Conference focuses on campus sexual assault

In the two weeks since the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office hosted the National Association of Attorneys General Conference on Sexual Assault on College Campuses in Providence Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, local law enforcement officers, attorneys general, Rhode Island educators and “victim advocates” are continuing to consider how to address campus sexual assaults.

Though no specific policy goals have been established, the conference incorporated responses from different stakeholders on a number of potential measures, including a uniform, statewide standard for all schools in the state.

The attorney general’s office wants to create an atmosphere where victims are not afraid to speak up, said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “Unless the victim comes forward, we may never know that one of these atrocities has happened.”

His office had met with colleges before the conference on sexual assault policy, but he said the conference provided a further opportunity to discuss possible alternatives. It allowed Kilmartin and his office to discover more about what educators, law enforcement officers and other organizations were working on, he added.

As of Wednesday, 85 college campuses across the nation are under investigation under Title IX for how they have handled sexual assault cases from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Huffington Post reported.

Title IX is a federal regulation that protects individuals from sexual discrimination in programs receiving federal funding. It mandates that all schools have “established procedures” for investigating and responding to sexual assault cases. Schools must protect complainants and take steps to ensure their education is not affected by the alleged offense or the investigation.

The conference is one of the first “collective conversations” between various stakeholders to “discuss the impact of pending legislative changes” on campus sexual assault cases, wrote Kathy Zoner, chief of police at Cornell and a panelist at the conference on best practices for collaboration between campus and local police, in an email to The Herald.

In January 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released “Not Alone,” a report detailing ways to identify, prevent and improve responses to sexual assault. One recommendation by the report was to develop memoranda of understanding between schools and local law enforcement.

Day One, a sexual assault trauma and resource center in Rhode Island, distributed letters to the presidents of all 11 institutions of higher education in the state advising campuses on how to develop memoranda of understanding and craft an informed response to sexual assaults with other organizations and law enforcement, said Peg Langhammar, executive director of Day One and a panelist at the conference who spoke on “strategies for optimizing victims’ services.”

The organization also offered training opportunities to the colleges’ first responders and other personnel who may be required to address sexual assaults on campus.

“Victims have been coming forward like never before,” Langhammer said. Victims’ bravery in challenging their universities’ sexual assault policies has contributed to the heightened awareness about sexual assault across the country, she added.

Colleges perpetuate the problem by calling sexual assault “sexual misconduct,” Langhammer said. There is a “mythology around that it’s just boys behaving badly,” she added.

“It’s crime. It’s sexual assault,” she said. “It’s not just misconduct.”

The conference encouraged “team approaches to addressing sexual assault,” said Bita Shooshani, coordinator of sexual assault prevention and advocacy for the University and a conference attendee. More cooperation leads to more respectful treatment of survivors, she added.

But Title IX investigations by schools can conflict with the need to get law enforcement involved early on in the process, said Amy Kempe, public information officer for the attorney general’s office.

At the conference, one group said it felt strongly that all assaults on campus should be reported to law enforcement, Langhammer said. But another group, made up of more campus-based administrators, stated that mandated reporting would have a “chilling effect” on victims coming forward, she added.

One individual at the conference said universities should be required to report sexual assault cases to law enforcement, Shooshani said.

A study published in 2000, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, found that under 5 percent of “completed and attempted rapes were reported to law enforcement officials.”

Another study from 2007, funded by and prepared for the National Institute of Justice, found that “fear of hostile treatment by the authorities” was a primary barrier to women reporting sexual assaults.

Other reasons listed in the report included lack of evidence, fear “of retaliation by the perpetrator,” concern that the alleged assault would not be viewed as credible, unfamiliarity with reporting crimes of sexual assault and the wish to maintain privacy and confidentiality.

It is frequently a “good tool” for law enforcement to be involved in on-campus sexual assault cases, Zoner wrote. “Accountability is a key component to changing behaviors for most individuals.”

It is important to be respectful of where students are in their process of healing, said Yolanda Castillo-Appollonio, associate dean of student life.

She said the conference was beneficial because it will help the University to improve its relationship with the attorney general’s office. She added that a better relationship between universities and law enforcement officers might help decrease intimidation and “make the process a little smoother.”

The process should stay “victim-centered, whether they’re on campus or in the criminal justice process, so that victims are allowed to be empowered throughout the whole process,” Shooshani said.

Though there is “no single best policy to fit every campus,” Zoner wrote, they should all have “proactive measures” to address sexual assault and “support a change in campus climate.”

One focus of efforts to prevent sexual assault is increasing bystander intervention, which involves the whole community taking responsibility and watching out for one another, Shooshani said.

There must be a behavior change — a cultural shift, Langhammer said. It needs to become routine for men to stand up to men who are engaging in sexual assault behavior, she added.

At Brown, a student can report sexual assault one of three general ways: confidentially, as a formal complaint to the University or to the police. Students can speak in confidence to Shooshani at Health Services or to counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services, Castillo-Appollonio said. Only the third option would involve city police and could lead to criminal prosecution,

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Copyright 2017