Chapel Hill: Opinion

Jennifer Thompson: System fails college students who are raped

Four years ago last month, my co-author Ronald Cotton and I were on the UNC campus for an all-day discussion of our book, “Picking Cotton.” We were thrilled that the university had chosen us as the common read for 2010.

After a day of small-group discussions, lunch and more group discussions we were ready for the big event that night in Memorial Hall. We had been told to expect 500 to 600 folks to turn out; instead it was standing room only. Ronald and I led the public through our journey, one of brutal sexual violence, wrongful incarceration and ultimately forgiveness and healing. It took us over two hours to sign all the books that awaited us after our speech. I felt such hope that that so many people cared about the issues that had impacted not only our lives, but thousands of others across the state and country.

I moved to Chapel Hill two years later, a place now I call home. It did not take long before I began to get calls from girls on campus that had been raped; they were looking for someone who would listen. I sat with them for countless hours, hearing stories of horror, confusion at administrators, dismissal of their pain by fellow students and victim blaming by the university judicial process. They were left to not only feel powerless but also further trauma by people put in place to protect them.

I have spoken to hundreds of universities and colleges across the country, from Walla Walla to Harvard. I have found no difference. After every speech I see them coming, the vacant-eyed girls who started their journey to success wide eyed. They come shaking, collapsing into my arms. I hold them, witness the pain and offer my unending presence and support. I continue to keep up with them long after that meeting. They share with me how they dropped out of school, no longer able to keep up with their classes because the rapist is in the same class or dorm. They tell me how much weight they lost as eating disorders take over their once healthy bodies. Or that they now abuse drugs and alcohol so they can numb out to avoid the fear and depression they suffer from. Some even try to kill themselves because no one will listen to them, while he is still there.

It is the same story, one after another of systemic failure. Parents tell their daughters to go to college so they will have a good future. Study hard and you will have a career waiting for you. What they don’t tell them and perhaps they don’t know, is that 1 in 5 of them will be raped in the four years they will walk that campus, according to “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” by The White House Council on Women and Girls. That 7 percent of college males admit (that is the ones that admit) to rape, the average numbers of rapes they will commit is six. It is the single most dangerous place for a girl between the ages of 18 and 25. And no one is talking about it. They don’t even know.

I recently sat with a student I have been working with for a year. I asked if anyone had told her that if she was assaulted to call the police. Her answer was no, she did not even know she could! All she wanted to do was come to Carolina and be a doctor. Her rapist was allowed to stay on campus throughout the year, the hearing was after spring finals (lord knows we don’t want to disrupt his studying for exams) and he was asked to leave for one year. The punishment is right up there with cheating on a paper or test. Rape a girl. Cheat on a test. Is anyone listening? In the criminal justice world this is called a felony.

I have asked for a seat at the table to discuss what can be done, I have all but begged to help with real solutions to real problems. I have been met with silence and at one time was actually looked at and told shhhhhh. In the meantime, I will get more calls. I will hold more students.

I guess we aren’t in Kansas anymore. But perhaps we need to pull the curtain away from the great and powerful OZ and recognize what and who we are really dealing with.

Jennifer Thompson

Co-Author of Picking Cotton