Investigating Duke's slow response

A new report sheds light on why it took the university so long to take rape allegations seriously.

Published May 9, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

There was some arresting news about the Duke rape case on Monday. According to a report released by the university, Duke officials were told by a member of the Durham, N.C., police force that the 27-year-old black woman who claimed to have been raped by white members of the university's lacrosse team at a March 13 party "kept changing her story and was not credible." The report, commissioned by Duke president Richard Brodhead, was prepared by Julius Chambers, a former chancellor at North Carolina Central University, where the accuser is a student, and by William Bowen, a former president of Princeton and current head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It attempts to explain why it took Duke took so damn long to respond seriously to the allegations made by the accuser, who claims she was raped by three players in the bathroom during the party at which she'd been hired to dance.

According to the report, the day after the party, police told campus officers that the incident "will blow over" and claimed that the accuser had presented inconsistent accounts of what happened, at first alleging that she'd been attacked by 20 white men, then by three. Police reportedly assured the campus officers that any charges stemming from the incident "would be no more than misdemeanors."

Other surprising revelations in the report surround what sounds like a massive communications breakdown within the administration. Brodhead himself, the president of the university, found out about the charges only by reading about them in the student newspaper -- a week after the party. According to the report, when Brodhead questioned Duke's vice president for student affairs about the matter, he was told that "the accusations were not credible and were unlikely to amount to anything." Brodhead said that only after "a burst of activity on the part of the district attorney and the police" did anyone realize that "there was potentially a significantly larger story here." Perhaps the most astounding piece of news is that university officials did not realize there were any racial implications in the case until March 24. That's 11 days after the party. The report partially blames the university's underestimation of the situation on the fact that Brodhead and his key advisors are almost all white men -- a condition that technically should not have any bearing on their ability to absorb the magnitude of rape allegations.

According to the report, allowing the initial assessments of the case to influence Duke's response to the allegations "was a major mistake." Yup. Nearly two months later, the lacrosse season is canceled, the coach has quit, two Duke players have been indicted, and district attorney Mike Nifong says he hopes to charge a third suspect.

The report also reveals that despite the fact that some Durham police clearly didn't think the accusations would stick, one female Duke officer attempted to calm the accuser at the hospital on the night of the party. According to that officer, the accuser was "crying uncontrollably and visibly shaken ... shaking, crying and upset." That behavior, according to the report, "doesn't suggest that the case was likely to just 'go away.'"

The report says that despite the fact that Duke's response to the allegations was "much too slow," the delays do not indicate any effort to "cover up the problems revealed by these events, to deceive anyone, or to play down the seriousness of the issues raised."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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