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Internal sexual misconduct investigations complicate police response

By Austen Hufford, Digital News Editor
Published March 20, 2013

A 31-year-old male graduate student is being investigated for sexually assaulting three females in three separate incidents, two of which occurred in September 2012 and the third this February.

The cases — which caused unease in the University community because of repeated assaults at Zaragon Place — raise concerns about the ability of police agencies to investigate sexual assault amid the confidentiality of internal University investigations. At the same time, University investigators are charged with the difficult responsibility of maintaining a balance between survivor rights and community safety.

The second reported incident, which occurred in September 2012, was discovered during an internal University investigation into another sexual assault allegation. University Police were informed of the first incident but were not made of aware of the second until February — therefore, they were unable to consider the second allegation as evidence for a potential pattern of incidents in September.

The University community was not notified of the allegations until after a third student was allegedly sexually assaulted in the same location in February and University Police determined there was a possible threat to student safety.

A crime alert detailing all three incidents was sent out the night of Feb. 27 once University Police established a pattern from the information they received.

“As soon as we had the information that led us to believe it was a pattern of behavior that posed a public safety threat and we could identify where these incidents allegedly occurred, we issued a crime alert,” University Police spokeswoman Diane Brown said.

Since Aug. 18, 2011, the University has operated under an interim sexual misconduct allegation procedure to investigate allegations of student sexual misconduct. The new procedure was put in place after an April 2011 mandate from the U.S. Department of Education was sent to colleges nationwide. The mandate reaffirms a school’s obligations to investigate claims of sexual misconduct under Title IX, the federal anti-sex discrimination statute.

“Sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX,” the mandate states. “A school that knows, or reasonably should know about possible harassment must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.”

At the University, the Office of Institutional Equity is responsible for conducting these investigations. Allegations of misconduct can come to OIE from a variety of sources, including the dean of students, the Office of Student Conflict Resolution and University officials.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the staff of OIE is made up of “highly trained investigators” and has experience looking into other forms of misconduct, such as discrimination or harassment by a University employee.

Fitzgerald said the crime alert response to the allegations was appropriate once OIE and University Police had enough information.

“There were various levels of information available, and it didn’t all come together until the most recent incident was reported,” Fitzgerald said. “Then what you saw was swift action on everybody’s part.”

According to Fitzgerald, because the case is still active and the University is bound by student privacy laws, not all details can be disclosed.

After interviewing those involved and any possible witnesses, an OIE investigator determines whether the accused is guilty. These investigations are different from police inquiries, and the standard of guilt for an OIE investigation is lower than that of the criminal justice system.

Sexual misconduct allegations against students are generally first reported to the OSCR which then hands the investigation over to OIE.

While investigating the first September incident, OIE learned of a second possible incident involving another sexual assault by the same suspect in the same apartment. It is currently unknown how much information OIE knew about the second incident and why University Police were not told about it until months later.

Brown said a crime alert was not issued for the first incident because not enough information was known at the time and the survivor did not want to file a police report. The second survivor also did not wish to file a police report or contribute to the OIE investigation. No police reports were filed for any of the three incidents until February.

“People cannot be forced in these kinds of situations to file a police report,” Brown said.

Police reports, which attempt to get all the facts recorded, are vital for most police investigations. Det. Lt.