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Article on brutal sexual assault provokes investigation at the University of Virginia

November 21, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
A story in Rolling Stone details the gang rape of an 18-year-old student by seven men at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. Journalist Sabrina Erdely says that the young woman reported the assault to the administration but nothing was done. Erdely joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the prevalence of campus sexual assault and why the victim was discouraged from speaking out.
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Editors note: After the publication of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story in Rolling Stone, many questions were raised about Erdely’s reporting and she revealed that she had not made contact with the men who were accused of rape by the central figure in her story, Jackie. On Dec 4, 2014, Rolling Stone issued a statement in response revealing that “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: A chilling account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia has reignited attention over the problem of sexual assault on campus.

In this case, it is provoking new investigations and questions about the university’s response to assault cases and whether it has covered them up. The story appears in “Rolling Stone” magazine. It’s an account of what happens to an unidentified freshman who is called Jackie and is attacked at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012.

Seven men took turns raping the 18-year-old over three hours. Two others watched, according to the piece. The story also finds that faculty and friends didn’t encourage her to report the attack and that the fraternity wasn’t investigated until this year.

The University of Virginia declined our invitation to appear. It has asked the Charlottesville police to investigate. More on its statements in just a moment.

But, first, let’s turn to the reporter who wrote the story for “Rolling Stone.”  She is Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

Sabrina, thank you for talking with us.

First of all, why did you want to do this story? What caught your attention? Why UVA? And what is it about this story that you think was worthy of this kind of attention?

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY, Rolling Stone: Well, we were looking to address the problem of rape on college campuses.

This is an issue that’s being discussed everywhere and we were looking to really investigate, what does it really look like on the ground level when there’s a rape at college against the greater context of college?

So I looked around at a lot of different campuses and I interviewed a lot of different students. I was looking to set this story at a university that had a good reputation, but also felt very representative of what was going on at American colleges across the country with regard to sexual assault.

I was also hoping that it would be a college that was under Title IX investigation, and on top of that, a place where people were willing to talk to me about their sexual assault experiences. And I found all that at University of Virginia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Title IX is a reference to the — is a reference, quickly, to the federal investigation that is under way in a number of colleges around the country.

Can you just give us the basic outlines of what happened to the student you’re calling Jackie?

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: Yes. And, in fact, Jackie is her real name.

When I first encountered Jackie, I was absolutely shocked by her story. She went to the administration and told them that she had been gang-raped at a fraternity house by seven men while two others watched. And the administration did nothing about it.

And even though a year later, she actually came to the administration again and told them that she had heard of two other women who had come to her telling them that they, too, had been gang-raped at the same fraternity, the administration also chose to do nothing about that.

So that was incredibly shocking to me, that the administration would decide not just to do nothing in her case, but nothing to warn the campus at large that there was a fraternity that was having parties and holding fraternity rush and so forth that had had numerous now allegations against it for gang rape. But nobody was ever warned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was also disturbing to read that her friends didn’t encourage her to report it. Did you find that this is something that is common on this campus and maybe on other campuses as well?

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: That was an incredibly common and very disturbing thing that emerged from this article, was that when Jackie confided in her friends, they dismissed it, they laughed it off, they told her to brush it off and get over it. Some of them called her a baby for wallowing in it. They had asked her why she was still crying about it.

And that was incredibly common among rape survivors at the University of Virginia and elsewhere, that these women are sort of shamed and blamed and they’re told to just shake it off and get back to the party culture. And, really, students see this as — sexual assault not so much as a serious crime, but as this unfortunate casualty of the party culture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me read, Sabrina, what the university said.

When your story came out two days ago, November 19, the university put out a statement. Among other things, they said: “Many details were previously not disclosed to university officials. And the university has recently adopted new policies aimed at fostering a culture of reporting.”

So is there a change at University of Virginia?

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: They have been making some changes lately.

They have implemented a bystander intervention campaign that they unveiled in September. They changed some policies to create more mandatory reporters. But the idea that they didn’t know some of the details of Jackie’s case, that sounds a little disingenuous to me, only because, when I approached Jackie about this article, she was very forthcoming about all the details.

And she confided that her — her allegations in a dean a year ago and has been in very close contact with her for the last year. So it makes me think that, if this dean didn’t know the details, it’s because Jackie was just never asked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Among other things, you write in the article the — she — the college officials gave her options of what to do. One of those options was to do nothing.

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: And that’s very common now at colleges. A new approach to dealing with victims is to present them with a variety of options and leave the choice up to them how they want to pursue the case.

And, in theory, it’s a really nice idea, because the idea of forcing a victim into an unwanted option is a really sensitive thing for a victim of sexual assault. But in reality, what winds up happening is that these very traumatized students are presented with all these options that are presented completely neutrally, including the option of doing nothing, and so they wind up doing nothing and are told that that is perfectly fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the status of her case right now? How is she doing? And what — is there an investigation under way? Where does it stand?

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: Well, as a result of my article, the university has just announced that they have asked the police to look into her case.

Jackie herself is still incredibly traumatized by her assault, and she really feels good about having spoken out. This was a very difficult for her to speak out, because she was really criticized for it by her peers and very much discouraged for it. She even had a bottle thrown at her head for having the courage to speak out.

So, the fact that she had this incredible bravery I think really says something about how strongly she feels about getting her story out and the stories of others out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, what is your sense of what other schools, how other schools are dealing with this? Is this — did you see this as a way of letting the world know that this is going on in more than one campus?

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: I mean, part of the reason why I chose the University of Virginia is because I felt that it was really representative of what was going on at campuses across the country.

When I spoke to experts, they told me that this — the — really, the scary truth is that, if you dig deep enough really in any campus, this is probably what you will find, that what happens at University of Virginia is probably not the exception. It’s probably — this is the norm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on that very sobering note, we will thank you, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, contributing editor at “Rolling Stone.”  Thank you.

SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY: Thank you.

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