Tagged: sexual assault

UMD expands sexual assault response beyond campus: Sounds good, right? It’s not that simple.

Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 1.19.27 AMThe University of Maryland Senate — a legislative body consisting of students, faculty, staff and administrators — voted last week to expand the school’s Code of Student Conduct so that officials can now respond to sexual assaults — and other conduct violations — that are reported not just on-campus but off-campus as well, the Diamondback reported Friday.

Previously, according to an official quoted in the Diamondback’s article, staff in the UMD Office of Student Conduct were forced to refer survivors of 0ff-campus sexual assault to the Prince of George’s County Police Department, which has jurisdiction surrounding the College Park campus.

According to the paper, sexual assault counselors at the school were receiving a large amount of reports of assaults off-campus (not at all surprising), but were concerned that they weren’t able to aid survivors by pursuing the sexual misconduct violations internally, in addition to any criminal consequences that may or may not come as a result of a law enforcement investigation. Apparently, University Police have even requested that they be allowed to expand their jurisdiction off-campus, again, not just for sexual assault, but for many other crimes/conduct violations, including assault, hazing and theft.

Sounds like a win-win, right? Sexual assault  survivors can report misconduct and get help from more agencies, and UMD administrators can help discourage sexual assault by punishing more perpetrators, right?

Yes this is right, and the increased attention to sex crimes is important.  But it’s important to also consider the extra layer of bureaucracy that is added here.

By increasing the amount of agencies that can investigate sexual assault, University administrators are putting more space between survivors and law enforcement. This is problematic, because it’s likely that police detectives are more experienced in investigating sexual misconduct and most importantly, they’re more likely to be able to find connections to other cases.

Let me show you what I’m talking about. My colleague at The Michigan Daily, Austen Hufford, wrote an impressive piece in March about how the University of Michigan’s internal investigations may have complicated a response by the Ann Arbor Police Department and a prompt alert to the University community about an assailant that may have assaulted at least three women.

In this case, a student reported to a University employee in September 2012 that she was sexually assaulted at a party in a off-campus, high-rise apartment building. Because the student did not wish to file a police report and not enough information was known about the crime, University Police did not alert the campus community. Instead, the Office of Institutional Equity — an internal security agency — was charged with investigating the report, per University policy.

While investigating the assault, OIE investigators learned of a second possible assault, alleged against the same suspect in the same apartment. It’s not clear why OIE didn’t tell University Police about this discovery, but because they didn’t, police were not able to even consider if a crime alert  should be sent out to the community. In both cases, there wasn’t much Ann Arbor Police could do without a police report.

Later, in February 2013, a third student reported to a staff member that she was sexually assaulted by the suspect in the high-rise apartment that month. This time, the staff member reported the incident to University Police (and later Ann Arbor Police), who then alerted OIE. An investigator at OIE must have had a sudden realization, because the Office alerted University and Ann Arbor Police that there weren’t just two sexual assaults reported at the apartment since September — there were three.

Had both September incidents been immediately reported to police — if not by the survivors then at least by OIE — it’s likely a connection could have been made in September, or at least an eyebrow could have been raised by detectives. Instead, a pattern wasn’t realized until roughly five months later, when the suspect is alleged to have struck again.

What I’m trying to say here is that, though it might seem like adding more investigators into the mix might combat sexual assault, it runs the risk of letting suspects slip through institutional gaps. In a perfect world, intelligence is fully shared across all agencies, and connections are always made between cases that are investigated by different agencies. I don’t have to tell you that’s hardly the case in any law enforcement network in the world today. The University knows that from a child pornography scandal that I reported on in 2012, in which security officers and an attorney neglected to share critical information with University Police.

If UMD’s Office of Student Conduct plans to share all information with the University’s police department, then it seems the change should help curb sexual assault. But experience at other universities suggests that might not happen. It’s a good strategy to have more investigators looking into reports of sexual assault, but that may be problematic if they’re not working together.