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Why colleges handle sex assault cases

Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday.

Jennifer Suhl, chief of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Northampton, fields questions Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »

These victims often seek recourse and protections in the relatively private investigative venue colleges are federally mandated to provide. Campus judiciary proceedings, carried out by students, faculty and administrators, aren’t perfect, but they provide a vital alternative to the criminal justice system, which in some cases, can become a public and even more traumatizing experience, experts say.

“The most important thing out there is that the victim choose their path of response,” said Gina Maisto Smith, a Philadelphia attorney and former sex crimes prosecutor. College and law enforcement officials in the area say there is plenty more work to do in helping sexual assault victims explore options and navigate campus and legal avenues of redress. Smith, who specializes in institutional responses to sexual assault, is working with Amherst College to develop new sexual assault policies.

Experts say higher education institutions can provide many short-term tailored responses for victims in the immediate wake of a sexual assault. Among these are changes to their educational environment, new living arrangements, allowing a semester off, and support services such as tutoring and counseling. This can help maintain a student’s stability, which is a huge benefit while campus, or parallel criminal investigations into a sexual assault are under way.

“These are the kinds of kinds of things that schools can do for students that law enforcement can’t provide,” said Smith. The role of prosecutors, on the other hand, “is law enforcement, assessing crimes and meting out punishment,” she noted, not so much attending to the needs of victims.

There are many factors that weigh into decisions by victims not to bring their cases to the criminal justice system: fear of the legal system, a desire to avoid the public airing that goes along with a trial, a sense of self-blame, the possibility there will be no conviction, and the length of time a criminal case takes. Sometimes, prosecutors say they can’t pursue charges because of a lack of evidence.

“You may have a prosecutor concerned with their conviction rates and they’re not cases that are easily won in the criminal justice system,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group for better crime reporting and prevention on college and university campuses. “I wish this wasn’t the case, but it shows that there is certainly a place for campuses to be involved.”

Others say the flaws in the way the criminal justice system handles sexual assaults and rape serve as a reporting deterrent.

“It’s usually a futile step and there is no incentive for a victim,” said Colby Bruno, a managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston. “Victims everywhere know the criminal justice system is not working for them, without a doubt they know that.”

Bruno said the center sees about 450 sexual assault victims per year, 45 percent of whom are between the ages of 12 and 24. In her 10 years with the organization, she’s seen only a small number of cases get accepted by district attorneys’ offices and three rape convictions for clients who pressed charges.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, whose jurisdiction covers many colleges and universities in Hampshire and Franklin counties, has made tackling sexual assault and domestic violence a high priority, according to staff.

A year ago, with the help of a federal grant, he hired Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Suhl, as chief of a newly organized Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Unit. Suhl is prosecuting the high-profile, gang rape that allegedly took place at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in October.

Suhl said the office seeks to exhaust every avenue for prosecution, but noted that cases can lose traction when there is lack of physical evidence, or as if often the case, alcohol is involved. In addition, criminal cases are held to a beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof while colleges and universities can use the lower threshold of a preponderance of evidence which means that someone can be found guilty if it’s more likely than not an assault occurred.

“We do see a lot of these cases where the memory isn’t clear,” said Suhl, in an interview recently at the district attorney’s office in Northampton. “It’s what we grapple with every day. At the end of the day, we just don’t have the evidence.”

And, she noted, “It is still a very largely unreported crime.”

Suhl said in pushing ahead with prosecutions, her office works closely with the victims to be sensitive to their needs.

“It’s what they want to see happen,” she said. “We try to arm them with the information so they are ready to proceed if they really want to. A lot of it is the distinction of public versus private. There’s this fear of a criminal case, a public setting. It’s a scary, scary thing.”

Suhl said the district attorney’s office is working on a more formalized process with local police departments to learn more about sexual assaults when they occur. Local and campus police departments are sometimes the first line of contact when sexual assaults are reported on campuses. “Usually, we don’t know what’s going on in the school process,” Suhl said. “A lot more things are reported at the schools than to law enforcement.”

The Amherst, Northampton and UMass police departments recently received a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women to share a domestic and victim advocate consultant who coordinates communication among the departments.

“Of those crimes we investigate, they are very complex and successful prosecution is difficult,” said Jennifer Gundersen, an Amherst police captain.

“We want to see more offenders being found and held accountable.”

Investigating rape is a delicate issue, UMass Deputy Police Chief Patrick Archbald said. “We put the victim first,” he said. If the victim decides at any time that she no longer wants to be part of the investigation, police will continue to look into the case, Archbald said.

“We can’t guess what the victim may or may not want to do in the future, so we proceed with making an arrest. They may want to prosecute later,” he said.

One issue that has come to the forefront is parallel investigations by colleges and law enforcement. In the past, it was more common for colleges to hold off on their inquiries until a criminal probe was completed, but higher education institutions are being pushed and are required to conduct timely investigations — within 60 days — which can mean a victim may wind up recounting an assault multiple times to multiple people.

“There is the potential it could interfere with a criminal investigation, for sure,” Suhl said of delicate balance of simultaneous investigations.

She said training for college investigators and those who hear sexual assault cases is critical. Some larger police departments have “sensitive crime officers” who are adept at interviewing rape victims. Locally, Amherst, Northampton and Easthampton police can offer this service, said Rebecca Lockwood, associate director of the Center for Women and Community at UMass. On the UMass police force three-quarters of the officers — or about 30 officers — have completed 40-hours of training on how to investigate sexual assault, said Archbald.

One of the things campuses are also required to do under Title IX is to pay attention to patterns among those who have been accused of sexual misconduct on campuses. This means the disciplinary boards are key.

“Who sits on that board is a really important issue for all the colleges to consider,” Suhl said. “The consequences of the decisions are very high.”

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