Sexual Assault at Gustavus

On Feb. 2, the Mankato Free Press reported that a Gustavus man was being charged with sexual assault. On Feb. 11, the Gustavus Community was sent a sexual assault warning via email detailing that on Dec. 13, 2015 Campus Safety had been informed of an acquaintance rape that occurred in a residence hall, that a report had been made to the Saint Peter Police of the incident, and that the College was following its own written protocols for response.

The email also indicated that on Feb. 2 the College had learned from a news article the possibility of a second victim in the assault from Dec. 13, and on Feb. 9 this information was confirmed and the same perpetrator identified.

Some questions arose from all this: Why the delay between the sexual assault incident of Dec. 13 and the Gustavus community being informed? What is the College’s written protocol for response? And in general, what is going on with sexual assault at Gustavus?

To start off, although the Gustavus community does not get weekly or monthly Campus Safety alerts or notifications regarding sexual assault, it still remains an ongoing issue at Gustavus.

The Annual Security and Fire Safety Report released by the College for the 2014 calendar year showed two reports of rape and two reports of molestation.

More recently, the Campus Safety Crime Log from Sept. 1, 2015 to Jan. 31, 2016 showed nine reported cases of sexual assault with five of those incidents reported as occurring since the school year started.

“We’d really like for there to be a formal policy that students are aware of be- cause it’s one thing if [the administrators] have criteria for determining themselves [what is an ongoing threat], and that’s great, however we would like to know what constitutes in their eyes an ongoing threat to us” – Jessica Green

While all these incidents were officially reported to the school, much like the Dec. 13 incident, the Gustavus Community was left uninformed. Director of Campus Safety, Carol Brewer, stated that under the Clery Act the College is obligated to send  timely warnings and notifications of sexual assault for the college community. There are three types of warnings: emergency notifications,  timely warnings, and campus safety advisories. The email sent on Feb. 11 was a timely warning. Brewer elaborated on what constitutes a timely warning and determines when one goes out.

“[A timely warning] is when it’s a Clery classified crime that presents an ongoing serious threat to the community as a whole,” Brewer said.

Brewer, along with Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students, JoNes VanHecke, and Assistant Dean of Students, Megan Ruble, work to determine if a reported incident is a Clery Classified Crime, an ongoing threat, and a threat to the community as a whole. Brewer explained the complications of this task. Depending on the amount of information reported, they may not be able to effectively describe the threat in a safety alert to the community; even when there is sufficient raw information to report, they must also determine if there is an immediate threat to the whole Gustavus community.

In regards to the Dec. 13 incident, Brewer said, “When we evaluated the December one, I didn’t really have a whole lot of information from that, but then when I found out that there was a second victim, that makes it a little bit more like, could it be a predatory situation or not? That gave me a little bit more information about whether this person is a threat to others as well. Then I felt that, we did have something that was maybe more of a threat to the campus community than we initially thought.”

Brewer wanted to stress that when deciding to send out a notification or alert, her main concern is determining whether or not this alert will improve safety and not just act as news. There aren’t any strict guidelines for how to make the call when and if to send out an alert. This leaves the decision process to a certain extent subjective in nature.

There is no sheet with check boxes to mark off when or when not to send an alert out.This subjectivity and lack of real definitive guidelines or definitions for what constitutes a threat to the Gustavus community is something that concerns students.

“We’d really like for there to be a formal policy that students are aware of because it’s one thing if [the administrators] have criteria for determining themselves [what is an ongoing threat], and that’s great, however we would like to know what constitutes in their eyes an ongoing threat to us,” Sophomore Co-President of the Womyn’s Awareness Center (WAC) Jessica Green said.

Students are not just frustrated that they do not know the Administrations guidelines, but they are also upset that they do not get a say in determining those guidelines.

“We should have input about what we as a community  decide is an ongoing threat. And that should be published and transparent,” Senior Co-President of the WAC Leah Soule said.

This issue with transparency isn’t just limited to the guidelines for campus alerts and timely warnings, but is something that students are concerned with overall in how the College handles sexual misconduct incidents, particularly when it comes to sanctioning.

Psychological studies major Mattilan “Matti” Martin shared her story about going through the sexual misconduct process at Gustavus as a victim.

“My experiences with the sexual misconduct board were abhorrent and embarrassing and horrible to deal with as a victim. . .what is going on at this school is not making students feel safe,” Martin said.

Martin mentioned that the sexual misconduct board doesn’t have strict guidelines to follow. Under the sanctioning section of the Gustie Guide there is a clause attached to the recommended sanctions that reads “The conduct body reserves the right to broaden or lessen any range of recommended sanctions in the case of serious mitigating circumstances or egregiously offensive behavior.”

Near the end of my interview with Leah Soule and Green, they discussed how this clause allows for the conduct board to opt out of the Gustie Guide’s recommended sanctions and makes it difficult for students to trust in and believe in the school. They both agreed that the most important change the process needs is clear mandatory minimum sanctions that are enforced including sanctions on extra-curriculars during investigation periods. Soule believes “a sanctioning guide with teeth” might help deter sexual misconduct from happening, and if not it would at least show that the school took sexual misconduct seriously.

Ruble explained why the Gustie Guide has clauses about sanctioning.

“The sanction ranges are wide because the level of offense is also on a lengthy continuum (cases such as sexual exploitation and non consensual sexual contact, for example, can vary widely in scope). This is probably why the criminal justice system has crimes like this in differing degrees.  We only have one charge that encompasses so many different levels of violation.”

“So when you’re talking to a victim and he or she is saying ‘this has been a horrible experience’, I get that. I completely hear that. I don’t think that we try to make it horrible. I think that this terrible thing that has hap- pened to you is horrible, and every time you have to in this process relive that horrible thing, it’s just gonna contin- ue to be horrible” – Jones VanHecke

Students have also expressed concern over why students under investigation for sexual misconduct policy are allowed to continue to participate in extracurricular activities.

“Currently some of the ‘organizational activities’ that you refer to can carry academic credit, like varsity sports, and this further complicates a suspension from those. In our system a student is innocent until proven otherwise, so potentially long-term (2 months or so) suspensions for students who have not been found responsible for any violations is something we continue to think really carefully about. We have reached out to other colleges to ascertain best practices and so far have not found many colleges enacting these co-curricular suspensions while an investigation is occurring,” Megan Ruble said.

Other complaints against the handling of sexual misconduct by the College focus on the challenges it presents to victims.

“One of the consistent things I hear from complainants and victim-survivors, is that it’s a grind…I think it’s exhausting [the process]. I think, I know it’s emotional. I know that it’s heartbreaking. So when you’re talking to a victim and he or she is saying ‘this has been a horrible experience’ I get that. I completely hear that. I don’t think that we try to make it horrible. I think that this terrible thing that has happened to you is horrible, and every time you have to in this process relive that horrible thing, it’s just gonna continue to be horrible,” VanHecke said.

The school receives guidance from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), but they also have to take into account other federal and state laws, the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA), Title IX, court precedents and law cases in order to determine the best practices regarding sexual misconduct cases. In the past few years national guidance has pushed colleges towards defaulting with the complainant, but recent court cases brought by the alleged are starting to push guidance back towards ensuring the rights of the accused.

“Ultimately, [I work] to try and know what those changing laws are, know what those changing guidelines are, and try to drive us somewhere in the middle that protects everyone’s rights, that says it’s not okay to violate our sexual misconduct policy, and to try and land us on a place that keeps us between the lines,” VanHecke said.

While the administrators must follow the laws and policies put in place by various governing powers they believe students can actively make the process better.

“I’m not really a person who is ever gonna say students can’t do something. Philosophically I just don’t ever believe that. . .we have a long history of students playing important roles in not only participating in processes by serving on student boards, but also just asking questions and thinking together, and engaging in conversation,” VanHecke said.

Students like Leah Soule and Jessica Green have voiced their opinion to administrators before. They recognize that the school is in a tough position to determine what to do with all the guidance coming from OCR and changing laws, but do not feel things should stop with compliance.

“Our goal shouldn’t just be complying with the law. It should be working towards a more transformative model of changing the culture on campus to holding people accountable, so that we shift what we believe here at Gustavus and that people know that that kind of behaviour isn’t acceptable, and if they see it happening they intervene,” Soule said.

It is clear from this investigation that the sexual misconduct procedures are not perfect, and there are many different opinions and policies to be considered. The one certainty about this process is the horrible, common truth that sexual assault is happening. And it’s happening here in our own community.