University of Virginia officials knew in mid-September about allegations of a sexual attack at a school fraternity yet by their own account did not request a police investigation until after a Rolling Stone story launched a firestorm more than two months later.
An associate dean met Sept. 17 with Phi Kappa Psi representatives to inform them of the allegations, and school President Teresa A. Sullivan alluded to them less than three weeks later in an early October meeting with the local chapter, according to a participant in the initial talk who declined to be identified.
Mark Lipka, director of standards with the national Phi Kappa Psi fraternity based in Indianapolis, said Monday he took part in the Sept. 17 meeting with Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo, but he would not elaborate. The source familiar with that talk said Eramo told them the allegations were about a sexual attack involving multiple people at the local Phi Kappa Psi house.
In a release issued Nov. 19, shortly after Rolling Stone posted online a 9,000-word story detailing allegations of a gang rape at the fraternity, Sullivan said school officials were unaware beforehand of “many details” in the story. Following its release, Sullivan asked Charlottesville police to investigate, according to statements both from her office and UVa Rector George Keith Martin.
Sullivan would not answer questions Monday about why she did not request an investigation earlier and whether she informed the school’s Board of Visitors about the claims before they were published. Neither Martin nor other board members responded to requests for comment.
Rolling Stone has retreated from its story about a woman named Jackie being raped by seven men in an upstairs room at the Phi Psi house off Madison Bowl across from Sullivan’s office. After questions were raised about the story, the magazine eventually acknowledged flaws in its reporting and the fraternity’s refutation of several key aspects of the account.
But the fallout endures, specifically over the university’s response to the story both before and following its publication and the school’s handling of sexual assault claims.
In the immediate aftermath of the story, state Attorney General Mark Herring named O’Melveny & Myers, a powerful international law firm, to conduct an independent review of both the claims and the school’s sexual assault policies.
Sullivan and Martin both repeatedly have ignored questions about whether the independent review will be made public once it is completed. Herring’s office has said only that the board is the law firm’s client. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office did not respond Monday when asked whether the review would be made public.
While queries about the review have gone unanswered, questions about what officials knew and when repeatedly have been ignored, including one posed by Board of Visitors member L.D. Britt during a Nov. 25 emergency meeting six days after the story broke.
Before anyone could respond, Charlottesville police Chief Timothy J. Longo interjected, advising that officials abstain from answering because of the ongoing police investigation of the allegation.
“It was my desire to have the question asked by the appropriate investigators,” Longo said in an email Monday. “In my opinion, it would have been inappropriate for the president to be making on the record public comments on specific details of this matter while our investigation is underway. Doing so may create the possibility that any subsequent response may become tainted or otherwise unduly influenced by a response previously given by someone who may or may not have been the person who first received the information or otherwise acted upon it.”
University officials have repeated Longo’s reference to the investigation in declining to answer questions about the timing and nature of the allegations as they were revealed to top school administrators, including Sullivan.
“We have been instructed by the Charlottesville Police Department not to discuss the allegations described in the article during the active investigation of the alleged incident,” spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said in an email. “The university’s policies, practices and procedures related to handling sexual assault are also being investigated by an independent counsel appointed by the Virginia Attorney General. We will cooperate fully with each and stand ready to take action where necessary based on the findings.”
Monday evening, university officials sent a release announcing a Board of Visitors meeting set for 1:30 p.m. Friday “to discuss the University’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and specific recent allegations.” The meeting is slated to be held in Garrett Hall on Grounds.
On the same day Rolling Stone posted the story, Sullivan issued a news release saying the account included “many details that were not previously disclosed to university officials.”
The source familiar with the Sept. 17 talk said Eramo used the term “rape” in that conversation but later clarified that the allegation referred to oral sex. Friends of Jackie have told reporters that she initially told them she’d been forced to perform oral sex on five men at a fraternity.
It’s unclear what specifically Sullivan told fraternity members about the allegations when she met with them in early October. No one at the fraternity answered a knock at the door Sunday and the local chapter president did not respond to requests for comment.
Sullivan’s office did not answer specific questions Monday about the meeting.
“President Sullivan routinely visits the fraternities and sororities to discuss a range of topics including issues around sexual assault and our bystander intervention efforts,” de Bruyn said. “We are pleased at the current substantive conversations taking place between Greek leadership and the university regarding how best to enhance the safety of members and their guests.”
In a letter to the editor published in today’s opinion section of The Daily Progress, de Bruyn acknowledged the public’s interest in learning more.
Readers of The Daily Progress editorial, “True or not, article has UVa hiding” Dec. 14, dese…
“There is an understandable hunger for immediate answers,” the letter says. “The university is committed to doing the right thing, which means meeting our responsibilities to everyone involved in an enormously complex situation. We will do that, and we will share what we learn with our community.”
Eramo did not respond to an interview request Monday.
She largely has been silent since the story broke. In a widely circulated video interview with a student journalist, she defended the university’s process for responding to sexual assault claims. No student at UVa has been expelled for sexual assault in the last decade.
The university is among 86 schools nationwide under federal investigation over its handling of sexual assault claims. The school denied an open records request for sexual assault claims filed since September 2012, citing federal privacy laws. The university did not respond when The Daily Progress asked for the claims to be released with identifying information redacted.
In his letter to the newspaper, de Bruyn referred to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, in declining to comment on details related to the Rolling Stone account.
“The university will be unrelenting when it comes to enhancing student safety, support, and wellbeing,” the letter says. “If we’re criticized for doing it in a thoughtful and measured manner — complying with local, state and federal authorities — then that is criticism we will accept.”