Sweeping It Under the Rug at Amherst

In Leviticus 19:16 we read lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha, “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” And yet, for far too long on college campuses across the country, students have stood idle. Sexual assault and harassment are realities of belonging to a campus community. The act of forcing not consensual sexual activity on another person is a crime, punishable by imprisonment within the legal system. While the legal system can be used to pursue justice in cases of sexual assault, many victims of assault need to turn to college policy for their safety, because their cases do not have the physical or eye-witness proof necessary to be upheld in a court of law. The college policy then often acts as the only mechanism of defense and security for survivors of sexual assault. Yet, friends have looked the other way at parties, college administrations have consistently mismanaged disciplinary hearings on sexual violence, and counseling centers have been ill equipped to handle survivors of assault. This past spring, an off-campus Amherst College fraternity printed and distributed a t-shirt on campus that portrayed a woman being burned and roasted on a spit with the phrase “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847” lettered above it. This past summer, a boy who had been assaulted on campus killed himself.
This semester at Amherst College, we decided to take action. We refused to stand idle as we watched our neighbors, our friends and our classmates, bleed in an uncaring climate and without the resources they needed to be safe and respected.

AC Voice, the Amherst College culture blog of which I am the editor, published an article first about the offensive t-shirt and then subsequently a photo exhibition of responses to assault that survivors received from the community. The campus newspaper printed one survivor’s terrifying testimonial of the administration’s woeful mishandling of her case. The articles went viral. In lines in the cafeteria, discussions in class, and co-curricular activities, sexual assault became the sole topic of discussion.

The college president, Biddy Martin, invited ten students, myself included, to present to the Board of Trustees a list of proposed changes to college policy, the allocation of resources in student life, and training for the Amherst community. President Martin has since taken our suggestions and made strides to accomplish each one. This past Friday, all classes were cancelled for a Day of Dialogue in which students met in small groups to discuss what “enthusiastic consent” was and how to best end the culture of silence in the face of sexual violence at Amherst. The New York Times published an article about President Martin’s immediate and efficient response to student outrage in the face of a newly vitalized awareness about the suffering of sexual assault survivors within the Amherst College community.

We are learning now what it means as a campus community to be more than idle, to do more than watch passively as our classmates feel themselves unsafe while out at night, as our friends go through a flawed and confusing disciplinary hearing process after being assaulted, as they seek emotional support. We hope that if we learn to stand actively and attentively, armed with education and understanding, by our neighbor, our classmate, our friends, they will not have to be traumatized or endure the suffering that assault entails. We hope that if we stand together as a student body then our neighbor will not bleed.