The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Rapes rose 333 percent in 2006

Students kept in the dark
Rapes rose 333 percent in 2006
John Schreiber

(John Schreiber)

On the homepage of its Web site, SMU recently announced a national magazine ranked it as one of the nation’s safest campuses. The ranking was based on crime statistics from 2004 and 2005. SMU did not mention what happened in 2006: Thirteen women reported being raped on campus, compared with three in 2005.

Many SMU students said they were shocked to learn of the steep rise in reported rapes. Meg Bell, a junior at SMU and president of the Women’s Interest Network, a student group focused on women’s issues, said a 333 percent increase in sexual assaults is both “terrible” and “ridiculous.”

Bell said that instead of keeping quiet, university officials “should have taken some direct, visible, definite, solid action.”

SMU officials chose a different route. They never told the student body, parents or faculty members that women were reporting an average of one sexual assault a month on campus in 2006. It was not until October 2007-in a report required by the federal government – that SMU finally acknowledged that 13 women reported being raped on campus the previous year. Since then the university has said nothing publicly about the 13 forcible sexual assaults.

SMU Police Chief Richard Shafer said he is at a loss to explain the increase. “I don’t know how to explain that,” he said.

Karen Click, director of the SMU Women’s Center, said the university does a good job of informing students about sexual assaults. “I think it’s sufficient,” she said. For example, said Click, SMU issues a crime alert whenever a student reports a sexual assault. “They always put out a crime alert, whether or not they involve me,” she said.

SMU records tell a different story. In 2006, SMU issued crime alerts for just four of the eight on-campus sexual assaults reported to police. SMU issued no crime alerts for the other five rapes, which were reported to the Office of the Dean of Student Life, the Health Center, the Women’s Center or other campus offices. Any administrative office can issue an alert, Shafer said.

According to police records, most of the victims-and most of the suspects – were SMU students. Women said they were sexually assaulted in fraternity houses, the SMU Apartments and at least two dormitories. One woman told police that three men raped her in her car while it was parked in the lot in front of Moore Hall.

SMU reported one rape on campus in 2004, three in 2005 and 13 in 2006. Click said she does not believe sexual assaults increased dramatically in 2006. “My assumption is that it is not an increase in the number of assaults,” she said. “It’s an increase in reporting.” Click said she was unaware 13 women reported being raped on campus in 2006 until being informed by The Daily Campus.

Dr. Victoria Lockwood, an anthropology professor at SMU who co-chaired the President’s Commission on the Status of Women from 2004 to 2006, said she is aware of the increase and does not dismiss its importance.

“It’s absolutely something to be concerned about,” she said.

Police records give no indication that anyone was successfully prosecuted in connection with the 13 rapes. Shafer, who has been at SMU since 1999, said he could not say when a suspect accused of rape at SMU was successfully prosecuted.

One reason for the lack of success may lie in the university’s decision to provide little information about the reported rapes. In nine cases, SMU did not issue crime alerts informing students and faculty members that a student reported being sexually assaulted on campus. When it did, the information was vague at best. With rare exceptions, there was no description of the suspect. No specific location. No details about what happened. No follow-up information.

The 13 on-campus rapes reported at SMU in 2006 are significantly higher than the number reported at other area universities that year. Texas Christian University reported five sexual assaults. The University of North Texas, whose student body is three times as large as SMU’s, reported one rape. The University of Texas at Arlington reported none.

Few SMU students said they were aware of the 333 percent increase in reported sexual assaults on campus in 2006. When The Daily Campus polled students to ask if they knew about this, 90 percent said no.

“I didn’t know that, and I’m an RA and we usually get more information than normal students,” said Jamila Benkato, a junior who serves as a resident assistant in Mary Hay.

For most SMU students, it is as if the sexual assaults never took place. But the victims know what happened. They do their best to pick up the pieces, despite being invisible to the SMU community.

Dr. Joci Caldwell-Ryan understands. While attending graduate school at SMU several years ago, she was raped in her Oak Lawn apartment by an intruder who entered through a window.

Afterward, Dr. Caldwell-Ryan went to a store to buy materials to repair the window. When she told the clerk what happened, “the clerk said, ‘Well, don’t you think you should report this to the police?’ ” recalled Dr. Caldwell-Ryan, a lecturer in women’s studies at SMU since 1998. “And I’m like, yeah! I ought to. I just thought it was my problem.”

FAILURE TO INFORM

On Jan. 21, 2006, two SMU students, one male and one female, met at a fraternity party. The female student said that later, the male student took her to his dorm room and raped her. On March 3, a female SMU student told campus police her boyfriend raped her at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. On March 4, a female SMU student said a male SMU student attempted to rape her at a fraternity house.

Three sexual assaults were reported on the SMU campus in six weeks. In each case, the reported rape took place at a fraternity house or immediately after a fraternity party. In each case, the victim was an SMU student who reported the sexual assault to campus police or other campus officials. And in each case, SMU did not issue a crime alert telling other students what happened.

Dr. Lockwood, who has taught at SMU for more than two decades, said university officials tend to shy away from publicizing sexual assaults because they see it as bad publicity.

“The administration does not want SMU to have a reputation that it is an unsafe environment,” she said. “Or for parents to think their children will encounter this if they come here. It can be just a way to put their heads in the sand. But you do have to make people aware.”

In fact, the law requires it. The 1990 federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure Act requires that each university make public annual crime statistics and issue immediate warnings to the campus about crimes that pose a threat. Howard and Connie Clery pushed for the law after their daughter Jeanne was raped and murdered at Lehigh University in 1986. Prior to the rape and murder, Lehigh had not told students that almost 40 violent crimes had occurred on its campus in three years.

While the Clery Act provides guidelines, the university decides whether or not to issue a crime alert. At SMU, according to Shafer, that decision is made by a panel that includes Dr. Bill Detwiler, vice president of business services; Dr. Dee Siscoe, dean of student life; Susan Howe, university legal counsel; and Patti LaSalle, vice president of public affairs; and Shafer.

If the panel decides to issue a crime alert, police submit a draft to LaSalle’s office. It writes the final copy, which police post on doors, bulletin boards and residence halls using 200 brightly colored flyers. They also post an electronic copy on the police department’s Web site. According to university policy, SMU officials are to ask The Daily Campus to print a crime alert. But editors and reporters there said police seldom do so. Shafer clarified that he would like The Daily Campus to publish the alerts, but that he doesn’t always specifically ask for that to happen.

Few students are aware of this system and how to access information. A poll of 53 students conducted by The Daily Campus found that only seven percent had ever accessed the police department’s Web site to view a crime alert. Many students were unaware police posted crime alerts on its Web site. Few were aware it had a Web site.

One SMU sophomore understands the importance of warning other students when a rape is reported. The student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that when she was in high school, a fellow student raped her. She told officials what happened but said they took no action against her attacker and refused to tell other students about the reported rape. She said that a few months later, the same student raped a second female student. This time, she said, he was arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

The sophomore said many SMU students do not take crime- alert flyers seriously. “A lot of people see them and laugh,” the student said. “I think SMU needs to re-evaluate how they handle cases.”

How often does the university issue a crime alert when a sexual assault is reported? “I would say 99.9 percent” of the time, said Shafer. The chief also said his department records every sexual assault reported to them in a daily crime log.

Records show that SMU issued crime alerts for four of the 13 on-campus rapes reported to the university. Of the eight reported to police, six are listed in the crime log.

A student, staff member or teacher who wants a description of the men who reportedly raped 13 women at SMU in 2006 would find it hard to get that information from the crime alerts or crime log entries. Here is one crime log entry: “4:18 p.m. Sexual Assault: Cockrell-McIntosh Hall. A student reported she was sexually assaulted in a residence room on 9/23/2006. Open.”

Shafer said SMU seldom included a description of a rape suspect in 2006 because all 13 were “acquaintance rapes,” meaning the victim knew the suspect. He said descriptions are used primarily to help police identify unknown suspects. Besides, said the chief, a description of a student would be too generic to be helpful.

“Let’s face it, if I give you a description of what I typically get: a white male, 18-20 years old, brown hair, blue jeans and a white T-shirt, what’s that going to do? That’s not going to tell you anything,” he said.

Shafer said once a suspect is identified, police close the case unless the victim wants to pursue criminal charges. “Acquaintance rapes would be closed, [because] we know who the suspect is,” he said.

Concern over the administration’s attitude toward acquaintance rapes is not a new issue at SMU. Until a few years ago, SMU did not issue crime alerts for acquaintance rapes because university policy did not recognize them as a threat to the campus. In 2003 and 2004, many students objected, citing national statistics showing most women knew the men who raped them. SMU subsequently agreed to examine all sexual assaults on a case-by-case basis.

The new policy had little impact in 2006. SMU failed to provide descriptions of the suspects in 12 of the 13 on-campus rapes reported that year. The one exception took place on Dec. 27 after a woman told police three men raped her in her car in the parking lot of Moore Hall.

SMU issued a crime alert with descriptions of the three men. “Josh” was white. Six-feet-two-inches tall. About 210 pounds. Buzz-cut blond hair. Green eyes. Barbed wire tattoo on his left upper arm. “Brandon” was Hispanic. Six- feet tall. About 200 pounds. Short brown hair. Brown eyes. Medium build. “Steven” was white. Five-feet-nine-inches tall. About 160 pounds. Brown hair. Thin. All three were 19 to 25 years old.

This too was an acquaintance rape, according to Shafer. “It was acquaintance rape, sort of, because she had met the guys at a bar beforehand and knew their first names,” he said of the victim. He said she was impaired and didn’t give a very good recollection of events. In this case, as with the other rapes reported in 2006, no one was prosecuted.

National studies have found that men on many college campuses increasingly use “date rape” drugs to sedate a woman before sexually assaulting her. Shafer said SMU is different. “We haven’t had any victims test positive for date rape drugs,” he said.

To obtain information on one 2006 rape report, The Daily Campus submitted a request to SMU police for the offense report, citing the federal Freedom of Information Act and state Public Records Act.

Shafer said his office is not subject to either law because SMU is a private university.

The Daily Campus also submitted a request to SMU President R. Gerald Turner asking for a copy of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women 2006 report, which includes a section on sexual assaults. President Turner refused the request. According to an e-mail from his executive assistant, “I’m sorry to advise you that Dr. Turner has decided not to release the Report from Commission on the Status of Women. He indicated that some of the material is confidential.”

FAILURE TO PROSECUTE

In January 2006, a female SMU student said she met a male student at a fraternity party. She said he later took her to his dorm room and raped her. She reported the incident to her resident assistant but decided not to press criminal charges. Instead, she took her case against her alleged attacker to the office of Dr. Dee Siscoe, dean of student life. Later, the SMU Serious Offenses Hearing Board, which hears cases involving conduct that may pose a serious threat, was convened to hear her complaint.

The board voted to expel the male student from the university, and SMU police immediately escorted the student off campus, according to court records. The student appealed the board’s decision to the University Judicial Council, which found significant irregularities that prevented the student from receiving a fair hearing, court documents say. The council agreed to allow the student to re-apply to the university after 2007.

The controversy did not end there.

In June 2007, the student filed a lawsuit against SMU for a violation of his rights as a student as put forth in the SMU handbook. The suit says the hearing violated several student code of conduct protocols, including that the accused was not permitted to give a closing statement, that the alleged victim was permitted to discuss the male student’s prior sexual history and that the board was not impartial.

The accused student seeks at least $750,000 in damages from SMU. In February, his attorneys added the alleged victim as a defendant and asked for damages from her. The lawsuit is pending, according to Michael P. Kelly, lawyer for the plaintiff.

Dr. Siscoe declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The decision by SMU to handle this matter internally was not unusual. Most rapes reported at SMU do not end up in a criminal courtroom. Instead, SMU offers victims another avenue – judicial action through a university hearing board.

These boards – composed of three students, one faculty member and one staff member – may hear cases that could result in disciplinary action. A separate panel, the Serious Offenses Hearing Board, can be called to hear cases that involve alleged conduct that poses a serious threat to the university, including sexual assaults. A faculty member from the SMU Law School chairs the board, according to the SMU student handbook.

A student must first file a complaint with Dr. Siscoe’s office. A university judicial officer investigates the alleged violations. If the officer determines a rule was violated, the assistant dean of student life assigns the case to a hearing board.

Criminal prosecution for rape is the exception at SMU. The police chief said rape cases are difficult to prosecute for several reasons such as a lack of evidence, DNA tests that do not match, witnesses who provide vague and sometimes contradictory reports, and victims who are unwilling to press charges.

Dr. Caldwell-Ryan agrees that rape cases are never easy to prosecute.

“Part of the reason is that because you have campus police, you have other [law enforcement] jurisdictions that are involved,” she said. “A lot of it is student on student. A lot of it is associated with alcohol intake and date rape drugs. And much of this occurs in a situation where there is no corroborating evidence, it’s a he-said, she-said.”

The University of Texas at Dallas has shown that rape cases can be successfully prosecuted.

In November 2004, UTD police arrested Prathap Rajamani, a UTD student. Rajamani confessed to using chloroform to drug and anally rape a fellow student on campus. Less than one year later, a Dallas County jury found Rajamani guilty of aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon. He was imprisoned, then deported.

Dr. Caldwell-Ryan believes that because rape victims at SMU often know their attackers, they feel the social costs of pressing criminal charges are much greater than the benefits.

From the victim’s perspective, “it’s not worth it, the damage is already done,” she said. “In a way I think we’re kind of living in a time warp here. What people in the rest of the United States were going through in the ’50s and ’60s as far as the assault victim being victimized again, we do that on campus. I’ve seen it happen to girls, and on another campus to a male, who ended up wishing they had never said anything about it.”

CHANGING THE RULES

On March 20, 2008, a female student was at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. At about 2 a.m., a male student took her to a storage area in the fraternity house and attempted to assault her, according to a police report. The female student got away and called SMU police. She told them she believed she had been drugged and assaulted by the student. The police issued a crime alert and called the incident an “aggravated assault.”

The male suspect was identified and questioned, but the female student decided not to press criminal charges, according to a police crime log. SMU police referred the case to Dr. Siscoe’s office, according to police records.

On March 26, 2008, The Daily Campus published a front-page story that said the police investigation of the incident was closed.

In the past, there likely would have been no more public information about it. JuicyCampus.com changed that.

The notorious Web site, which posts anonymous comments by and about college students, follows few rules. Some posts describe the March 20 incident as “date rape.” It did not stop there. The media, historically, do not publish the names of sexual assault victims. But in one post on the Web site, an anonymous writer claimed to name the victim in the March 20 incident.

One post suggested the university would never punish the fraternity because of its “political pull.” Another simply said, “Nothing will be done about this.”

“It’s embarrassing that people like that go to this school,” Benkato said. “The comments are totally inappropriate.”

Shafer said police did not classify the March 20 incident as an attempted sexual assault because he believes the suspect was taking the victim into the storage area to have what the suspect thought was consensual sex.

In a phone conversation with The Daily Campus, the victim’s father said the information in the crime alert is accurate. The father said he knows the name of the suspect and has sufficient evidence to prove his guilt. The victim’s father said he reserves the right to seek civil and criminal action against anyone involved with the incident.

Benkato said JuicyCampus.com encourages students to gossip about sexual assaults instead of understanding them as violent crimes. She said those who post comments contribute to the problem by blaming the victim.

“It’s a classic thing to say about a girl who has been raped,” she said.

Sarah Acosta, a sophomore and a member of Student Senate, said the comments on this Web site will discourage other women from reporting rape in the future. Previously, a woman could choose to keep a sexual assault private. But with JuicyCampus.com, she said, a victim’s name can be made public and her character assaulted.

“Being sexually assaulted to begin with is very hard to deal with,” Acosta said. “Having other people know about it is a lot to go through for a young woman in college.”

Acosta said she will work next semester to pass legislation blocking the Web site from SMU servers.

Dr. Cathey Soutter, the coordinator of psychological services for women at SMU, said most rape victims are left feeling shocked, angry and powerless. They often wrongly blame themselves for the event, said Dr. Soutter. JuicyCampus.com will only hinder their recovery.

“I just think it’s a devastating blow,” she said, “to have everyone know that this has occurred, but that people have opinions about your truthfulness or not regarding it. I mean, why would you put yourself through that?”

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