The afternoon of Nov. 11, 2015, in the Atlanta University Center (AUC) was meant to be a quiet one. The day before, students and faculty at the consortium of historically black colleges — which includes the all-women’s Spelman College, all-men’s Morehouse College, and co-ed Clark Atlanta University — had flooded Morehouse’s recreation center to hear Vice President Joe Biden speak as part of the “It’s On Us” campaign, the White House initiative to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. They had listened as he implored college men to play a more vocal role in addressing issues of sexual violence — victims of which are still predominantly women and members of the transgender, genderqueer, questioning, and not listed communities — and had dutifully snapped photos and posted them to social media along the way. But now, the vice president was gone, and campus life had resumed its steady rhythm.
Melanie, a Spelman junior, was thankful. Having spent much of the previous day waiting for Biden’s speech, on top of October's frenzy of midterms and homecoming preparations, the international studies major was drained. A sexual assault survivor who reported being raped by someone she considered a friend at Morehouse her freshman year, she was at once frustrated that she'd had to leave the Biden event early to go to class, and already wary of what she had heard — Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. describing the college’s “zero tolerance” policy for sexual violence in his remarks and Biden’s booming declaration that “no means no.”
After all, Morehouse had handed off Melanie’s case to an independent investigator based in Massachusetts who, without ever meeting her in person, concluded she hadn’t been raped, despite the fact that both parties agreed Melanie had said “no” repeatedly. Later, she’d learn that the college also classified her reported rape as a case of “simple battery.” Like most Spelman students who are assaulted by a peer from Morehouse, Melanie was raped on the latter’s campus, so her own college had no jurisdiction over her case. She’d been struggling to make sense of it all ever since. Sure, it was nice that the vice president had visited. He and people like Wilson talked a great talk. But she knew the AUC had a long way to go before they could properly handle cases of sexual assault, an issue students — particularly at Spelman and Morehouse — had been discussing for decades.
So, Melanie (who requested BuzzFeed News use her first name only) was jarred, but not entirely surprised, by what had begun to circulate within the AUC that Wednesday afternoon: a photo of a “sexual consent form,” scrawled on notebook paper by a Morehouse student for potential female visitors, complete with space for a “hoe signature” and a date. “By signing this I (hoe signature) will not spread misleading truths and/or ignomious [sic] lies. If found in violation of this consent form I (hoe signature) will be indicted and prosecuted accordingly as well as be exposed campus wide as a lying bitch.”
Administrators sent emails denouncing the contract, student activists in the AUC drafted a list of demands from the colleges, and other students like Melanie who’d been assaulted during their time on campus spoke out — some through social media, others through active protest — pleading for their peers and administrators to finally acknowledge problems that they knew had long existed.
At Spelman and Morehouse, two private single-sex schools so connected that they’re often referred to as one — “SpelHouse” — some Spelman survivors who have reported their assaults have been left to wrestle not only with a campus adjudication process that they feel didn’t serve them justice, but also with deep guilt for having turned in one of their Morehouse “brothers.” Spelman and Morehouse are, respectively, the first- and fourth-ranked HBCUs in the country — and thus incubators for the next generation of black elites. But in many ways, they still represent a microcosm of the black community at large, within which respectability politics and expectations that black women stand in solidarity with black men in the quest for racial justice make the conversations surrounding gender and sexual violence particularly fraught. In the days BuzzFeed News spent in Atlanta, members of both communities expressed concern that this combination — of ineffective institutional processes and black cultural dynamics — has created a climate in which silence has become not only standard, but expected.
On Nov. 17, Morehouse and Spelman convened a forum to address the issue of “gender based violence” on their campuses, a rare joint event. The pews of Spelman’s Sisters Chapel were packed. “Ideally, Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta should be models of mutual respect between black men and black women,” Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said in her opening remarks. “We know that is not the case.”
Two days after the forum, on Nov. 19, Morehouse and Spelman were added to the Department of Education’s list of colleges that are under federal investigation for allegedly violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. They joined over 150 institutions across the nation that are under similar investigations, thanks in large part to campus activists who have shared their own experiences of sexual violence. Many of their stories, like Melanie’s, share a common element: administrations that were inadequately prepared or unwilling to properly investigate and judge their claims.
Yet despite the increased public scrutiny, there is still disproportionately little attention paid to how these issues play out on the campuses of America’s 107 historically black colleges and universities. HBCUs have a lower rate of sexual assault than predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, according to a 2010 federal study — the only major study specifically focused on sexual assault at black colleges. The difference is commonly attributed to the fact that black students at both HBCUs and PWIs alike generally drink far less than their white counterparts.
Yet buried in the same study is the statistic that, overall, only around 17% of black women report instances of sexual assault to the police, as opposed to 44% of white women. While it acknowledges that a previous study found that black women were more likely to report sexual assaults that occurred on college campuses, the incidents most likely to be reported were those in which the perpetrator was a stranger or in which the victim and perpetrator did not share the same race. “The extent to which these patterns can be generalized to HBCU students is unclear,” it states. “More research into barriers to reporting and the outcomes of reporting is greatly needed.”
Step onto the campuses of Spelman and Morehouse, and it doesn’t take long before some of those barriers come to light. Both founded in the late 1800s at a time when black Americans were barred from enrolling at traditionally white institutions of higher education, they sit side by side at the bottom of the Atlanta University Center and are each home to around 2,100 students. The roots between the two still run incredibly deep: Along with other elite HBCUs such as Howard and Hampton, they’ve long been where many black Americans aspire to send their sons and daughters. During orientation, each Spelman sister is paired with a Morehouse brother, a partnership that is meant to last throughout the students’ time on campus.
Spelman provided much of the inspiration — and background shots — for the idyllic, fictional Hillman College in the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World. Spelmanites live on a gated campus from which male visitors must leave by 11:45 p.m. They wear white dresses or skirt suits to formal college ceremonies, though students today say that pants are also allowed, but generally discouraged. Pearls are optional. “She's middle class, she's Southern, she has good manners, she's heterosexual, she's not deviant in any way,” Banah Ghadbian, Spelman’s 2015 valedictorian, said, describing the archetypical Spelman Woman to BuzzFeed News.
From the time they enroll, Morehouse students are immersed in what is known as the “Morehouse Mystique,” a loosely defined term that refers, in part, to the school’s sense of brotherhood. The Morehouse Man is described as one who “embodies all that is good, noble, and strong in the African American Educated male.” The college’s controversial “Appropriate Attire Policy” — now irregularly enforced but nevertheless still easily found in its handbook and on its website — forbids sagging pants, grillz, du-rags, hoods, and “clothing associated with women’s garments.”
Students at both colleges have questioned these traditions, arguing that they force young black men and women into complacency with a society that already oppresses them. “Throughout our history you have the sense that there's been two Morehouses,” said Casey Jones, a Morehouse senior. “You have people like [civil rights activist] Julian Bond, god bless his soul and may he rest in peace, and at the same time you have these more ‘respectable’ people.” Ghadbian, who was a leading student activist during her time at Spelman, found it difficult to reconcile the marginalization she and others felt by some of the college’s policies with the inspiring images of radicals like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde that hung on the walls of her dorm. “They're encouraging all of these things, but then once it gets too disruptive, the larger institution intervenes in some very serious ways."
Indeed, for much of the colleges’ histories, there have been two parallel narratives. In one, the SpelHouse community is a place that upholds the politics of respectability in order to propel students into positions of power normally reserved for white people. In the other, the community is meant to cultivate and unify the next generation of black social activists. And few issues are as emblematic of the conflicts at the two institutions over the politics of respectability versus those of resistance as the issue of sexual violence.
The night of Jan. 19, 2014, had already been a difficult one for Melanie. She was upset after a fight with a friend, as she’d later write in reports to Spelman and Morehouse, and she hoped that talking to a friend from Morehouse would help her calm down. He told her he had just gotten cable, so she lay down on his bed to watch TV.
After a few minutes, he reached over and put his hand down her pants. Melanie told him “no,” she wrote in her reports. He told her he would listen, but not long after, he tried again. “No,” she said once more. This time, he didn’t stop.
A week later, on Jan. 26, Melanie reported that she’d been raped to Spelman’s public safety department. However, because the incident had happened on Morehouse’s campus — like the vast majority of sexual assaults between Spelman and Morehouse students, given the former’s gated campus — it would be Morehouse, not Spelman, who’d have to adjudicate her case. Melanie knew that by reporting, she risked ruining the image of a Morehouse Man. But if she — a student from small-town Florida who’d barely even heard people talk about sexual assault before Spelman, let alone experience it — could go through the process, she thought, her black, all-women’s college could help assure her case was being adjudicated fairly.
Under Title IX, a school must inform students who report an assault of their right to request a criminal investigation alongside disciplinary intervention, and cannot prevent them from doing so. But Melanie said officers from both of the colleges told her to add a separate, final statement at the end of her incident reports. “I would like the two campuses to handle the situation,” she wrote in her report for Morehouse. “I would not like [Atlanta Police Department] to handle this, or any other outside enforcement either.” For Spelman, she wrote, “I want the campus to handle this. I refuse to prosecute at this time.” Melanie said the officers told her that these statements were for “record purposes” and could not be taken back.
After reporting to both campuses, Melanie met with Morehouse’s Title IX coordinator and director of ethics and compliance, Doris Coleman, whose role falls under the office of the general counsel. While Coleman is not a lawyer, much of her role, according to the Morehouse website, “helps the College to maintain its reputation... It also helps the College to avoid corporate scandals and to avoid harm to business operations from preventable legal matters.”
There’s no conflict of interest in Coleman’s responsibilities as a Title IX coordinator and a compliance director, said Lacrecia Cade, Morehouse’s general counsel and chief of staff. “Making sure that we are complying with the law — and more importantly doing right by the students not only on our campus, but Spelman's campus as well — is critical and part and parcel to protecting the institution and the brand of the institution,” she said.
“The first question she asked me is, 'Why didn't you leave?'” Melanie said. (Coleman did not respond to requests for comment.) Like many campus sexual assault survivors, she was upset that the school had made her feel as if she were to blame. Coleman then told her she’d need to speak with Lance Houston, a Massachusetts-based Title IX consultant who at the time ran his own firm, University EEO. Under Title IX, he’d have to use a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard to determine whether an assault was more likely to have occurred than not. They never met in person, and only spoke once by phone. His report was delivered in an email from Coleman 10 days later, on Feb. 21. “The facts do not support finding that this sexual contact was without consent,” he wrote.
Houston — who declined to comment for the story, citing privacy concerns — wrote that he had used Morehouse’s own policies to reach that outcome. According to Morehouse policy, in order to constitute lack of consent, sexual “acts must be committed either by force, intimidation, or exploitation of the victim’s mental incapacity or physical helplessness.” Because neither student had been drinking or doing drugs, the third factor — exploitation — was easily dismissed. Houston found that there was a lack of evidence to support the others, as Melanie had made “several contradictory statements” in her separate interviews with him and Coleman, he wrote.
Houston placed particular emphasis on how Melanie had come to be on top at one point, stating that in one interview, she said that she had involuntarily been pulled on top, but that in another, she said she voluntarily got on top after she originally said “no.” The difficulty survivors face in attempting to recall what happened to them during the course of their assault has been well researched and documented, but Melanie is insistent she said “no” repeatedly. “Saying 'no' twice and then getting on top of somebody?” she said. “That’s not consent to me.”
In addition, Houston noted that in her interview with him, Melanie had stated that there had been “no force” applied, and that she hadn’t felt “threatened,” although she had said she'd been in fear.
Houston’s report didn’t mention that in Melanie’s first incident report to Spelman, the reporting officer checked the box for “Phys. Force/Intimidate” under “Weapon or Tool Used,” or that Morehouse’s own student handbook states that sexual intercourse is typically considered rape if the victim is fearful.
What the report did mention, however, was that not only had Melanie said “no” at least twice during the incident, but that her responses had also been corroborated by Houston’s interviews with the student she said raped her. His main dispute was over whether he technically penetrated Melanie during the encounter, as she maintains he had. (He did not respond to requests for comment.) In Morehouse’s handbook, under the first point in a list on the “Prevention of sexual misconduct” it states, in bold letters, “‘NO’ means NO!”
“There can be no finding of sexual misconduct under Morehouse College Policy,” Houston wrote at the conclusion of his report. “Without additional and more substantive evidence, the Morehouse College Office of Student Conduct should decline to enforce disciplinary action.” His only specific suggestion was that a permanent no-contact order be instated for Melanie’s safety, although she has no record of one.
There are also discrepancies in the college’s crime logs between what Melanie reported and how her case was recorded. Under the Jeanne Clery Act, colleges are required to keep a log of all reported campus crimes. The crimes must be recorded and updated within two business days of being reported — a report may later be marked “unfounded,” but the classification of the crime from the time it was reported shouldn’t change. Recently, the University of Southern California came under fire for allegedly failing to comply with the act by misclassifying sexual assaults. The university is now facing potential fines of up to $35,000 per violation.
Although the officer who completed Melanie's report for Morehouse plainly wrote the incident type was "rape" — and Houston investigated her claim as one of "sexual assault" — the college's crime log classifies the incident as “simple battery.” According to Morehouse spokesperson Cathy Tyler, the college's police department reclassified Melanie's case "based on the fact that the elements found did not fit the crime." It’s as if it never even happened at all.
Melanie came to Spelman from a small, predominantly white town expecting to join a community where black women would be not only supported, but also in control. Yet throughout Melanie’s case, the college has deferred to Morehouse. Although Spelman offered Melanie counseling, her adviser for her case — Spelman’s then-dean of students, Kimberly Ferguson — and the college never challenged how Morehouse handled it. (Ferguson did not respond to requests for comment.) “At that point, I felt like I was sold a fake dream,” Melanie said. “Because the person who did that to me was [my friend’s] Morehouse brother.”
There is a long-held tension between Spelman and Morehouse — and nationwide — over how to address acts of sexual violence against black women by black men.
“It's been perpetual since I've been here,” said M. Bahati Kuumba, associate director of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, who has taught at the college for 16 years. “Every year, every incident, we have to revive that movement in some way.”
In 1996, a Spelman student reported being gang-raped by four Morehouse students, which spawned tough talk at Morehouse about the unacceptability of abusing women. Yet there was also overwhelming support on campus for the men, including the suggestion from a chapel dean during a worship service that “women bring abuse upon themselves because of their attitudes and their dress."
Ten years later, in 2006, two Spelman students reported that they had been individually raped by Morehouse students. As chronicled by the documentary Broken Social Contracts, made by a Spelman graduate, Morehouse’s Student Government Association issued a statement condemning subsequent protests and demanding an apology from Spelman activists for what Kuumba described as “disturbing their intellectual atmosphere.” One Morehouse student reacted by commenting, “At least it was Morehouse sperm.”
In two highly publicized cases in spring 2013, three Morehouse basketball players were accused of gang-raping one Spelman student, while a football player allegedly raped another. People within the AUC and beyond quickly took to Twitter to air their opinions, with many rushing to defend the men. “The response was very hostile, very violent,” remembers Amoni Thompson, a recent Spelman graduate who still lives with other Spelmanites in a co-op off campus. “‘I’m sure she wanted it, or ‘I'm sure something happened that didn't go her way and she just cried rape.’”
“There is a problem with how we're interacting with our Spelman sisters,” said David Wall Rice, Morehouse ’95, who chairs the college’s psychology department. “I think that we're hesitant to say that there's a problem because we don't want it to be blown up to be bigger than what it is. ... [But] if there's a sister who's raped by a Morehouse college student — one — that's too much. If there's the threat of rape, if there's the innuendo that rape could occur, that's too much.”
As is characteristic of respectability politics, the purpose of Morehouse’s conservative definitions for how the model black man should look, think, and act has historically been to defend its students against the stereotypes and scrutiny of a society that broadly criminalizes them. "[It’s] this idea of one that was suited and booted and had on bow ties and was able to speak the King's English and negotiate within this broader context of white rule,” Rice said. Given the U.S.’s long history of portraying black men as aggressive — and as rapists of white women — conversations about the ways in which some black men may nevertheless violate black women can feel next to impossible. “It's hard to understand your gender privilege when you are in very blatant ways oppressed because of race,” said Jamila Lyn, a Morehouse English professor who teaches the introductory writing course “Writing as Community Activism: Reimagining Black Masculinity, Ending Sexual Violence." She noted how recent activism around black extrajudicial killings and the Black Lives Matter movement have largely left out the experiences of black women. “The attack is [seen as] against black men. They're the moving targets.”
At Spelman, students must balance the ostensible empowerment that comes from being on a campus full of young black women with the expectation that they nevertheless align themselves with the interests of their brothers next door. “One thing about Spelman that has to be made clear is it is a women's college, but it's not a feminist college,” said Kuumba. During the ’96, ’06, and ’13 cases — as well as others in between — many Spelmanites were also doubtful of the allegations, or used the same victim-blaming language as some of the students and faculty at Morehouse. “We want to look as if there's unity and brother- and sisterhood, sometimes to a fault,” she continued. “Which often times means don't critique, don't talk back.”
One of the most painful examples of the ways in which Spelman struggles to navigate the bonds of brother- and sisterhood played out in public over the past year, as the college was forced to go through the process of cutting ties with Bill Cosby in the wake of the dozens of sexual assault allegations against him. Cosby’s $20 million donation to Spelman in the ’80s was, at the time, the single largest contribution to an HBCU. It funded a prestigious humanities professorship and a brand-new academic center. Two of Cosby’s daughters attended the college, as did actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Though Spelman suspended the professorship in December 2014, two months after comedian Hannibal Buress reiterated long-standing allegations against Cosby, the school did not terminate it until last July, after a 2005 deposition in which Cosby admitted to giving women quaaludes surfaced in the New York Times. The Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, named after Cosby’s wife, remains. It houses, among other things, the campus women’s center.
Current students say this tension is also clear in incidents beyond sexual assault. In September 2012, Dean Ferguson sent an email to Spelmanites on behalf of Morehouse that reiterated the latter’s Appropriate Attire Policy. At the time, Morehouse had refused some students entry to classes and events. “In particular, the concern is for dress attire that is distracting in an all-male educational environment,” the email stated, highlighting in bold red letters that “top and bottom coverings must cover all parts of your anatomy.” Jones remembered hearing similar concerns during his new-student orientation at Morehouse when, he said, an administrator warned freshmen about “Lisa,” a trope for a seductive Spelmanite who would sidetrack Morehouse men from their studies. “It was just kind of crazy how they were antagonizing interacting with Spelman women and getting to know them,” Jones said, “[as if] women are a distraction to male achievement.”
“When Spelman co-signed [that thinking] by sending us that email, we were crushed,” said Thompson. “A lot of us felt like the institution just didn’t have our back.” Spelman’s vice president for student affairs, Darnita Killian, later retracted the email, writing that it “should not have been sent.” “Spelman students are free thinking women,” she wrote. “As such, we trust you to use your best judgement in your style and choice of attire.”
Melanie’s roommate and best friend, Yemisi “Yemi” Miller-Tonnet, has felt similar disappointments with Spelman’s administration. Yemi, who survived a sexual assault in high school that she didn’t report, said she has several friends besides Melanie at Spelman who’ve been assaulted by Morehouse students. At one point, in March 2014, she tweeted, “I am only a freshman and I personally know 3 people who have been raped by a man of Morehouse. What are we going to do to stop this?” She was angry, but unsurprised, when a Morehouse student responded, asking her to stop for risk of ruining Morehouse’s image. “The rapists that are on Your campus are who's tarnishing your image sir,” she replied. “Direct your comments toward your brothers.”
However, Yemi was taken aback when, two days later, Dean Ferguson emailed her regarding an “alleged violation.” A Morehouse student had read Yemi’s tweets, in which she had neither named anyone nor used any identifiers, and nevertheless thought they were referring to him. “The young man alleges that you are calling him a rapist online when no case has been adjudicated to determine responsibility,” Ferguson wrote. “Please see me immediately.” She asked that, until the meeting, Yemi “cease and desist with all activity.” Yemi said she ultimately received no punishment for the tweets, but that she was encouraged to channel her energy into campus-sanctioned programming rather than addressing the issue online. She has persisted, however, to continue to tweet about sexual violence at SpelHouse.
“[They’re] trying to protect Morehouse at the expense of Spelman, which doesn't make any sense to me,” she said. “It’s just a really deep-rooted sense of protecting the black man. ... But everyone is victimizing the black woman, and where is that narrative?” Raheem Jessop, a Morehouse junior who has organized programming about sexual violence in the freshman dorm where he is a resident adviser, said he has no problem seeing peers from Morehouse face public criticisms like Yemi’s. “It's kind of frustrating if you look at it from a woman's perspective, when this is an ongoing problem and it's not getting any better,” Jessop said. “There are men who rape women that are on this campus. It's nothing we can just sweep under the rug.”
Cynthia Neal Spence, Spelman ’78, has not only worked at Spelman her entire adult life, but also spent much of her childhood on the campuses in the AUC. “My mother worked at Morehouse College,” she said. “I always revered Morehouse and Spelman.” Having taught Spelman’s popular “Violence Against Women” course for two decades, as well as serving as an adviser for both student and administrative initiatives surrounding sexual violence on campus, she’s well-aware of the challenges facing the institution as it tries to balance its responsibility to support Spelmanites with maintaining its reputation and relationship with Morehouse.
“It's like you're going against somebody in your family,” she said. “It's a vulnerability for HBCUs … [but] sometimes you just gotta out folks in the family when they’re acting up.”
Victoria Hall, a 23-year-old who graduated from Spelman in December 2014, has also gone through the frustrating process of reporting a sexual assault at SpelHouse. Two years before Melanie reported being raped, in May 2012, Victoria reported her own assault at the hands of a friend from Morehouse who had invited her to his dorm for a study break. At the time, Morehouse had yet to begin referring Title IX cases to Coleman or using independent investigators, so reports of sexual assaults were addressed directly through hearings with the College Judiciary Committee, a board that comprises a combination of nine students, faculty members, and staff members. Since Victoria had sat on hearing boards at Spelman before, though not for cases of sexual assault, she wasn’t too worried. “I [thought], Maybe it won’t be so bad,” said.
Yet Morehouse didn’t schedule Victoria’s hearing until the fall semester of her sophomore year, nearly three months past the 60-day time frame Title IX outlines as appropriate for adjudicating cases. "They kept ignoring me," she said. "They kept ignoring my dean's office. They were ignoring Spelman. They were acting like it wasn't happening." When she finally had her hearing — to which Dean Ferguson accompanied her — she was stunned. Spelman’s hearing boards are capped at five people; here there were nine, of which she said only two were women. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “And then I see Morehouse students, so I'm [thinking], This doesn't seem very fair to me.” After reading a personal statement of what had happened that night, Victoria said she was barraged with questions from the students, many of which made her feel as if she was the one whose conduct was in question.
“Why were you in his room at 9 at night?”
"Well, if you weren't there to have sex, then why did you go?"
“What were you wearing?”
On Oct. 2, a week after her hearing — and instead of the 24 hours within which the CJC is supposed to make a ruling — Victoria received a letter from Morehouse’s director of student conduct, Michael Southern, with the committee’s decision. It had been 146 days since she’d reported her assault. The letter did not state explicitly whether her assailant was found responsible (because Title IX investigations are not criminal proceedings, terms like “guilty” and “not guilty” aren’t used), but noted only that the CJC met to discuss several violations, including “Disorderly Conduct: sexual assault,” “Violation of federal, state or local law,” “Violation of published College policies,” and “Breach of the Student Creed: Conduct Unbecoming of a Morehouse student.”
His punishment: 40 hours of unspecified community service and the completion of an “online sexual harassment training program and Morehouse College’s violence against women program.”
According to the Morehouse pamphlet “What College Men Should Know About Sexual Assault Rape and Sexual Battery,” the “likely” outcome of a student being found responsible for committing sexual assault is suspension or expulsion. While Spelman has Spence’s “Violence Against Women” course, no such course exists at Morehouse. BuzzFeed News asked Spence, as well as a number of SpelHouse students, faculty, and administrators whether they had ever heard of Morehouse’s “violence against women program.” All of them — including Morehouse’s general counsel, Lacrecia Cade — said no.
Victoria described the rest of her sophomore year as a “blur.” An ROTC cadet on a full-ride scholarship, she’d overloaded on courses in order to make up the credits the program siphoned from her schedule. She was also an assistant to the dean of the chapel, and would spend many nights alone in the spacious single the role afforded her in Bessie Strong Hall, the picturesque house behind the chapel that featured prominently on A Different World. "I was doing way too much,” she remembered. “And the more that I worked, the more I was trying to bury my experience away.” Eventually, she ended up dropping most her activities, including ROTC — and the scholarship that came with it.
At the end of the year, in May 2013, Victoria decided to do what she had avoided the year before: press criminal charges. Because Morehouse has a police department, it’s customary for them to conduct investigations before referring cases to city authorities for further action. Yet when she went to Morehouse in order to press charges, they told her they had lost her original incident report. Victoria’s case also doesn’t show up on Morehouse’s crime logs until that year, when Victoria said she filled out a new incident report. Though her assailant, a senior, was two weeks away from graduating, she said the officers told her that they didn’t know where he was. After over a week, Morehouse told Victoria that they had concluded their investigation, and that they had found no evidence of wrongdoing. She let the case go.
For the next two years, Victoria channeled her frustrations into becoming a face for survivors on campus and worked with Ferguson’s office to enact a number of initiatives at Spelman regarding sexual violence and Title IX. She helped set up an internship program within the dean’s office for coordinating programming around sexual violence, spoke at campus forums and panels, and became an informal mentor for other Spelmanites who’d gone through similar experiences. She was also on a list of students Ferguson emailed in 2013, in the wake of the accusations against the athletes. "Please help educate our young ladies," Ferguson wrote. "Many of the ladies have already chosen the side of the young [men] which is very unfortunate as we really do not know what happened." That year, Victoria began going to counseling on campus. She also helped distribute a survey to Spelman freshmen, in which 24% of the 174 respondents answered “true” under the statement “I have survived sexual assault.”
“We already feel bad enough because we're all black. ... We already have so much against us,” she said. “For once we're trying to protect ourselves. It's not even about race, but of course [black men] have to make it about race by wanting us to protect [them]. I said, I'm not doing that anymore.”
“There have been some unfortunate aspects to the way we've handled this in the past,” Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. said in a call with BuzzFeed News. Wilson, Morehouse ’79, arrived at the college in January 2013, just months before the unresolved allegations against the basketball and football players. He said the college is headed in the right direction. “It is literally impossible on my watch that the women who come to us — whether they be from Spelman or anywhere else — to complain about what our men have done [and] for us to not be fair to them.”
On the line with him was Cade, Morehouse’s chief of staff and general counsel, who in an earlier conversation with BuzzFeed News had said the quandary of how to handle sexual assault cases between two single-sex campuses that is compliant with the law and fair to students is “one of those things that keeps me up at night.” Cade, who arrived at Morehouse in 2014, said the college has made a number of steps in the past year, including using local investigators for Title IX cases (rather than someone out of state, like Houston), conducting joint investigations with Spelman, and instituting the online campus training program Haven for first-year students, athletes, resident advisers, student leaders, and faculty.
When asked to describe the circumstances under which a student wouldn’t be suspended or expelled after being found responsible for an assault, Cade cited situations that are “perhaps a violation of Title IX or some sort of assault but not necessarily rising to the level of criminal activity.” BuzzFeed News then noted that in Victoria’s case, one of the violations addressed in the hearing was the “violation of federal, state, or local law.” “Obviously we don't want sexual predators on our campus, sitting in our classrooms,” Cade responded. “However, these are young people and they make bad choices all the time. ... It's worth considering: Are there options?”
President Wilson also brought up false reporting claims. “It’s a tightrope, because you on the other hand don't want them to think, Wow, all I have to do is accuse someone to get back at them. … You’ve got to privilege truth.” (The most widely accepted statistics put the percentage of false rape reports at 2–8%.)
He also dismissed the idea that a fear of pathologizing students at an all-black men’s school would keep Spelmanites from coming forward, or keep Morehouse from fairly adjudicating their cases. “That is completely absurd,” he said. “The matter of fact is we have a campus of young men and some of them are going to use bad judgment and some of them are going to use very bad judgment, and they're not protected by the expectations that we have for them.” But he also cautioned, “There's a stereotype [about] black males and you can walk right into it with a story like this.”
BuzzFeed News attempted to contact several Spelman administrators for this story. In response, spokesperson Audrey Arthur sent an email stating that “Spelman College treats incidents of sexual misconduct and assault seriously” and that, due to privacy laws, the college could not comment on any specific cases. When BuzzFeed News stopped by Arthur’s office while visiting campus, she reminded the reporter that Spelman is a private college and escorted her off campus without explanation. Arthur did not respond to requests for comment immediately before publication.
“I need you all to know that we’re going to get this right,” President Wilson began in his statement at the joint forum on gender-based violence held at Spelman on Nov. 17, following Spelman’s president. Wilson stood at the podium in front of a sea of students and faculty, forced to address yet another incident — on the heels of the "consent contract" and the subsequent student petition and protests — that questioned how two of the most venerable historically black colleges in the country deal with sexual violence. “Getting this right is very personal for me. I’m a father of twin girls.”
Listening from the mahogany pews, Melanie and Yemi rolled their eyes. Not only did they feel Wilson’s words had left out the experiences of queer and transgender-identified students on both campuses, but they had also heard this all before. Wilson had said the same thing the previous week, in his statements during Biden’s visit, and a week before that, in his phone conversation with BuzzFeed News, and two years before that, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed him regarding the allegations against the athletes. They were hoping this time would be different.
Instead, they were met with vague statements from Presidents Wilson and Campbell, respectively, about how the work is “underway” and how “we have to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other.” Katrina Oliver, at the time Spelman’s new designated Title IX and compliance director, spent most of her presentation showing students how to find the websites for the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights and Spelman’s Title IX Office. Coleman, who noted that Morehouse was still in the process of finalizing a Title IX site, took much of her speaking time to “clarify” the 60-day time frame the OCR outlines for Title IX investigations. “That is a guidance,” she said. “They do not provide policy, they provide recommendations. … I want to make that very clear.” While it is true that schools are not legally bound to complete Title IX investigations within 60 days, the issue of timeliness has been a central one in many of the current federal investigations for schools’ failure to comply with the statute.
Melanie left the forum in tears. She and Yemi, as well as a handful of other students, had stayed afterward in a last-ditch attempt to get clearer answers from administrators. Melanie had shown Cade her investigative report, the outcome of which she said Cade acknowledged was “wrong.” Later that evening, Cade also sent Melanie an email, stating that she’d review her case. (A week later, Melanie received an email from Oliver at Spelman stating that she had received Melanie’s name and was free to meet should Melanie want to express her concerns. Oliver's name has since been removed from Spelman's Title IX site and, according to students, she has left the college.) But after the platitudes of the forum, Melanie felt little consolation. “Why am I — a student still at school — [having] to tell you what you're doing wrong?”
A few weeks before the forum, as Melanie sat in her living room, she said she’s still happy she reported her rape, despite all of the disappointments that followed. “I feel like if I never said anything, I would have just been super lost,” she said, digging through a bag of candy. She’s now on the executive board of Survivor, a group that offers a safe space for sexual assault survivors to support one another, and has helped organize events like Take Back the Night, Denim Day, and a panel on sexual assault in a freshman dorm at Morehouse. That work has also come with its own difficulties, though. “We feel like we don't have freedom to talk about it,” she said, noting the administrative hurdles students on both campuses have to go through in order to coordinate programming around sexual violence. “Our hands are tied because of this damn brother-sisterhood thing.”
Yemi, sitting on the couch beside her, agreed. At HBCUs like Spelman and Morehouse, she explained, the burden to protect the reputations of their colleges is not only felt by administrators, but also by students. “What it means to preserve the image of an HBCU means a completely different thing than what it means to preserve the image of a white college,” she said. For black students at black colleges, speaking out becomes not only a reflection of their school, but also of their entire race. Among the questions Yemi asks herself when she speaks publicly about SpelHouse: Is someone going to racialize this? Are they going to interpret it in a way that's based on stereotypes and stigmas that I don't want to be applied?
“It’s true,” Melanie said. “You have to work twice as hard to even be acknowledged in the academic field, so this would bring [us] down.” Yet, despite continuing to wrestle with those questions, Melanie said she’s ultimately thankful that reporting led her to meet other Spelmanites, like Yemi, who share her experiences, women she’d never even have imagined had gone through the same thing. Yemi nodded and noted how negatively not reporting her own assault affected her. “It just became so self-destructive and it ruined my life so much to the point where I had to confront it, whereas with Melanie” — she turned to face her roommate — “you just channeled it really nicely and well.”
“Well, I don’t know…” Melanie paused, trailing off while the faint fireworks of the Pop Rocks she had just opened echoed in the room. After all, there had been the thing that happened last winter, when she met a student from another Atlanta college. He assaulted her. She hasn’t reported it.
“Somebody already told me [once] that it didn't happen. What would be the point?”
Anita Badejo is an associate features editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Anita Badejo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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