Amherst College Works To Improve How It Deals With Sexual Assault On Campus06:42

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Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, appointed in 2011, has spent much of her tenure reshaping the college's approach to dealing with and preventing sexual assault on campus.

A year after Martin became president of Amherst, she found herself confronted by a case of sexual assault at the school that gained national attention. A former Amherst student had published in the college newspaper her account of the college discouraging her from initiating a disciplinary proceeding against the man she says raped her.

And now the school is facing challenges from students it had found to have violated its code of conduct. In the past year, two former Amherst students have sued the college over their dismissals for sexual assault.

Martin says the school is working hard to improve its policies.

"We've certainly made a lot of progress at Amherst, as many other colleges and universities have as well," Martin said in an interview in her office. "Do I think we're at the point where I could say we've done everything that needs to be done? No. But we've made vast improvements."

“Do I think we’re at the point where I could say we’ve done everything that needs to be done? No. But we’ve made vast improvements.”

Amherst College President Carolyn 'Biddy' Martin

After the student account was published in 2012 and gained national attention, Martin ordered a task force to review Amherst's sexual assault policies. Soon afterwards, two former students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education against Amherst for its handling of sexual assault. The college has since launched several initiatives aimed at improving how it handles sexual assault cases and preventing them in the first place.

A Provocative Documentary 

Last spring, Martin organized a public discussion of a provocative documentary, "The Hunting Ground," that accuses colleges of not taking sexual assault seriously.

"I think what prompted me is the importance of the issue, the fact that I was aware that the film was being made, and I was aware because I was interviewed," Martin said. "So I knew it was coming and read some of the reviews from the Sundance Film Festival and immediately contacted Amy Ziering, who is an Amherst alum, to ask her not only whether we could screen the film here but whether she would visit."

The documentary advocates for a reform of the way colleges handle sexual assault. It tells the story of several women who say they were the victims of sexual assault on their college campuses. Among them, Kamilah Willingham, a former Harvard Law School student.

"I went to the Dean of Students’ office and she said, 'I just want to make sure, above all else, that you don't talk to anyone about this,'" Willingham recalls in the documentary. "'It could be bad for everyone if people started rallying around having him removed from campus.' And I was like, 'Well, he's a predator and he's dangerous and actually that's exactly what I want.'"

The man Willingham says assaulted her was expelled.


"The next September I came back to Cambridge and I got a Facebook message from the dean of students," Willingham continues. "He said that the assailant, he could appeal the decision and they voted again on whether to uphold the decision to remove him and decided to let him back in. This is a rapist! This is a guy who’s a sexual predator who assaulted two girls in one night."

The documentary has come under criticism for inaccuracies and for not being fair. Norman Zalkind, an attorney for the Harvard Law student Willingham accused of sexual assault, said a Middlesex County grand jury declined to indict his client for rape, despite accusations Willingham makes in the documentary.

"So it was pretty clear that the grand jury just didn't believe her," Zalkind said in an interview in his Boston office. "Just didn't believe her."

The grand jury did indict the student for indecent assault and battery. A jury found him not guilty of those charges, but did find him guilty of nonsexual touching of a woman also present that night. The documentary never mentions any of this. Zalkind said the producers never tried to reach him.

A spokeswoman for Harvard Law School said a federal law governing student privacy prevents it from commenting on specific student matters, but noted that Harvard has made many changes in its handling of sexual assault since the case highlighted in the documentary.

Willingham, her attorney, and producer Ziering did not return numerous requests for comment.

Reaction At Amherst 

After the screening at the Amherst Cinema, someone in the audience asked Ziering why the documentary is called "The Hunting Ground." She said it comes from a story a former Dartmouth College fraternity member told her about parties there.

"He said they watch the women when they come into the fraternities and they rate what they're wearing, and they can tell who is innocent and naive — so who would be more vulnerable and susceptible to being preyed upon," Ziering said. "If you brought a purse to a fraternity, at least at Dartmouth, that signaled you were kind of clueless. You don't bring purses."

Ziering said she got the idea for "The Hunting Ground" while working on another documentary about sexual assault in the military. She was attending screenings of that movie in college towns, and students kept telling her she needed to make a documentary about sexual assault in college.

The documentary had special resonance for a group of survivors of sexual assault on campus from the nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They came to watch the documentary together. They have been thinking about filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against UMass, which is already the subject of one investigation. One of the students asked Ziering for advice as they try to get the school to rethink how it addresses sexual assault.

"Schools that hired an independent investigator to investigate these crimes, I found at least the survivor experience was much more positive," Ziering said. "You have to be careful, though, because schools are all scrambling for these fixes, and they're hiring people that are not really that good or that qualified. But a really qualified independent investigator really then does take away the conflict of interest. You feel like you're getting a fair shake."

Ziering said four or five college presidents have asked for a screening of her documentary, but only Martin asked for a discussion. Ziering called that move "courageous."

This segment aired on July 14, 2015.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.