FOR CHRISTY BRZONKALA, THE nightmare began with a whistle in the dark. It was a heady time, the start of her freshman year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. On the evening of Sept. 21, 1994, the 18-year-old from Fairfax, Va., had gone to a party where the alcohol flowed freely. "I probably drank three, four or maybe five beers," says Brzonkala, who was then three years under the legal drinking age. Around 2 a.m., she and a friend returned to their dormitory, Cochrane Hall. "When we got to the building," Brzonkala, now 19, recalls, "we heard guys whistling at us from the third floor."

Fatefully, the two young women sought out their admirers—fellow freshmen Antonio J. "Tony" Morrison, now 19, and James L. Crawford, 20, members of Virginia Tech's nationally ranked football team. But amiable small talk soon degenerated into blatant innuendo. "They were both black," says Brzonkala, who is white. "They were talking about, you know, have you ever gotten together with a black guy." Growing uneasy, Brzonkala's friend left. Christy lingered, and though her memory is vague, she says Morrison forced her onto his bed and the two men, each over 6' tall and weighing more than 200 lbs., took turns raping her. "I was in shock, and I blanked out," Brzonkala says. "The only time I remember was when [Morrison] got off me, Crawford came in and he had his way with me. Then Crawford left, and Morrison did the same thing again." As she remembers, she never screamed or put up a fight. "I know it sounds crazy that I could just stay there," she says. "I just wasn't fully aware enough to get out to run."

Afterward she returned to her room. "I just sat in the bathtub for hours," she says. "I didn't tell anybody." But six months—and one suicide attempt—later, she reported the alleged rape to the university administration. Instead of going to the police, Brzonkala pursued an academic disciplinary hearing. That way she did not have to face her purported attackers but might be able to have them expelled.

What followed was a tortuous series of events during which the university cleared both men of sexual assault. On Dec. 27, in what was a legal landmark, Brzonkala filed an $8.3 million federal lawsuit against Crawford, Morrison and the university. (The amount of the damage claim is pointed and symbolic: $8.3 million is what Virginia Tech earned for its appearance in football's 1995 Sugar Bowl.) It was the first civil case ever brought under the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which recognizes crimes against women as violations of their civil rights. Additionally, Brzonkala's suit seeks to prevent Virginia Tech from ever again privately adjudicating a felonious sexual assault.

That cuts to the core of a controversial issue on campuses across the nation. Student crime victims can always go directly to the police, of course. And should they choose instead to go through their school, the college or university generally reports the felony—a theft, for instance—to local law enforcement. But sexual assault can be handled in an entirely different manner: Many schools often try to keep rape charges involving students under wraps, handling them instead through internal administrative hearings just as they would, say, cheating. Yet with lives and futures at stake, should panels of professors, deans—and sometimes other students—be a law unto themselves?

Typically, college hearings differ from criminal proceedings in crucial ways. For one thing, in an academic setting a rape charge doesn't have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, the hearings are kept secret. That can work to a school's advantage: By law, colleges must release crime statistics, but by using confidential hearings, they can illegally conceal the true figures on incidents of sexual assault.

Such secrecy can come with a price tag, though. In 1991, at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., four women students, who all claimed they were raped by one of two male students, sued the school for failing to protect them. They insisted that the administration knew the men were dangerous and failed to discipline them adequately. (The case was settled out of court.) Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, argues that the system is unfair to the accused as well as the plaintiff. "Students are stripped of due process and their rights as citizens," she says.

In the Brzonkala case, both sides agree that academic justice failed, and the episode has taken its toll on both the plaintiff and the accused—promising young people. "A lot of damage has been done, a lot of damage to Tony's reputation," says Morrison's father, James, 45, a high school teacher.

Whatever happened that September night wrought a drastic change in Christy Brzonkala. "It was like two different people," recalls her best friend, Meredith Patton. "She went away for a weekend in October, and when she came back she had cut off all her hair. She had such beautiful long hair, and she cut it all off. I almost cried." Brzonkala says she suffered paralyzing depression after the incident, drinking and smoking heavily. "I never went to class. I didn't do anything," she says. One day that fall, she cracked: "I tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of my thyroid pills." When her roommate attempted to call the rescue squad, the 6'1" Brzonkala threw her against a wall but was eventually calmed and rushed to a hospital.

In March, Brzonkala at last confided her secret. She met with a rape counselor and—fortified with drink—told her parents, Kenneth, 56, a program analyst for the Federal Insurance Administration, and Mary Ellen, 56, an optician. "My dad went ballistic," Brzonkala recalls.

Meanwhile, Morrison's life seemed scripted for success. A highly recruited high school player, he became a standout linebacker for Virginia Tech. Then, on April 28, 1995, just before final exams, he found himself accused of rape. Stunned, Morrison appeared alone at the May 3 disciplinary hearing—and in a separate room from his accuser—without even notifying his parents. Crawford, who claimed to have had no sexual contact with Brzonkala, was found not guilty of sexual assault; Morrison, who said Brzonkala had consensual sex, was found guilty and suspended for two semesters.

Only then did he call home, to Chesapeake, Va. "At first I thought he was joking," says his mother, Marilyn, 46, an administrator at Norfolk State University. But after a moment, Tony's flat tone convinced her he was dead serious. "I was just devastated," she recalls. James Morrison was mowing the lawn when his wife came outside to break the news. "I was wondering, 'What? How?' " he remembers. "Because, No. 1 to me, he's not capable of doing something of that nature. I mean, one of my sons?"

To Brzonkala's relief, the school erased her poor grades and reimbursed her tuition. But two months later, in July, after Morrison complained that the school had violated his due-process rights, the school held a second hearing—again with plaintiff and accused kept separate. This time, accompanied by a lawyer, Morrison was found guilty only of "abusive conduct" for using demeaning language. He was reinstated in time to appear in his team's 1995 opener. "The facts presented did not support a more serious finding," university Provost Peggy Meszaros wrote, explaining the decision. Asks Brzonkala's angry pal Pat-ton: "Would it have turned out this way if he wasn't a football player?"

When Morrison was exonerated, Brzonkala went public, identifying her alleged assailants in the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper. "I wanted people to know that I am not just a statistic," she says, "that I am a real person and that I was seriously wronged." She has since transferred to George Mason University.

The storm of adverse publicity has anguished Morrison. "He has been ridiculed on campus," says his teammate T.J. Washington, 22. "People call him a rapist to his face." Worse still for him, state police are now investigating the Brzonkala case. The strain showed last December when an inebriated Morrison was arrested for breaking the door of a tavern and stealing money from a tip jar. Charges were dismissed after he returned the money and agreed to enter an alcohol-education program. But because of the incident, Morrison was suspended from the team, missing the Dec. 31 Sugar Bowl. He has since returned to school, however.

Soon the events of Sept. 22, 1994, will be judged in the open. And for the pained and weary principals, the bitter controversy will reach some sort of resolution. "There are no winners in this," Kenneth Brzonkala says, knowing that any outcome, however just, is sure to be too little, too late.

RICHARD JEROME
MARY ESSELMAN and ELIZABETH VELEZ in Virginia

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Esselman,
  • Elizabeth Velez.