Anti-violence T-shirts hang on Duke's campus.

DURHAM, N.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Rape allegations against members of a star athletic team at Duke University–a prestigious school here that bears the name of one of the state’s leading tobacco families–have turned a gracious campus into a national media stakeout.

TV vans have clustered in front of the school’s chapel and students have grown accustomed to media equipment crowding the lawns and walkways.

From the sidelines of the event, however, sex-assault advocates say the intense publicity should not make people think that campus rape is a rarity.

Each year, 70,000 college students between 18 and 24 years old are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, according to the Washington-based Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. Over three-quarters of college rapes involve alcohol consumption.

So why would a case like this attract such intense interest?

“Any time there’s a criminal case, and everyone goes crazy, it usually involves white, upper-middle class people who have a normal life,” said Juley Fulcher, public policy director at Break the Cycle, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group. “They’re not really seen as someone from the underworld.”

As has been widely reported, an exotic female dancer says that she was attacked by three men in a bathroom on March 13. The woman, who attends North Carolina Central University, a historically black college also in Durham, says she thought she was going to perform for a group of five or so men holding a party. Instead, when she arrived at the scene, she said she found the entire lacrosse team; all but one member of the team are white.

The woman, who is black, says she was dragged into the bathroom and raped and beaten by three men. She has also claimed that members of the team were shouting racial slurs.

The captains of the team have issued a statement calling the allegations “totally and transparently false” and said that the team is cooperating with the police investigation.

Last year the team, the Blue Devils, ended the season ranking second in the nation.

‘Huge Problem’ on Campus

Sexual violence is a “huge problem” on campus, said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the anti-rape network. “The risk for women 16 to 24 is four times that of any other group of people. It’s even a bigger problem on campus because so many campuses don’t take it very seriously and run allegations through their internal justice system. The folks writing parking tickets are the ones investigating rape cases.”

Exotic dancers–who often strip and perform lap dances for male audiences–and women in sex professions are believed to experience higher assault rates, although no specific statistics are available, said Berkowitz. “Generally, any population that is reluctant to report when they’re attacked makes them more vulnerable. I would include exotic dancers in that category.”

As media interest in the case mounted last week, some students converged with community members to criticize what they considered the university’s slow and cautious response to the situation.

“The relative silence on the issue reflects poorly on the administration,” said senior Aaron Levine at a March 28 protest, outside a press conference held by university president Richard Brodhead. Demonstrators were pushing for more answers and action from the administration. “Students without knowledge are assuming the worst.”

Lacrosse Games Suspended

In his first statement about the allegations on Saturday March 25–six days after the incident was first reported in the local paper but without specifying that Duke students were involved–Duke President Richard Brodhead said that if the claims are verified, perpetrators will be seriously punished. He also stressed that accused people are innocent until proven guilty. On March 28, Brodhead suspended further games of the men’s Blue Devils lacrosse team until there is a clearer resolution of the legal situation.

“Waiting two weeks is too long to wait,” said senior Yates Coley regarding the team suspension. “It is absurd and unacceptable.” She said the administration’s response could lead women to wonder whether Duke would be ready to support them in the event of a sex assault.

Brodhead’s move followed days of pressure led by Durham residents and supported by Duke students to get the university to explain what its approach to the case would be.

“We need to get together and make a big noise!” Durham residents Theo Luebke and Manju Rajendran wrote in an e-mail that spread to community members and student groups, such as the Women’s Center.

Demonstration organizers estimate that almost 200 students and community members gathered to stand in solidarity with the alleged victim on March 25, Saturday night, outside the house rented by three members of the lacrosse team that is the site of the alleged rape.

Duke President Richard Brodhead and athletic director Joe Alleva at press conference. Credit: Chris Hildreth/University Photography.

The next morning a smaller crowd was back again at the same spot to deliver a “wake-up call.” They banged pots and pans and said they wanted to “break the silence” on hate and rape and call attention to the lack of action on the part of the administration.

By Monday morning, March 27, the quad–a large grassy area surrounded by residential dorms, a chapel, academic buildings and libraries–was crowded with protesters. Students and local residents standing in front of the main administrative building gave speeches and expressed disappointment when no administrators came out to speak with them.

Flyers with the faces of the lacrosse team members under the headline “Please Come Forward” were distributed on campus to prod athletes to identify any perpetrators.

Sex Assault Prevention Week

The upsetting story coincided with Duke’s annual Sexual Assault Prevention Week. Run by campus safety experts it includes “peer educators” on sexual harassment and rape prevention who talk to other students.

“What we’re doing speaks very directly to what’s going on,” said a student volunteer.

Organizers have set up their customary hut on the main student thoroughfare offering purple ribbons for women, white ribbons for men; the two colors of the women’s suffrage movement that have become the heraldry of other women’s rights causes. Throughout this past week the crowd around the tent never dissipated, even during class times.

As part of the white ribbon campaign, many men sign pledges promising not to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. Although they have not counted the pledges, Donna Lisker, director of the Women’s Center, said she wouldn’t be surprised if they gathered more pledges than usual this year.

Next to their tent, brightly colored T-shirts, covered with messages painted on by survivors of sexual assault, such as “Little girl, no more,” and “Stop pain HATE violation” flap in the wind and streams of students pause to read them.

Further down the quad, hundreds of brightly colored pinwheels lined up in rows spin in the breeze. Organizers say they represent the number of Duke men and women who will likely be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.

Lauren Fischetti is a junior at Duke University. She writes for Recess magazine, part of the university’s newspaper, The Chronicle. Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief for Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Duke University News and Information:

Break the Cycle:

Rape Abuse and Incest National Network: