I’m going to a conference on college journalism in New York City in mid-March, which sounds like it’s going to be really great, with a UMass-Amherst professor.

You also visited Amherst early this fall, right? How did that go? What was your experience of the College like?

The visit to Amherst was interesting. I think most of what I experienced I wrote about in my article in the Huffington Post. It was weird because not many people were back yet, and it was mainly freshman, so I knew a very small percentage of the people there. But I don’t even really know how to describe it; it was just surreal and it felt very off-putting at times, especially the reactions and the following-around that the administration seemed to be doing while I was there. I was actually there another time. I didn’t visit anybody, but I was speaking at UMass Amherst, and I’m working on a documentary film with Lisa Jackson, but we went to Amherst’s campus to get some footage there. It was really weird because it was a normal weekday and all students were back and that was just a very emotionally difficult experience, but nobody knew I was there, so I didn’t interact with anybody.

What perception of how things had or had not changed did you get while you were there?

From what I’ve heard from current students and very recent former students, there’s a lack of discussion is what I’ve gathered. I don’t want to take a stab at the air and be wrong, but I still feel like there’s an administrative perspective of survivors as liabilities, and I think that’s been playing out in how the school is reacting to me since the investigation has begun. There seems to be a lot more hostility when they deal with my lawyer or when they’re working with this investigation team.

All of these things that are cropping up are things I’ve had very explicit conversations with lawyers about, and they’re like these are all illegal and they’re all violations of Title IX and they’re explicitly in Title IX, and it’s just amazing that they don’t notice that. Maybe no school is doing that, but it’s like, Amherst what are you doing?

How do you keep yourself informed about what’s happening on campus? How much contact have you been having with different people on campus?

I was talking with Dana [Bolger ’14] a lot; I’m still talking with Dana a lot. But through Dana I’ve talked with a bunch of other students who wished to remain anonymous, and from the different articles coming out written by students, I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of what’s been going on. My friends who are necessarily at all invested in this are still at Amherst and can at least give me information about what’s been going on.  According to my legal agreement, Amherst isn’t allowed to contact me, so I don’t talk with Amherst administrators, which is nice, but I do talk with one of my professors who’s still there and is very nice. She’s has remarked throughout this entire process on how out of the loop she and professors and general feel and how frustrated they are, especially the more I tell her about things that are going on.

How does it feel being someone that survivors and other students reach out to as someone they can go to for advice or even as an icon?

It is really strange. I still haven’t really gotten a grasp on it. I don’t think I ever will to be honest, because it’s something I really don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as Angie and the same person I’ve always been. People I don’t even know are contacting me. I got an email from someone in France that was in really bad English saying ‘I saw your story in a French newspaper and I’m a survivor from France’ and started telling me their story and I didn’t understand three-quarters of it, but I learned a bunch of new French words in the process of understanding it. But I just thought this was so surreal and an out of body experience. I mean, it’s an honor that I have that kind of impact on people, and I hope to continue to have that kind of impact on people.

I wanted to talk some about the complaint you filed with the OCR, starting off first with why did you decide to file the complaint in November, over a year after you left the college? Why then, and why did you decide to file it at all?

A big impetus for it was my anonymous co-complainant. She had come to me and told me her story—in which most of it happened after all of the events in my story, including after my article came out. She had basically the same things happen to her as the administration was telling students they were fixing things and as there was this increased examination of sexual assault. When things were supposed to be changing, she was both mistreated and ignored by the administration—and in many cases by administrators who hadn’t even dealt with me, so they weren’t even the same people. Once I visited the school and as I talked with Dana and my other friends who were on campus, I realized things were not progressing at a steady pace; they were just kind of stagnant. There wasn’t that concerted effort of wanting to improve, and that was a big reason why I filed this complaint. We filed in conjunction with Vanderbilt, so that was a major aspect of it too; we wanted to show that there were two very different schools who were experiencing the exact same type of retraumatization of survivors and mistreatment of survivors.

What’s the timeline of that complaint?

It’s gone through the initial phase. First it goes to the regional office in Boston, where they examine the complaint and make sure that the complaint is worthy of being investigated. Then they talk to the complainants and ask any questions they have. Now they have decided that Amherst does need to be under investigation. They have written to Amherst and myself and my co-complainant say that Amherst College is officially under investigation for violations of the Title IX and Clery Act, and that they are conducting this investigation now. Amherst was given a list of questions about the school’s policies, procedures, who’s been involved in handling these cases, information from the past five years, that kind of stuff. Amherst has turned in some of it, but they’ve asked for a month-long extension to gather more of what the investigators have asked for. We’re in a stasis of waiting for Amherst to get the rest of their materials to OCR so the investigation can continue.

Once that happens, then OCR is going to look over the materials and then go to campus, alumni listservs, parent listservs, whatever they can find and ask students, alumni, parents to talk with them about any kind of violation or action they had seen during their experiences, anything they felt uncomfortable with during their time on campus, and basically just putting it out there to the community.

But this is when it gets tricky. Amherst is asking to have a settlement before that occurs. They want to stop that point from happening. OCR would continue to investigate the school if we were to settle, but they would not open it up to such a broad investigation if we were to settle. That’s where we’re at.

What was in your complaint? What did you and your co-complainant include in your complaint?

My aspect of the complaint spans my entire two years at Amherst and covered a lot of things that aren’t really public. Things that happened at Amherst before my sexual assault. They involve what happened after I went forward to the school after my sexual assault my sophomore year. For example, I dislocated my shoulder, and the Health Center began prescribing me Vicodin. They prescribed me twice the amount of Vicodin for a person of my size and gender. They continued refilling my prescription of Vicodin every week for three months, at which point I realized I was extremely addicted to the Vicodin. I would take more than I was supposed to and they would just continue refilling my prescription, so I was taking like three of four times the normal dosage, and I threw away all of the pills and didn’t set foot in the health center again for the next three months. Things like that, which why a health center would prescribe a student Vicodin for three months straight makes no medical or logical sense. It’s a very long complaint, but those are some of the highlights.

There’s a sense among a lot of people that the problem of sexual assault at Amherst is “fixed,” so to speak. I’m curious what you say to people who think that.

Before my article was published, people thought that Amherst didn’t have a problem to begin with. My article comes out, bombs drop, it garners national attention, and people become really invested in it for a very short amount of time. And then, I think, what happened at many schools and especially at Amherst, is that apathy set in. People assumed that the administration was fixing things, the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee released their findings—which I don’t think a lot of people took the time to read—and these were all progressive steps which recently happened, but if you look at it from a larger picture of long-term changes that will have real positive impact for victims, you just really don’t see those measures. I think it speaks to the complete lack of education that’s happening on campus. That so many survivors and advocates still feel retaliated against and still feel silenced is never a good sign. None of those problems should be there if the problem is “fixed.” I think people just need to take a step back and think of this in a long-term perspective: what things are there to help students twenty years done the line? You just don’t see those things.

You mentioned this somewhat in your response just now, but I’m curious what your thoughts are on the phenomenon of “activism burnout” or the sense of apathy or jadedness that can set in after people get up in arms for a while about something as important as sexual violence.

It’s a very natural reaction. Obviously I go through stages of burnout. I went through that this winter and I couldn’t function anymore; I didn’t want to do anything, and I shut down for a bit. I think it’s very natural. That’s why the responsibility for change should not be placed completely on student-activists, especially if the student-activist is a survivor, because it is very traumatizing to have to work on a daily basis on something that has a long-term negative emotional impact on you. That’s why there needs to be administrators, faculty, and staff members who are actively engaged in educating students, in supporting students, and preventing both future acts of violence and retaliation. That’s where Amherst is really falling flat. It’s a legal requirement that the school be doing education and offer resources to students in general about sexual assault, and those are administrative problems. I don’t think survivors and activists should be blamed for not doing enough. Just by being a survivor you’re doing a lot more than you really should have to.

Looking ahead, what kind of changes would like to see made at Amherst in particular but at colleges and universities in general in terms of sexual respect and preventing sexual violence?

So many things. Students and employees need to understand from before they even step on campus what sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence are, what consent is, how to be an active bystander while at college, how to be supportive of survivors, and what to do if you are a victim of gender-based violence on campus. From there, there needs to be an annual opportunity for students to engage in continued trainings or become part of advocacy and support networks. There needs to be this base of support to build on; students need to have that trust and know from day one that if this were to every happen to them, they would be supported by the entire community of people and don’t need to be afraid. And that trust just isn’t there right now.

How can students make a difference? What should students be doing to try to help promote sexual respect and stop sexual violence in their everyday lives?

They need to be informed. They need to understand the effect of sexual assault and what sexual assault really is, because there’s a very limited understanding of sexual assault in the American mind-frame. Once you’ve got that, learn how to be an active bystander. When you’re at a party, make sure you’re watching over your friends; make they’re safe. If someone looks uncomfortable or they appear to be passed out and someone’s carrying them away, make sure this is a friend who is carrying this person away. Know how to be respectful in daily conversation about sexual assault or gender-based violence or any gender issue. Don’t make those rape jokes, because anyone around you could be a survivor. Changing a conversation and calling people out when they make a rape joke is a huge step towards improving the campus culture. It’s a very small thing you can do, but it has a big impact.

One of the things I love is what Williams and Colby do, which is their “party for consent,” where their “Men For Consent” group, which is like a men against rape and sexual assault group, have made these great neon tank-tops that say “Party With Consent,” and they just basically go into parties at random points during the night and start dancing around in these t-shirts making people aware that they need to be active bystanders, they need to ask for consent. It’s a great sign of an active, engaged student population.