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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – This week, University of Virginia students returned to class after a winter break filled with relatives questioning them about rape.
The Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at a UVa fraternity, and it's later unraveling, so enraptured the country that the Church of Scientology, in an attack ad against an upcoming documentary on the religion, asks whether the film is "a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux?" But it's very difficult to parse a moral out of the mess of last semester's scandal. Almost everyone felt wounded in some way: The university, fraternities, sexual assault victims, Rolling Stone and Jackie, the student who alleged the rape. On the anonymous online message board Yik Yak, popular among UVa students, some called for her to be brought up on honor code charges.
But there are some lessons from this saga. One is the importance of fact-checking. Another is that sexual assault victims don't just turn to their schools or police. They have a third option and a powerful one: The media.
On Monday, the school reinstated Phi Kappa Psi after a police investigation found no "substantive basis" that a gang rape occurred there, as alleged in Rolling Stone. The Columbia Journalism School audit of the magazine's reporting is forthcoming. At this point, most people here just want to move on. At the near-campus bar Boylan Heights Monday night, many students bristled when America Tonight producers asked about the scandal. One guy flipped us off.
"There was some concern that was like, 'Why UVa?'" said Andrew Elliot, managing editor of the school paper, The Cavalier Daily, who's been covering the story's fallout. "Why did it have to happen here if this is going to happen, and a story that was going to break down so much? Why?"
Explosive exposés on individual schools is exactly how the campus sexual assault movement has worked though, and gained such extraordinary momentum in recent years. And so it is: An article that is largely discredited is now the greatest proof of the power of the media to elevate this issue and hold schools to account.
It's hard to tally up the damage to UVa, one of the country's most elite universities. A couple UVa students told us they have friends in high school who won't apply, even now that the account of the gang rape has come apart.
"If I were on a jury, we'd be talking tens of millions of dollars in judgment. And I hope there is a jury."
UVa School of Law professor
"If I were on a jury, we'd be talking tens of millions of dollars in judgment," said Robert Turner, a professor at UVa for 27 years, about a possible award for defamation. "And I hope there is a jury. I think it'll have to come from the fraternity, but at least the fraternity ought to sue both the reporter and [Rolling Stone]."
Certainly, the injustice is felt most acutely in UVa's Greek scene, which saw its social activities quickly suspended after the article was published. They can only restart their partying under a much stricter regime (no punch, no kegs, mandatory guest lists). Two fraternities have refused to sign on to the news rules, saying their suspension was an unfair punishment that violated school policy and their rights.
But most students aren't so angry anymore. They're just sick of TV crews roaming Grounds and seeing their school's name in every article about campus rape. A UVa sophomore, who asked to be anonymous on the request of her sorority, said she's been disheartened reading Yik Yak and seeing students at other universities, like their rival Virginia Tech, making crude jokes.
"It put the issue on UVa, and not on colleges in general," she said. "They were bashing UVa instead of bashing rape culture."
But bashing individual schools is how the campus sexual assault movement has made such swift ground. It usually goes like this: A student approaches the media with a story of how her college botched her sexual assault case, whether it’s by asking cruelly insensitive questions, clearing her alleged rapist in sham proceedings or giving her alleged rapist a comically frivolous punishment. Sometimes, the student files a Title IX complaint, giving her account some extra heft. (Title IX complaints, thus far, pack more punch in negative publicity against a school than in actual fact.) Then, the news reports this alleged institutional lapse.
We have the eyes of a lot of people on us. And I think students and administration alike feels like we can't let them down.
The campus rapes themselves aren't news; we've known about them for decades. But while we had numbers back then, we didn't have individual students coming forward in droves to share their shocking stories.
So, one by one, university names are splashed beside the word “rape” in national headlines. There's embarrassment, alumni outrage, student protests, ad hoc committees and often policy changes. And the fear of this public flogging happening again, or happening at all, is making America's colleges more honest, proactive and committed to the cause. Dartmouth University has taken some of the firmest actions to curb sexual assault – but only after a media battering and a 14 percent drop in applications.
UVa was just the latest school in the spotlight. But because of the horrifically violent nature of the allegation, the story shot around the world. The damage done is so much greater, and because of the disintegration of the account set forth in Rolling Stone, so much less deserved. But just like so many other media reports on how schools have handled rape cases, it's having the impact that campus rape advocates want.
"They are asking for advice and they're asking for input," said Elliott about the administration's response. "That's really what they've done. They are willing to say... they don't know the best policy or our policy might not be the best. But they want to figure out what that best policy would look like."
The university has towed a smart line, steering clear of comment on the imploding account of one student and focusing instead on the broader issue of sexual assault. On top of the new fraternity rules, UVa plans to publish a new sexual misconduct policy this month and has doubled down on prevention training.
Going forward, UVa will likely be far more mindful of how its actions might play in the press. For example, if it receives a report of an alleged gang rape (while Jackie's story has come into question, the fact that she reported it has not), perhaps it will at least alert the fraternity of the charge. And if a Rolling Stone reporter comes knocking two years later, perhaps the fraternity will have a rebuttal at the ready and that article will never be published.
A desire to make this brouhaha a teachable moment for all is the sincere feeling on campus, too.
"We have the eyes of a lot of people on us," said UVa junior Elizabeth Ballou. "And I think students and administration alike feels like we can't let them down. This is our opportunity to do something important in the fight against sexual assault. So I hope that we actually can accomplish something important."
Perhaps on the national level, people will invoke the UVa Rolling Stone scandal of 2014 as they do the Duke lacrosse scandal of 2006. But students say the events of the last semester have boosted the profile of sexual assault prevention groups, expanded awareness of the problem and likely made campus safer.
Last month, inspired by the Rolling Stone article, even after it began to shatter, Ballou decided to report her own sexual assault to the UVa administration. She said she asked if her attacker had been flagged before as a possible predator.
Yet, none of this was being discussed much on Monday. Yik Yak, which for months had teemed with anonymous commentary about fraternities and rape, was now flush with notes about the first day of classes, the crummy weather and sorority rush.
There was only one message about the scandal at all: "Rolling Stone still sucks."