Spelman students and alumni want sweeping changes, including mandatory consent education and training for students and staff in the wake of new rape allegations.
Editor’s Note: This story contains discussion of sexual violence and inflammatory language.
An allegation of rape was posted anonymously on social media last week by someone who says they’re a freshman at Spelman College. It has reopened an ongoing conversation about campus sexual violence and the unique challenges historically black colleges and universities may face in addressing them.
The problem of campus sexual violence is not one limited to Spelman and Morehouse. Last year, the schools joined more than 150 institutions across the country under investigation for violating Title IX. That’s the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education.
Clarissa Brooks is a sophomore in the middle of finals at Spelman. She saw the Twitter account, @RapedatSpelman, the night of Monday, May 2.
She said she remembers walking out of a late class: “and then by eight o’clock, myself and some of the other students were basically writing a statement to the president and organizing a protest.”
The Twitter user described being raped by four Morehouse students at a party and said the assault was reported to Spelman authorities. The posts said those officials had been slow to respond and allege they told the user to give the accused Morehouse brothers a pass.
“I never felt so worthless,” the Twitter account said about the situation.
Both presidents of Spelman and Morehouse issued statements late last week outlining steps they’re continuing to take to investigate and address this most recent complaint and others like it. The schools say they hadn’t been made aware of the Twitter user’s specific case and have encouraged the person to come forward.
For some students like Clarissa Brooks, getting to the bottom of the user’s identity and story isn’t the point.
“The fact that this student had to create an anonymous account in the first place shows how unsafe an environment she feels she’s in,” said Brooks, noting that sexual violence is a societal issue, not just something that happens in schools.
She said the protest on campus prompted many students to share similar stories about being assaulted. The particulars of the allegation are not new for students, she said, nor is an attitude of hostility toward survivors who voice their experiences.
Brooks pointed to a letter written by a Morehouse student that circulated around the Atlanta University Center schools just after Vice President Joe Biden had visited the school to deliver a speech on the subject of campus sexual assault.
“A Morehouse student basically wrote a rape contract,” Brooks said. The letter, a handwritten “sexual consent form,” was aimed at ensuring a Morehouse student could “perform any and all sexual behaviors” on a woman who had willingly entered a given dormitory room.
The letter read: “If found in violation of this consent form I (h** signature) will be indicted and prosecuted accordingly as well as be exposed campus wide as a lying b****.”
Following outcry over the letter, the announcement of the federal investigations and a widely read Buzzfeed article about sexual assaults at Spelman and Morehouse, both schools announced major changes to their Title IX policies.
Anita Badejo is the reporter with Buzzfeed who reported on two cases of assault at the Atlanta HBCUs.
“One was a Spelman alum and one is still a current student, each assaulted and faced a lot of hurdles in reporting their experiences to the colleges,” Badejo said.
Badejo says on top of the already thorny issue of how to deal with campus sexual violence, there’s an extra difficulty: Spelman and Morehouse are two separate schools.
“They’re very close. They’re very connected. But they do have separate administrations, they do have separate disciplinary processes, and Spelman is a women’s college and Morehouse is a men’s college,” Badejo said.
That unique relationship can present problems.
“So a lot of young women already feel like the deck is stacked against them, because they feel that Morehouse is already coming into it with the goal of protecting their own student,” she said.
Badejo said there’s another thing to keep in mind here: race.
“It’s like you’re going against your own family,” said Badejo, who explained Spelman and Morehouse students are paired off in brother and sister partnerships when they first arrive at the schools.
For Spelmanites who report an assault, said Badejo, it can be perceived as “you are bringing scrutiny and potential stereotypes to a community and group of people that are already fighting those things every day in the broader context of a racist society.”
Katrina Rogers graduated from Spelman in 2004.
“The responsibility of protecting black masculinity is definitely placed on our shoulders,” Rogers said. She says being hyper-aware of the adversities heaped on black men can mean pressure for black women not to add to those problems, even when they’ve been violated.
“And so it’s like, we need to protect this figurative handful of black men who are in college, and so if you’re reporting this and he goes to prison, that’s a future you just dismantled,” Rogers said. She’s careful to note that the narrative that more black men are in prison than in college is a skewed one.
U.S. Department of Justice research has found that black women tend to report campus sexual assaults at an even lower rate than their white counterparts – 17 percent compared to 44 percent.
Rogers, along with both Morehouse and Spelman alumni, drafted a letter to the presidents of the schools requesting changes that weren’t just about disciplinary measures. The letter asked for training for faculty, staff and administration on how to treat sexual assault survivors humanely.
“We spend time discrediting them and asking them ‘what did you wear,’ ‘where were you,’ ‘why were you with these people,’ ‘how much did you drink’ and so on and so forth. And unfortunately that’s almost a common response,” said Rogers, “when someone says, ‘Hey, I’ve endured this. I’ve been violated.’”
Mandatory education for students, she believes, is the real key to these problems.
“One of the main objectives that we have as a group is to make sure that incoming students have a very sound concept of rape and consent, so that we can change the culture,” Rogers said.
Concerns about the credibility of rape accusations have continued to haunt college campuses and wider conversations about sexual violence.
In Georgia, Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart recently sued the U.S. Department of Education over its guidance on how to adjudicate allegations of campus sexual assaults.
“Universities are losing millions in settlements because they’re finding out, when the facts bear out, that these are hoaxes — not all of them, but a large percentage, and our system of justice is based on innocent until proven guilty,” Ehrhart told WABE.
The problem of sexual violence both on and off colleges campuses is a difficult one to quantify, due in part to low rates of reporting and varying legal definitions of rape and consent. Recent scholarship has found one in five college women say they experienced sexual violence during their years in school. The prevalence of false reporting is estimated to be between 2 and 10 percent of reported sexual assaults. More than half of sexual assaults are believed to go unreported.
For alums like Rogers, hearing that any students have been violated during their time at Spelman is heartbreaking.
“It was created to empower, specifically black women in ways that many institutions can’t even fathom, let alone actually effectively execute,” said Rogers, adding that the school’s strict security policies ensured that she always felt physically safe walking around campus.
However, the problem of sexual violence, she said, is not one that can be entirely addressed by regulating visitation hours and vigorous campus patrol.
“So frequently, we describe rape as this creepy stranger who attacked you in a dark alley,” said Rogers. “You can be a great person and do amazing things and be a rapist. And you may not even know it.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that 9 in 10 survivors of campus sexual violence knew the people who violated them. That’s why addressing the realities of what rape is, is central to the strategy Rogers and other alumni and students are pushing.
She said she’s hopeful because the conversation that’s been launched in recent months around these issues is among the longest and most productive she’s seen.