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University opposes bill for anonymous survey

23 February 2014 By Jon Munshaw, Editor-in-Chief No Comments
Illustration by production staff/ The Towerlight

Illustration by production staff/ The Towerlight

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Police and Campus Crime Statistics Act was made into a law in 1990, requiring public colleges’ police force to report all crimes that occur on campus.

Jeanne Clery, for whom the act was named, was a 19-year-old freshman at Lehigh University who was raped and murdered on Lehigh’s campus in 1986. Clery’s case began a conversation about unreported crime on college campuses. However, almost 25 years after the passage of the law, lawmakers are still making an attempt to better respond to sexual assaults. According to Towson’s Clery Report statistics, there were only two reported sexual assaults on campus in 2012, seven in 2011 and two in 2010.

The Towerlight examined what Towson does to encourage more students to report sexual assaults on campus, why this is becoming a national trend and how the federal government is taking the issue of sexual assault on college campuses into their own hands.

A more accurate count
In order to account for the disparity between the Clery Act numbers and the number of sexual assaults that actually occur on college campuses, state Del. Jon Cardin has introduced a bill that would require Maryland colleges to distribute a mandatory sexual assault survey once every three years.

A recent White House report showed that one in every five women in college will be sexually assaulted in their four years at college. But, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Jana Varwig and other members of the Towson administration are against the bill, as is the University System of Maryland. “I think we, frankly, are using a lot of University resources to do what we need to do to educate students, and I think we’ve been successful. And so, my question is, what would an anonymous survey provide, and to what end?” Varwig said.

The Student Government Association voted last week to strike down a resolution that would have supported Cardin’s bill.

Vice President for Student Affairs Deb Moriarty has already given testimony against the bill in Annapolis, as did Andy Clark, assistant vice chancellor for government relations for the USM. Clark gave written testimony against the bill, stating, “House Bill 19 sets an unrealistic expectation that MHEC, in consultation with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH), perform a tremendously sensitive survey every three years for some of Maryland’s college-going student population. The bill assumes that the survey design and delivery can be performed by state agencies outside the university and effortlessly merge or co-adopt a human subjects review policy.”

In a previous interview with The Towerlight, Associate Vice President for Campus Life Teri Hall said “it is not a good bill.”
Amy Becker, an assistant professor in the Mass Communication Department who specializes in public opinion and research methods, said getting an inaccurate count of sexual assaults that have occurred is a valid concern, but that it would be a great way for the USM to get “baseline information.”

“By gathering more information via survey, it could help any policy the USM wanted to work on. It’s certainly a good first step,” Becker said.

Becker said that she is for the bill, but if the bill does pass, it would be important for the USM to carefully handle how the information is distributed to the media if the surveys were ever required.

“I understand the concern, but I think it’s possible that as long as the USM has some control over the information that is being released and reported on it can be an accurate story from the data,” she said.

The unreported crime
Varwig said that in the past year, she believes the number of students who are coming to the Office of Student Conduct to report a sexual assault on or off campus have almost quadrupled.

Although the numbers aren’t publicly available, Varwig said she has seen more people coming to her to report possible sexual assaults.

But, as the Clery Report shows, the complaints to OSC rarely make it through campus police.

“A complaint comes in from a student, and at that time they are offered services, resources,” Varwig said. “Those services are a wide variety of things, such as how to report it to police, a safe exam at the hospital if they so choose to get it. We want to make sure they know their rights, and that we give them a number of options.”

After that, Varwig said, it is up to the student to follow through on the rest of the investigation.

If the University is given a name of an alleged suspect in a sexual assault case, they are required to investigate. If the accuser has a class with their alleged assaulter, that person could be removed from the class if they are found to be involved in a sexual assault. But if no name is given in the original report, the University investigation ends. “Sometimes [the victims] don’t want an investigation. They don’t want to take it to the police,” Varwig said.

Varwig cited a “mixed bag” of reasons why a victim of sexual assault might not take the case any further.

Coordinator of Sexual Assault Services Maria Wydra could not be reached for comment on specific reasons why someone may not want to pursue a case. Varwig said that Wydra speaks to most students who file a sexual assault complaint with the University. Statistics that appear in the Clery Report only represent crimes that occur on campus and that involve at least one student.

“For example, if something were to happen at the University Village or at Cardiff, that wouldn’t show up in the report,” Varwig said.

Chief of police Bernard Gerst said TUPD only investigates third and fourth degree sexual offenses, while Baltimore County Police handles first and second degree. Third and fourth degree offenses are classified as incidents of forceful or non-forceful sexual contact, defined as touching the victim’s genitals, anus or other intimate areas, without consent and against his or her will. First and second degree sexual offenses are more serious, and include sexual acts in which the suspect uses force and does not have consent of the victim, according to information provided to The Towerlight by the Towson University Police Department.

Even if the case is not taken to the police, Varwig said the University will still follow up with any potential victims.

“We are responsible to take action if we hear of something, or to investigate up to the point that we can no longer investigate,” she said.

Illustration by Sydney Adamson/ The Towerlight

Illustration by Sydney Adamson/ The Towerlight

A national initiative
It’s easy to use Towson as an example, but underreporting has been an issue at all colleges in America.

In 2012, there were only 10 reported forcible sexual offenses at the University of Maryland, College Park, four at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, six at Salisbury in 2010 and six at Frostburg State in 2011. For schools without 2012 statistics, they were the most recent numbers available.

At the University of Southern California, a student was told by campus police that her assailant didn’t commit sexual assault because he didn’t orgasm, according to The Huffington Post. At Amherst College, a student is alleging that after she reported that she was sexually assaulted, she was told by administrators that she couldn’t change dorms to get away from her assailant and that pressing charges would be useless, according to The Boston Globe.

In response to these cases of mishandling sexual assault reports, the federal government is stepping in to set up guidelines for public colleges to follow.

President Obama’s administration in 2011 sent out a letter to universities outlining what they should do when a sexual assault is reported, including that, “When a woman brings a complaint that she was a victim of assault, a school cannot punish her for using alcohol or drugs,” according to an article on National Public Radio’s website.

On Feb. 18, Vice President Joe Biden kicked off a new campaign to examine the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, chairing the first of an eventual nine “listening sessions” by his White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

“I’m here to listen,” Biden said during the first listening session, according to CBS News. “I want you to tell me what you think works on your campuses in your experience, what’s not working in your schools, what we should be doing that we aren’t doing, what we are doing that is not making much sense.”

Biden’s task force now has 90 days from the first hearing to make official recommendations on how colleges can better respond to the issue of sexual assault. Varwig said that the guidelines sent out by the government have helped Towson by increasing the number of students who have come to the University with sexual assault complaints.

“Over the past few years, the federal government has been instructing us on how to handle sexual assault policies,” she said. “They were clear on how we were to conduct investigations and what our time frame should be and how we should help survivors.”

- Brandi Bottalico contributed to this article.

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