LSA senior Josh Buoy knows talking about sexual assault isn’t easy. In fact, it wasn’t until last week that he even spoke about it publicly. But that isn’t stopping him from spurring a campus-wide conversation about sexual assault and what the University can do differently to address the issue.
Buoy and LSA senior Yonah Lieberman facilitated a conversation among 15 students on Thursday night at Amer’s Deli on Church Street, to address issues they perceive with the crime alert system used by the University of Michigan Police Department and the broader implications of sexual assault on campus.
Buoy and Lieberman (who was a Daily columnist) are two of four co-founders of the “I Will” Campaign, which organized the event. The campaign looks to increase awareness of sexual assault on campus.
Part of the campaign involves hosting coffeehouse conversations on a weekly basis to discuss issues related to sexual assault in an informal setting. The theme of this week’s conversation was sparked by an opinion piece Daily columnist Katie Steen wrote in which she criticized the University’s crime alert system.
Recent criticisms of the crime alert system have ranged from a perceived “racialization” of the crime alert perpetrator description, to the time delay between when a crime occurs and when an alert is sent out to students.
Buoy said issues with the language and descriptions included in crime alerts might stem from the way in which UMPD releases them. He said that if the police focused more on students and less on legal procedure, the alerts would be more effective.
“Obviously they care about our safety ... but when they actually send it out, it’s a legal obligation they have to make students aware of that incident,” Buoy said. “I think that if those two goals kind of merged together more, that could help a lot.”
LSA senior Alex Olkowski, co-coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Prevention Awareness Center’s Men’s Activism committee, said UMPD and SAPAC have been working together to improve crime alerts, particularly concerning usage of language that could be perceived as victim blaming.
Though the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was to start a dialogue rather than institute any structured change, Buoy encouraged attendees to develop a clear idea of exactly what they found problematic with the crime alerts. The next step would then be to contact University Police Spokeswoman Diane Brown and work with UMPD to rectify the group’s criticisms.
Brown said UMPD would like to include more information in the crime alerts, but that is often not feasible. She said information is often “shaky” and that the police department is careful not to send out any false information.
“We’d love to have more detail about an incident ... about a suspect’s description,” Brown said. “If there’s the perception that the police are withholding part of a description, that would not be something that we do.”
Brown said anything that can help build awareness about sexual assault — including working with the “I Will” campaign to improve crime alerts — will only benefit the community.
“We love to dialogue with any group on campus,” Brown said. “Certainly this group sounds like a group that is trying to a shine a light on safety issues from a student-to-student perspective, and that can only be much more beneficial.”
The coffeehouse conversation, also delved into students’ perception of sexual assault. LSA junior Elise Coletta said while issues such as the time delay and minimal information provided in crime alerts are problematic, there are broader matters on campus that need to be addressed first.
“I think it will be more beneficial to invest more time and energy and money into fostering a climate on campus that doesn’t allow that sort of thing to happen in the first place,” Coletta said.
The group also discussed the problem of victim blaming and its prevalence across campus. Lieberman said this type of behavior comes with a lack of education about the issue.
“One of the priorities for us is to figure out how we can improve that education in a proactive, positive way,” Lieberman said.
The University’s interim Title IX policy, which mandates how the University will respond to reports of sexual assault, was also addressed. Under the interim policy, any “responsible University employee” — which does not include staff at SAPAC, Counseling and Psychological Services or a religiously-affiliated employee — is required to report any instance of sexual assault they are made aware of to their coordinator.
“There’s still a lot of questions as to what a ‘responsible University employee’ is,” Buoy said. “That’s something we’re trying to push forward ... we have a lot of questions on it still.”
A finalized Title IX policy will reportedly be implemented sometime next year.