It is a cruel coincidence, if not something more, for the mother of murdered Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington.
Seven years earlier, but on the exact date Morgan disappeared in 2009, the man now linked by forensic evidence to her daughter’s death was accused of rape by a student at Liberty University.
“To their credit, Liberty got rid of the athlete rather than the girl. Usually, it happens differently,” Gil Harrington said.
How universities respond to sexual assault allegations — and whether they act more out of self-interest than student interest — is under scrutiny nationally, but this semester the focus shifted sharply to Virginia.
If there is any lesson that ties allegations of gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house to the slaying of an 18-year-old U.Va. student, perhaps it is this:
“Let’s dispel these myths that you would know a rapist if you met one,” said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington and a member of the governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence.
“They are not the people we think they are,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s a guy that got carried away with his lust. He made a mistake, and he’ll never make it again.’ These are sex offenders. They are serial sexual predators.”
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe created the task force in August, the circumstances surrounding Harrington’s death might have seemed a case apart from the kind of acquaintance assaults commonly reported by college students.
Now, law enforcement authorities say they have evidence that connects the deaths of Harrington and U.Va. second-year student Hannah Graham with a suspect who was not prosecuted for rape allegations when he was a football player at Liberty and then Christopher Newport universities in 2002 and 2003.
“I know that no one wanted this to happen to Morgan or Hannah,” Gil Harrington said. But she said she also knows that maintaining reputations “is a very important part of what universities do.”
U.Va., already reeling from Graham’s death, initially stumbled in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone magazine account of gang rape at a Phi Kappa Psi party.
The university quickly announced former federal judge Mark Filip would be brought in as independent counsel, only to have his name withdrawn Friday morning by Attorney General Mark R. Herring because of Filip’s “prior affiliation with a chapter of the fraternity described in the Rolling Stone article.”
On Saturday, the university suspended all fraternity and sorority activities until Jan. 9.
Campuses are confronting both an organizational and cultural problem that must be addressed “top-down and bottom-up” if a solution is to be found, Kilmartin said. That includes training presidents, top administrators and police, as well as bystander intervention programs for students.
He would like to see a common campus climate survey conducted to better gauge the problem. The survey should use behavioral terms — not asking whether you have committed rape, but have you ever held someone down to have sex.
“It’s amazing the number of men who will admit this because they don’t see it as a crime or even problematic,” said Kilmartin, who was a consultant for the U.S. Naval Academy for a revision of sexual assault and harassment prevention curriculum.
Kilmartin points to research showing that about 90 percent of acquaintance rapes are committed by serial offenders.
Yet administrators and police sometimes “put up barriers” that discourage the reporting of assaults, a result of a blame-the-victim psychology but also because “campuses want to brand themselves as being safe places,” he said during a recent meeting of a task force committee discussing strategies for prevention.
“Talk about failure,” Kilmartin said of James Madison University’s handling of a case in which three students groped a classmate on a 2013 spring break trip and then shared the videos they made of the assault. Although the students were found responsible in a campus proceeding, the university expelled them but made the sanction effective after graduation.
“Expelled after graduation, really?” Kilmartin said. “You’re a student at James Madison and you’ve been hurt and you know about this; how likely are you going to be to come forward?”
JMU is among 88 universities across the country under investigation by the federal Office for Civil Rights for their handling of sexual violence allegations. U.Va., the College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond and Virginia Military Institute also are on the list, which is updated weekly.
But U.Va. especially has been the focus of high-profile cases. Last week, U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate allegations in the article by Rolling Stone, saying it contained details that were new to university officials.
The alleged rape took place in September 2012, after U.Va. was roiled by a summer leadership crisis in which the governing board sought unsuccessfully to remove Sullivan, and her critics were quick to weigh in again.
“I think this is yet another bit of evidence that universities are ill-equipped to deal with the adjudication of felonies,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an activist group that had supported Sullivan’s removal.
“We can’t expect educational bureaucrats, quite frankly, to deal with these matters,” she said. Academic leadership instead should focus on ending the party culture that contributes to the problem.
Neal said ACTA objects to parallel systems on campus that “are disregarding due process” by using the lower civil standard of proof to hold accused students responsible.
“I think it’s a red herring to say that universities shouldn’t deal with it,” counters Emily Renda, project coordinator in U.Va.’s Office of Student Affairs and chairwoman of the task force committee on prevention, noting federal law requires schools to address sexual violence.
“The question is not should we but how are we going to do this better given that we have to,” said Renda, a May graduate who has spoken out about being assaulted during her first year at U.Va.
But also, Renda said, the argument reflects “a limited view of how effective the criminal justice system has been” in addressing assaults on campus, especially those involving alcohol.
Nationally, the debate over how colleges handle sexual assault has deepened a gender divide. Advocates for men say the federal mandate using “the preponderance of evidence” standard to hold accused perpetrators responsible is unfair.
Women say colleges still don’t get it right. A Columbia University student began carrying a mattress around campus this semester after her alleged assailant was not expelled, a symbolic protest that is spreading to other colleges.
“We know this is among the most gender-divided issues out there,” said Dorothy Edwards, a member of the governor’s task force and executive director of Green Dot etc., an organization that provides violence prevention training.
“It’s polarized men against women — men were labeled as perpetrators, women were labeled as victims,” she said. “We did a disservice to both and lost the majority of both by limiting to those two constructs.”
Sexual violence has been reduced to a “niche issue” as a result, Edwards told the committee members at U.Va. who are focusing on how to prevent assaults.
The tactics used in most sexual harassment campaigns have made men defensive, she said. “They’re sick and tired of being told they’re a rapist when in fact they are not.”
And women are tired of the victim-blaming drumbeat that stopping rape is their responsibility, she said.
Kilmartin, the UMW professor who writes about men and masculinity, sees implicit victim blaming even in how resources are allocated on campuses to counter sexual assault.
“We spend a lot more on the integrity of people’s emails than on the integrity of people’s bodies,” he said.
He explains the psychology of victim blaming this way: “We cannot distance ourselves from victims of random violence … we could have been in Norris Hall (during the Virginia Tech massacre). But we can separate ourselves psychologically from victims of interpersonal violence.”
Gil Harrington knows victim blaming all too well.
After her daughter went missing, “we had a police officer tell us early on, ‘Well, she was wearing a miniskirt, so if there was a minister coming by on that bridge he would have picked her up’ — said this to the grieving parents of the missing girl.”
Morgan, a 20-year-old sophomore at Tech, was last seen hitchhiking on the Copeley Road railroad bridge after she was denied readmission to a Metallica concert at U.Va.’s John Paul Jones Arena.
Harrington saw a difference in police reaction after 18-year-old Graham disappeared.
When Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo was asked if the U.Va. student had been drinking, he “did not quite beat on the podium” but pointedly responded, “Do not cast aspersions on the character of this young woman we are trying so desperately to find,” Harrington recalled.
“So in a few years, the culture itself has changed,” she said.
Federal education mandates are forcing a sea change in how sexual violence is addressed, she said, but she also credits the kind of pushback from mothers that changed views and laws on drunken driving.
“I do think we have moved the ocean liner,” she said.
Mothers “changed the cultural mores and then the laws changed” on drinking, she said. “What you are seeing is the process of the laws reconfiguring to reflect the change in popular culture.”