Earlier this week, a Spelman College student alleged in a series of Twitter posts that she had been raped by four male students from nearby Morehouse College.
The allegations quickly stirred a conversation on social media, and protests at Spelman on Wednesday. The conversations and protests are not just about the alleged crime, but about the issue of campus sexual assaults in general and why such attacks often go unreported.
“All in all, I think it’s a productive and necessary conversation that will produce a positive outcome,” Hassan Henderson-Lott, a Morehouse student, told me.
The 22-year-old senior said everywhere he went on campus, the topic of conversation was the alleged assault and how the two schools were handling it.
The perspectives varied.
“Some people believe that this conversation should stay within the confines of Morehouse,” Henderson-Lott said. “Some people agree students are right to take their fight beyond the campuses. Some are engaged in victim-blaming.”
After a series of posts on Twitter in which an anonymous Spelman woman recounted the alleged assault, Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell responded in a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Campbell offered the student her support and said the school had begun an investigation.
“We are a family at Spelman and we will not tolerate any episode of sexual violence,” Campbell said. “No student should ever have to suffer and endure the experience she has recounted on social media.”
The allegations are also now under investigation by officials at Morehouse, who have said they were not aware of the allegations before Tuesday.
As a woman and mother of two daughters, it’s disturbing every time you hear reports about sexual assaults anywhere but especially on college campuses.
Even more disturbing are comments from students at places like Penn State, Florida State University, Morehouse and Spelman, who say the schools are sometimes more concerned with their reputations than the well-being of the alleged victims.
Henderson-Lott said there is a lot of skepticism around the sexual assault allegations because Morehouse and Spelman are not only physically close but also historically close.
“The reputation of both colleges trumps the voices of those who experience sexual violence,” he said. “That’s very wrong.”
Across the street at Spelman, Tabatha Holley, 21, is majoring in Comparative Women’s Studies.
She and her classmates understandably feel a deep sadness over a Spelman dean’s initial response outlined in the Twitter postings about the alleged sexual assault. They believe efforts to maintain the brother-sister tradition between the two campuses should be re-evaluated.
And the culture of silence, while not exactly new, needs to stop.
“Just three years ago, Blackwomen’s Blueprint reported that over 60 percent of black girls had experienced some form of sexual abuse before reaching the age of 18 and there is even more quieted conversation about the sexual abuse of black boys,” Holley said in an email. “Thus, this is a topic that we tend to shy away from within the Atlanta University Center because though we are institutions that have committed ourselves to social justice, we live in a world where patriarchy exists and allows for rape, victim blaming, slut shaming, and an adamant hatred for victims who speak up for themselves.”
I asked both Henderson-Lott and Holley what they’d like to see happen.
Henderson-Lott said students at both institutions want information about sexual assault, including that which happens in same-sex relationships, to become part of the curriculum.
Holley called for an end to the culture of silence.
“I cannot say what most men on these campuses are learning, but with the exception of our committed and intentional male allies, I am concerned about what is happening within academic spaces and I hope that it moves in a more progressive direction,” she said. “Our institutions should be obligated to talk about these current events (rape and sexual assault on college campuses) in academic and personal ways that are about liberation.”
She added: “There must be a radical shift in pedagogy that is committed to ending the oppression of women.”