Revisiting reported sexual assault in Abbey Hall: An uneasy silence

By Greg Allen
Co Editor-in-Chief

Four months have gone by since an anguished evening in Abbey Appleton Hall–a night of reported sexual assault. And here at the end of February, well over 100 days since the Oct. 19 incident, there is still a silence on campus–a silence that has left many students uncomfortable.

Springfield College Vice President of Student Affairs Shannon Finning confirmed on Thursday, Feb. 14 that “the investigation is ongoing” and that nobody has yet been arrested or charged. Finning also confirmed on Feb. 14 that the student who reported the assault is no longer enrolled at Springfield College. Due to confidentiality policies, Finning was unable to share information regarding other potential conversations with the victim/survivor. However, Finning did say that friends, Public Safety, and Springfield’s Dean of Students Sue Nowlan have been in contact with her.

“We’re not at a point of resolution yet,” Finning said. “We are really committed to seeing this through. It remains a top priority for Chief of Police Karen Leary and her staff.”

The Springfield Student reached out to Leary for an interview. Leary said, “Unfortunately at this time we cannot share any further information, as it is an active criminal investigation.” She did however inform The Student that there is still extra security throughout Abbey Hall “in an effort to keep everyone safe.”

One resident of Abbey Hall said that it is “very unsettling” knowing that nobody has yet been arrested or charged for this assault. She continued, “I honestly don’t feel completely safe. I lock my door at all times, even if I’m just going in there for a few minutes in between classes. I don’t like leaving my room at night, and when I need to, I immediately check left and right of my door and have mace spray in my hand. I should not have to feel that way.”

The day after the reported sexual assault, a campus-wide email was sent out informing students, faculty, and staff of the report. Since the initial email sent out to every member of the college, Public Safety has not given any updates. Many students have expressed their desire for an update, but according to Finning, “because there hasn’t been a substantial step or resolution made, we haven’t reached out to the entire campus.”

The same resident quoted above said, “We as students deserve an update, even if it is something along the lines of letting us know that they are still working diligently on the case, our safety is their priority, what services are available if needed, etc. Silence results in worry, in fear, a feeling of secrecy.”

This fear, in part, stems from the fact that the assailant has not been identified or charged. It is still not known if he was a Springfield College student–presumably still enrolled–or  someone who came here from off campus. Finning said that the victim was unable to identify her attacker, and some students have speculated that the reason for this was because he had some sort of mask or covering over his face.

Many students have also wondered why this reported sexual assault received more attention than others. Why was this report worthy of a campus-wide email alert? Because the assailant was not identified by the victim/survivor and authorities believed there was a potential ongoing threat, an alert email was deemed necessary.

Finning said, “When the college receives a report about a violation of our gender-based misconduct policy (harassment, inappropriate touching, non-consensual penetration) and the assailant is known (and presumably apprehended), we do not need to send a campus-wide notice. When there are reports of incidents where the person responsible is unknown, Chief Leary and I have to make a value-based decision around, ‘is there an ongoing, pervasive threat?’ If so, we are federally mandated to make a timely warning. We have not had another report where someone was unable to identify the assailant.”

By some measures, the rates of sexual misconduct appear to be on the rise. According to the Title IX Reports, Springfield College received six reports of violations of the sexual misconduct policy (one off campus) for the 2013-14 academic year. The 2014-15 Title IX Report shows the college received seven reports of violations of the sexual misconduct policy (one off campus). In 2015-16, the college received 13 reports (six off campus), and thus far in the 2016-17 academic year, there have been seven reports (two off campus) of violations of the gender based misconduct policy (note policy name change reflective of changes to Springfield’s policy).

The potential violations of the gender-based misconduct policy include sexual harassment, sexual violence, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, stalking, aiding or facilitating, retaliation, and/or intimidation that are reported to a College employee by a College student, faculty or staff member, regardless of where the incident occurred.

The seeming uptick last year and this year (relative to previous ones) mirrors what a number of schools have been experiencing. According to a government study conducted in 2014 that was reported in Time Magazine, the number of sex crimes reported on U.S. college campuses soared by 50 percent over the course of a decade.

One interpretation of this data is that the rates of various types of sexual misconduct and crime are, in fact, going up. However, the perspective that Finning and most colleges share is that the numbers are rising because the conversation is rising, making more victims/survivors feel more comfortable reporting their assaults.

Finning said, “I’m glad that our president and board of trustees understand that if we’re doing our job of raising the discourse, we’re likely going to see more reports. It doesn’t mean that it’s happening more, but it means that more people feel safe coming forward.”

Another relevant piece of data is the Jeanne Clery Act. The Clery Act is a consumer protection law that aims to provide transparency around campus crime policy and statistics. The most recent Clery report captures crime statistics from 2013-2015 and is based on the calendar year rather than the academic year.

According to Springfield’s Clery report, there was one reported forcible sex offense in 2013. There were zero reported in 2014 and one reported in 2015. The Clery report defines a forcible sex offense as any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will; or not forcibly or against that person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent. This includes forcible rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling.

It bears noting that men can be victims of sexual violence, too, and, of course, there have been some well-chronicled incidents of false reports of rape and sexual assault on other campuses. But sexual violence against women tends to be chronically under-reported for lots of understandable reasons, so the relatively low numbers in Title IX and Clery reports need to be read in that context.

There is also a national concern that colleges and administrators try to protect the image of a college by sweeping reported sexual assaults under the rug. Finning feels Springfield has done a good job of making such reports a priority.

“I have had no push back since I got here around seeing the numbers of reports increase,” Finning said. “If sexual assault is happening here, I want to send a strong message that we will stand with and support our students. We have appropriately ramped up what we were doing in terms of prevention of sexual assault and proactive education. I feel we have done a really good job of revising our policy, our response protocol, our sanctions, and more.”

The college has also recently hired a full-time Title IX Coordinator. Rebecca Edwards will start on Feb. 27, and among multiple other duties, she will be in charge of overseeing reported sexual assault investigations.

According to Finning, most small schools like Springfield do not have a designated Title IX Coordinator. It is more common for there to be a staff member who carries a dual title. At Springfield, Sue Nowlan is currently Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator. She will drop the second part of her title when Edwards begins on Feb 27.

Finning and Leary are eager to come to a resolution regarding the sexual assault that occurred in October. Finning made it clear that the students are her top priority, and that when there is a resolution, the campus will be informed.

She said, “We would love nothing more than to be able to say ‘we’ve come to a resolution,’ or ‘there’s been an arrest made.’ That would help me sleep better at night. This weighs a lot on me, knowing that there is uncertainty for our students.”

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