District attorney: Our office is here for victims of sexual assault

  • UMass students walk by Theta Chi, a fraternity at UMass that had extensive damage to property including broken building and car windows after a riot Sunday night over anonymous allegations of sexual assault at the fraternity . STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2021 5:38:09 PM

AMHERST — With University of Massachusetts students this week calling publicly on the administration to do a better job of handling incidents of sexual assault, the regional prosecutor’s office has stepped in to underline its role in assault investigations.

To make sure that students understand they have avenues for reporting sexual assaults, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan on Wednesday issued a statement explaining that his office takes seriously allegations of sexual assault, and vigorously investigates and prosecutes those cases.

“The last thing in the world we want is for victims of sexual assault to feel they have no place safe to go for recourse,” Sullivan said in the statement. “Prosecutors and victim-witness advocates in our office have extensive training to help us all better understand the unique needs of, and therefore better respond to, survivors of sexual assault. We are deeply committed to employing a trauma-informed approach and ensuring victims are heard throughout the process.”

On Sunday and Monday, hundreds of students gathered outside Theta Chi fraternity, 496 North Pleasant St., after a person wrote anonymously on the social media app Yik Yak about being drugged and sexually assaulted while at the fraternity.

Amherst Police, however, have not received any report on which to begin an investigation, and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, in a message to the community, wrote that the university could take no action unless a complaint is filed and more details are made available.

Sullivan’s office notes that while many sexual assault complaints originate with local or campus police, complaints can be brought directly to the district attorney. There, victims and survivors can meet with an assistant district attorney who specializes in the prosecution of alleged sexual assaults, or with a specially trained victim-witness advocate who can explain the criminal process and discuss options.

“We know that sometimes an important step in healing from the trauma of a sexual assault is to see the alleged perpetrator called to account,” Northwestern Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Suhl said in the statement. “We also understand that some victim-survivors are suspicious of authorities because they fear they will not be believed or their cases will not be handled properly.

“Our office has a proven history of successfully investigating and prosecuting cases of campus sexual assault,” Suhl added. “We want to assure survivors of sexual assault that we are here to support them if they choose to come forward.”

The district attorney’s office also regularly collaborates with local agencies that offer confidential services to survivors who may not be ready to report to law enforcement, such as the Center for Women and Community at UMass, Safe Passage in Northampton and the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition in Greenfield.

At UMass, resources for students have been growing over the years, and there has been a program in place that helps introduce students to campus life. In 2013, the university began what it calls the UMatter@UMass campaign to send proactive messages to students about their health, safety and well-being.

UMatter@UMass expanded a year later and was described by Subbaswamy as “a campus-wide initiative that encourages all of us to be active bystanders and to participate in the effort to create a caring and compassionate campus community. Together we can create a caring campus culture and a firmer commitment to each other and our educational goals.”

That program built on work done by the Northwestern district attorney’s office that concluded with “The Campaign to End Sexual Assault on Campuses” conference at Hampshire College in April 2013.

Sexual assaults and rapes have continued to be reported. Crime reports published by the university show that from 2017 to 2019, a total of 56 rapes were reported on campus, with a high of 22 in 2018. During that same time, eight rapes were reported off campus.

The Student Government Association has urged students who want to take action to support the adoption of a Survivor’s Bill of Rights. That bill of rights, drafted in part by the Coalition to End Rape Culture, or CERC several years ago, has not been put in place by the administration. It would have all university administrators, faculty, staff, as well as leaders of registered student organizations, fraternities and sororities educated on sexual assault policies and how to properly handle reports of sexual assault, violence and rape.

Among its components are that accuser and accused must have the same opportunity to have others present; that both parties shall be informed of the outcome of any disciplinary proceeding; and that survivors shall be informed of their options to notify law enforcement, and shall be notified of counseling services and of options for changing academic and living situations.

The bill of rights also calls for more education about sexual assault during the university’s New Student Orientation, as well as policies that would support victims of sexual violence during extended recovery periods, including allowing them to take leave from school without receiving “withdrawn” marks on their transcripts, losing tuition or other academic expenses or having to pay new fees to be reinstated.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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