Campus-safety officials gave Venkayla Haynes a rape whistle during her freshman orientation at Spelman College in August 2013. These safety personnel at the historically black women’s college assured the entering students that the sound of one blow of the whistle could be heard from anywhere on campus, fending off potential assailants and prompting a swift response from police. Haynes was not convinced.
“All I could think is if a woman tried to reach for that whistle, the perpetrator will just take it,” said Haynes. “But still, in the moment when we all got the whistle I never thought I would be in any situation to use it.”
It was just a few weeks later when Haynes says she was raped by a football player at nearby Morehouse College after both she and the player attended an off-campus party. Haynes was devastated by this traumatic sexual encounter. “I just felt like a lot of me was taken away,” she said.
Her personal agony was complicated by institutional realities. Both Haynes and her assailant are black. Their colleges—Spelman and Morehouse—are affiliated, historically black, women’s and men’s colleges boasting storied legacies and occupying a rarefied space within African-American education.
When she reported the assault to then–Dean of Students Kimberly Ferguson the following week, Haynes encountered these institutional traditions in ways that felt further traumatizing to her. Haynes says the dean questioned her about her wardrobe and her decision-making that night. Though Haynes insists that her alleged attacker was not a stranger, but a friend in whom she regularly confided, she says she was blamed for agreeing to go out with him alone. Haynes says there was no institutional punishment for the Morehouse student.
Haynes believes the way college administrators responded to her assault reflects longstanding tendencies in the black community to shield black men from interactions with authorities.
“We always come to these situations where we can’t come forward because we want to protect black men or protect our black brothers because they’re already fighting against a system that further criminalizes them,” Haynes said.
Spelman College refused repeated requests for an interview. However, Joyce Davis, director of Marketing and Communications at the college, did issue a statement by e-mail, which read in part: “Incidents of hate and violence, whether they be verbal, written or physical, have no place at Spelman College. We have zero tolerance for any type of sexual or discriminatory misconduct and are committed to educating our students to be leaders in building healthy relationships that foster healthy communities.”
Morehouse College did not respond to repeated requests for an interview or statement.
One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Black women at historically black colleges and universities experience sexual assault at the same rate as women at predominantly white institutions, according to data from End Rape on Campus.