Saturday, March 24, 2007

Colleges, Police and Communication

When it comes to reporting sexual assaults, the numbers speak for themselves — only 5 percent of undergraduate women report sexual assaults to police, according to a 1999 report in the journal Violence Against Women. There are many factors that contribute to underreporting, such as victim-blaming attitudes that are prominent in our society. However, a large problem is the clear lack of coordination and communication between victim resources, which makes the process of reporting extremely difficult, disconnected and drawn-out.

As someone who has become more familiar with victims’ experience through working with PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), the disjointed and confusing system seems to be hostile and uninviting to those who are thinking about reporting. The Offices of the Dean of Students, the University of Wisconsin Police Department, the Madison Police Districts, University Health Services and other victim services do not run on a strong communication base to create one comprehensive network. While these services are working hard for our community, efforts to create an environment in which victims feel comfortable reporting and confident that reports will be handled competently are necessities to take the problem of sexual assault seriously.

The University of Wisconsin is federally mandated under Title IX and the Clery Act to respond to and handle crimes according to certain standards. For example, Title IX requires colleges and universities to "eliminate the hostile environment caused by campus sexual assault by requiring grievance procedures that ensure gender equity and to create timeframes for complaint resolutions, among other measures." Also, the Clery Act requires that universities give timely warning of crimes that present a threat to the safety of students or employees and to enact public security policies.

According to the Clery Act Campus Crime Reporting Handbook provided by Security on Campus, Inc., "While Clery does not compel the local police to cooperate with universities, it does require campus officials to make a good-faith effort to obtain such crime report information for both statistics and timely warning purposes." The Clery Act essentially requires continuous awareness rather than an occasional safety summit meeting. Unfortunately, universities often fall short of these mandates due to the poor communication between university services, programs and police — this contributes to the poor handling of incidence reports. Colleges have been found to violate Title IX when their procedures included several complaint processes (through housing, the disciplinary board and campus police) with no coordination among them.

According to the Senior Vice President of Security on Campus, Inc. S. Daniel Carter, “Universities should have a documented request in place that would require local police to immediately inform UW of all incidents occurring at, or suspected of occurring at, the house of any officially recognized student organization.” While the police may need to withhold certain information to protect their investigation and the victim’s confidentiality, there is no reason the school should remain completely oblivious to criminal incidences involving students until the news reports it first. Though the UW Police maintains open communication with the Offices of the Dean of Students, this is not so with the Madison Police Department, which controls certain sections of campus, including all UW fraternities. Following the recent sexual assault at the Zeta Psi fraternity, it became clear that adequate lines of communication do not exist between Madison police and UW officials. The current division of campus between MPD and UWPD hampers our university’s awareness and ability to help victimized students.

Hopefully, Dean of Students Lori Berquam has raised awareness and made efforts to promote campus safety including addressing communication issues between Madison police and UW to increase compliance with Title IX requirements. Perhaps campus boundaries should be redrawn to include student neighborhoods that are currently considered off-campus under UW police jurisdiction, or have cases involving UW students transferred from Madison to UW police to allow increased communication and coordination. Regardless, all victim services from reporting to personal care need to form a cohesive body to cultivate an atmosphere that encourages and properly handles reports of sexual assaults. Ultimately, increased communication and safety networks between Madison agencies will make campus safer for all victims of crime and our community as a whole.

Alexandra Cruickshank
PAVE Media Team

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What our Words Say

Too often our society downplays sexual harm when it is not accompanied by additional physical brutality. Saying that any assault has a silver lining is disrespectful to a victims’ pain and may trivialize the harm of sexual contact against someone’s will without the use of violent force.

Please note Madison Alderman Mike Vereer's comments in the following news story:

The base harm in sexual assault is the sexual violation, which is a demonstration of power over and disrespect towards a most private and sacred part of an individual, their sexual being. Whether you need hospitalization after an attack or recover in a matter of days on your own, a most horrible violation has occurred. Wisconsin statutes do not require force for an attack to be considered sexual assault; it merely requires it to be without consent. Two men forcing a woman down to sexually harm her is assault, her wounds are sexual and that is all our wise state requires to make it condemnable.

To end sexual violence we must realize how our own attitudes and beliefs might contribute to the problem. Diminishing the sexual harm can discourage victims from reporting if they were not beaten or violated to the point of physical injury, also these attitudes can work to lessen culpability when someone forces themselves on another without needing much force, like in situations where someone is intoxicated, handicapped, sleeping, etc.

While we can all agree that the physical brutality is an additional harm during a sexual assault we must be careful not to dilute the underlying harm. Sexual violence is a wrong against our autonomy and sexuality, which are intricate parts of everyone’s lives and identities. How we understand the base harm will influence our community’s responses towards eliminating this problem. Sexual contact without consent in and of itself should be what we abhor, regardless of whether physical injuries accompanied the crime.