COLLEGE PARK -- University of Maryland College Park instructor Scott McKearney wanted his 60 sociology students to address social problems through projects that pack a punch.
He felt pummeled by their response. "I had the most earth-shattering experience," Dr. McKearney said this week. "Seven women over the course of three days came into my office, sat down, and told me they had been raped. I was seeing entirely too many tears," he said.
Born of those students' tears was yesterday's 90-minute teach-in about acquaintance rape, at which women undergraduates read the words of students expressing shame and trauma in enduring assault at the hands of men they had trusted.
Statistics depict few such assaults on each college campus in any given year. Most campuses do not keep separate statistics on "date rape" and "stranger rape," but the Johns Hopkins University reported four rapes or attempts in the 1993-1994 academic year, for example, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County reported one rape in calendar year 1993.
While some critics of feminist activists have argued that the date rape issue is overdramatized, the people who field the anxious calls from women say it is widely underreported.
"Whatever number you get, the only thing we can be certain of is that it's going to under-represent the problem anyway," said Mary Hoban, coordinator of health education at the College Park campus health center.
Dr. McKearney's students arranged yesterday's teach-in, at which state prosecutors, campus staffers and women undergraduates offered different perspectives on date rape and its consequences.
More than 300 people, most of them women, piled into the atrium of the UMCP art-sociology building during a gusty, sunny lunch-hour.
Dr. McKearney and his students used the event to call for the establishment of a permanent sociology course on sexuality and for university funding of a new campus group aimed at countering sexual coercion.
The message struck a chord for Cindy Agudelo, a senior from Gaithersburg.
Ms. Agudelo said a foreign diplomat whom she knew attempted to rape her when she was still in high school.
"I think that's exactly what happened to me, and I didn't know how to take care of it," Ms. Agudelo said softly, as speakers addressed the seated, silent audience. "I thought it was my fault."
Dr. McKearney, who is also a part-time professor at Towson State University, said many people do not understand that acquaintance rape is every bit as serious as assault by a stranger.
The issue has tapped into deep emotions at University of Maryland Baltimore County and Johns Hopkins as well. In the past six weeks, word circulated of "rodeos," at which men would take turns forcing themselves on a single woman, cheering each other on and videotaping their exploits. Concern reached a particularly high level at UMBC. A women's advocacy group posted a flier on doors across the Catonsville campus, asking, "Has the rodeo come to your town?" and listing the event's characteristics.
Attempts to contact members of the Women's Union, which published the pamphlets, proved unsuccessful.
A reporter from The Sun was rebuffed in efforts to attend a publicized meeting of the group focusing on the "rodeos."
At the direction of UMBC Vice President Susan T. Kitchen, campus police investigated the allegations and found no evidence that any gang rape or any other kind of sexual assault had occurred this fall. Administrators fanned out across the campus, touching base with students, faculty and staff, without yielding any concrete information.
"It was all rumors and embellishments," UMBC Police Chief David T. Yohman said.
Campus officials believe the allegations ballooned from a Sept. 16 dormitory party at which men were overheard singing lewd lyrics about supposed sexual conquests. Male and female witnesses at the party said no assault occurred.
"There is always that lingering belief that campuses try to hide these things," UMBC's Ms. Kitchen said. "I can't tell you how painful that is, especially as a woman."
Susan K. Boswell, dean of undergraduate students at Hopkins, said she, too, received inquiries from concerned students and staff who had also heard of "rodeos." But checks with women's advocacy groups, health clinics, and campus police turned up nothing, she said.
Towson State Vice President Dorothy Siegel, who runs a national clearinghouse for information about campus violence, also turned up nocitations of "rodeos." But all campus administrators interviewed said that although so far the rumors are unsubstantiated, the danger of such assaults is real.