June 20, 1994 12:00 PM

With its neo-Gothic buildings and sloping lawns, Gallaudet University is a green oasis amid the deteriorating row houses of its neighborhood in northeast Washington. More important, it is a sanctuary of another kind: It is the only university in the nation for students who are deaf. Said President Clinton at the school’s commencement exercises last month: “I used to say I believed in a place called Hope. Today I know the future of this country will be in good hands because of a place called Gallaudet.”

Some students—many of them women—are not so sure. When junior Jody Smith (not her real name) was a freshman, she says, she was raped in her dorm room by an acquaintance who had walked her home from a party. Smith later learned that her assailant had raped another woman at Gallaudet a year earlier. And a Gallaudet graduate student says she was the victim of two sexual assaults as an undergraduate: In 1987 she was sodomized by a student who came into her room, and in 1991 she was accosted on campus and groped by a group of three male students. She didn’t report the first incident. When she told university officials about the second attack, she says, the male students were told to attend a workshop on sexual harassment.

Sexual assault on a college campus is not exclusive to Gallaudet, of course. Using a combination of surveys and reported crime, the FBI estimates that one college woman in six will be a victim of rape or attempted rape during her college years. But in interviews over the last 15 months with more than 60 Gallaudet students, faculty, administrators and alumni, PEOPLE has documented a pattern of sexual assault on the 2,200-student campus that is disquietingly high. Maricar Marquez, 22, a May graduate who worked as an adviser to freshman women, says that eight of her close friends have been sexually attacked. Another freshman adviser, a 1991 sexual-assault victim who has comforted and counseled others, charges, “There is at least one rape a weekend in the freshman dorms.” (Gallaudet, however, reported only one rape in the 1991-92 school year—the latest available figures—to the federal government, as required by law.)

More troubling still, many sources interviewed by PEOPLE say the Gallaudet administration has either denied the problem or failed to deal with it effectively. “I have talked to many women who have been raped, assaulted and harassed,” says Allen Sussman, a professor of psychology and former dean of student affairs. “They would tell me that they were afraid to face the administration. Gallaudet has a history of covering up.” An administrator who, like many, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, agrees. “In many ways this is a sick, secret community,” he says. “It is time for the administration to put this issue out on the table, but they’re afraid if they do, students won’t come.”

According to Donna Ryan, a history professor at Gallaudet, the insularity of the deaf culture has made it hard for Gallaudet women in particular to come forward to tell their stories. “Part of the difficulty for deaf women in dealing with women’s issues like rape involves a fear of trashing the deaf community,” she says. In many cases, the women are afraid of being put down by their fellow students for bringing shame upon the university. “The deaf community is small and close-knit,” says Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. “If you make a fuss at Gallaudet, you’ve closed a big door.”

I. King Jordan, 50, the university’s first deaf president, who has been in office since 1988, told PEOPLE that students have not approached him directly on the issue of sexual assault. (His interview, like many for this story, was conducted with the assistance of an interpreter trained in American Sign Language.) He denies, however, that victims have been discouraged from pursuing charges against their attackers. “I have never heard that there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at Gallaudet regarding this issue,” he says.

Furthermore, Jordan does not believe that Gallaudet should be singled out. “Sexual assault is a national problem. It exists at Georgetown, it exists at Harvard, and it exists here,” he says. Then he adds, “If a woman at Gallaudet faces sexual assault, it should not happen.”

Jordan’s response reflects widespread pride in an institution, founded in 1864, that is revered in the community of deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans. Gallaudet’s alumni hold many of the most prestigious positions in programs for deaf people around the country. For some, Gallaudet, which is 75 percent federally funded, is the only world in which deaf students feel empowered and in which they can live among peers who speak American Sign Language. (English is a second language for most students.) Explains Jody Smith: “Gallaudet means deaf friends, sorority life, a big campus with lots of deaf teachers.”

But within this community, many female students complain that they are treated as second-class citizens. “Deaf culture is about 20 years behind the times when it comes to women’s issues,” says Snyder. “The culture is still struggling to establish itself within the larger community, and women’s issues lag far behind.”

Many women would like to change that. “I’m a woman first,” says one victim. “And then I’m deaf.” Yet frustration over the school’s reluctance to deal with attacks on female students is tempered by a loyalty to the institution that gives all Gallaudet students a sense of community. Accordingly, most of the Gallaudet women who spoke to PEOPLE for this article asked that their names not be used. Three, however, did agree to talk on the record. Here are their stories.

A freshman frantically signed ‘no,’ but he wouldn’t stop

Before her freshman year at Gallaudet, Teresa Maxwell spent the spring semester of 1990 taking courses at the school’s satellite campus in northwest Washington. It was the first time away from home for Maxwell, then 18, who was brought up in Northern California by hearing parents and has been deaf since birth.

That April she met a freshman at a party on the main campus. He invited her to several other parties, and it was after one, she claims, that he raped her in her dorm room. “When he got on top of me, I said [signed and mouthed the word] no. I cried. He did it anyway,” says Maxwell. “When it was over I kicked him in the groin. He told me if I told anyone, he would make me suffer.”

Fearing retaliation from her attacker and worried that it would be hard to communicate to anyone what had happened, Maxwell went home for the summer without reporting the rape to the police. When she returned to Gallaudet that fall, she says, the alleged rapist began to stalk her and steal items from her room, including her extra room key. “I woke up one night and he was in my room trying to get in bed with me,” says Maxwell. “I was so scared.” She says he told her he had kissed her while she was sleeping.

Depressed and watching her grades drop, Maxwell complained about the stalking and thefts first to campus security and then to Carl Pramuk, the Gallaudet administrator who hears and screens complaints before they are presented to the school’s judicial board, a panel of students, faculty and staff. Maxwell says that both Pramuk and campus security officers told her that the charges would be hard to prove. She then reported the alleged rape as well, but according to Maxwell, Pramuk told her that the incident had happened too long ago to press charges. (Pramuk, citing confidentiality, would not comment to PEOPLE on this case or any other sexual assault case at the university. Maxwell’s parents and a close friend, all contacted by PEOPLE, confirm that she gave them the same version of the attacks.) “I did my best. I tried to get help,” she says. “The administration didn’t even try to help me.”

A victim’s complaint to the police is lost in translation

Katrina Mansell was a 23-year-old junior at Gallaudet when she was raped, she says, in a dorm room in May 1989. At the time, Mansell, raised in the Washington area as the only deaf child of hearing parents, was an SRA (Student Resident Assistant) assigned to help other students in her dorm. When another SRA, whom she trusted, asked her to study with him in his dorm one night, she agreed.

During a study break, Mansell used the bathroom in his room. When she tried to come out, she says, he blocked the door, forced her to disrobe and raped her on the floor of his bedroom. “I tried to push him away three or four times. He refused to listen to me saying, ‘No, no, no,’ ” says Mansell. “Afterward he freaked out and said, ‘Oh no, I raped you. Please do not tell anyone about this.’ ”

After the assault, Mansell ran back to her room and took a long shower. “I felt so-o-o-o dirty,” she later explained to PEOPLE in a written account. The next day she confided in a friend, who insisted on taking her to the infirmary, where she was examined. Later, a campus security officer drove her to the D.C. police. The officer assigned to her case, Det. Robert Sweeney, look her to a nearby hospital, where she was examined again.

When she met with Sweeney the following afternoon, there was no interpreter present to help take her statement. Mansell says Sweeney asked her to type her own police report, which she did. Asking Wylie Myers, a security officer who had accompanied Mansell to the station that day, to interpret, Sweeney then told her that the case “wasn’t strong enough to consider.” But Mansell claims that Myers, who is not deaf and is not a trained interpreter, was unable to communicate her response effectively. Upset by the police department’s failure to provide for her legal right to an approved interpreter, Mansell says, “I fell like I was raped twice.” (Sweeney, now retired, could not be located for comment.)

Undaunted, Mansell took her complaint to Pramuk, who referred it to the campus administrative board. Mansell was granted a hearing. A student who witnessed the proceedings and asked not to be identified claims that when the accused testified, he more or less admitted he attacked Mansell. “He said, ‘Maybe she said no, but I didn’t see it,’ ” says the student. “He said, ‘Maybe I made a mistake.’ ” Despite his admission, he was not charged. “I was really devastated and surprised when I lost the case,” says Mansell. “The verdict said I did not use the word ‘force,’ even though I described in detail what he had done to me.” Pramuk will not comment on the outcome. By school regulation, board members cannot discuss the case.

A Gallaudet class trip to Puerto Rico turns violent

Roberta Gage, 24, and her twin sister, Rebecca, were born deaf to hearing parents. After attending a high school for deaf youths in Texas, the sisters were admitted in 1988 to Gallaudet, where they enjoyed being part of its supportive society. All that changed in 1992.

That March, Roberta—without Rebecca—went on a trip to Puerto Rico during spring break with 60 other Gallaudet students. On the last night, Gage and a group of three friends went dancing. During the evening, the group split up, leaving Gage with Ricky Perry, then 21 and a junior. Gage says she had several drinks that night and apparently passed out. “When I woke up, I was at the hospital,” she says. “I was confused. A friend explained to me that I had been raped by Rick). I cried and was in shock for what he did to me.”

In fact the attack had been witnessed by a group of students from a balcony overlooking the beach. Saul Roman, a food-and-banquet manager at La Concha Hotel, where they were staying, also saw the attack. “Both of them were really drunk. He was trying to rape her, and he dragged her all over the beach,” Roman told PEOPLE last year. “When her friends understood what was going on, they got to the beach and started screaming and yelling. They took her to her room and called an ambulance. She was bleeding from her head.”

Gage was taken to the Puerto Rico Medical Center, where she was examined and released. After Gage and two eyewitnesses gave their testimony to police, Perry was charged with rape. The charges were dismissed when a judge said there was no evidence of semen or penetration. Perry was allowed to return to Gallaudet.

After spending a week at home in Texas, Gage returned to school, where she pursued rape charges with the campus judicial board. “I felt I had to press charges out of duty,” says Gage. “Everyone knew about it, and I was angry.” She showed the panel pictures of herself taken after the attack. In addition, several eyewitnesses testified on her behalf, and three other Gallaudet students told the board that Perry had made unwanted sexual advances to them during the week in Puerto Rico. The board’s verdict: The evidence against Perry was insufficient—case dismissed. (Ricky Perry, contacted this month by PEOPLE, answered in writing, saying, “No comment. I’m no Mike Tyson.”)

Gage appealed the decision to Dwight Benedict, director of Student Life. His reply was typical, says Gage, of Gallaudet administrators’ handling of the sexual assault issue. “Dear Roberta,” Benedict wrote in May 1992, “I had reviewed this case and your appeal carefully and thoroughly [sic], and…decided to affirm the decision of the Administrative Board.

“It is with hopes that you will be able to put this incident behind you and continue to work toward your degree here at Gallaudet.

“Have a great summer!”

In the last year, though—and notably since PEOPLE began reporting this story—Gallaudet may have begun to take the issue of campus rape more seriously. Professor Sussman agrees that the university is beginning to take some steps toward change but worries about the motivation. “They are only responding now because they are cornered,” he says.

“We truly believe we’ve done our very best,” counters Benedict. “We put together a task force on sexual assault just last year.” Organized in July, the task force is still in the process of coming up with a comprehensive policy on sexual assault for the next group of incoming freshmen. It is required by federal law.

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