SHAPE panel looks at sexual assault claim

In the wake of e-mails sent last week to the student body regarding the Oct. 27 sexual assault of a Northwestern student in Chicago, many questions lingered, especially after the incident was quickly declared “not bona fide” by the Chicago Police Department.

Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators held an educational panel about how the justice system addresses reports of sexual assault, and how the CPD identifies a crime as bona fide or not bona fide. About 30 students attended.

Dr. Donald Misch, NU Health Services executive director; Laura Stuart, sexual health education and violence prevention coordinator; and Renée Redd, director of the Women’s Center and Lisa Frohmann, professor of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago, spoke on the panel. Stuart and SHAPE Student Directors Max Potter and Christine Stiehl led the discussion.

Stuart acknowledged that no information was available for the speakers beyond what was in the e-mails.

“There is no additional information that has been made public,” she said, “so none of us can say for sure what happened.”

Frohmann described the process of reporting a sexual assault to the CPD. When a victim reports sexual assault, police evaluate the incident based on a list of guidelines compiled by the FBI, she said. When evaluating a report of sexual assault, “Police have in their head ideas of what sexual assault looks like,” she said, which can cause an unintentional bias.

There are several ways in which a sexual assault report can be declared “not bona fide,” Frohmann added. In the legal system, this means an event is unfounded, but does not necessarily mean that it did not happen, Frohmann said.

“Saying ‘not bona fide’ makes it sound like (the alleged victim) was an out-and-out liar,” Mirsch said.

Many factors, including the likelihood of prosecutors to win a case in court, can impact the naming of a report as not bona fide.

“If that case isn’t winnable, a case could be unfounded,” Mirsch said, adding that factors like lack of eyewitnesses or physical evidence and difficulty in locating a suspect could discourage a prosecutor from taking a sexual assault case, because a conviction in those situations is unlikely.

“Prosecutors want convictions,” Frohmann said. “Taking on cases that will not produce convictions makes them look incompetent.”

Redd said false reports of sexual assault occur only 1 percent of the time, and victims can retract their reports out of a desire for privacy after the emotional trauma of rape. The demeaning myth that sexual assault victims file false reports is a “disservice to survivors,” she said.

The reasons for the e-mail’s content and promptness after the reported assault are due in part to the provisions of the Clery Act of 1990 passed after the sexual assault and murder of college student Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. The law requires universities to report on-campus crime to students in a timely fashion.

The ambiguities of the law, however, led to a debate over the content of the e-mail sent out by NU alerts.

“I don’t know why there was so much detail in (the e-mail),” Mirsch said, adding that the descriptive account of the sexual assault could be construed as a violation of the victim’s privacy.

There were other concerns about the wording in the e-mails sent out to students, including the description of the assailant as an African-American male about 25 years of age.

Students questioned whether the description of the attacker as an African-American male was prudent.

“All black young men on campus become vulnerable to further suspicion,” Frohmann said. Interim Dean of Students Burgie Howard attended the event and said some administrators plan to meet Monday to address the system of crime reporting at NU.

“(The e-mail) made a big portion of our community fearful,” Howard said. “We want to see if there is something better.”

Potter and Stiehl organized the panel immediately after they received the e-mails. “We felt there was a lot of confusion and stress caused over the situation from last week,” Potter said of student response to the second e-mail.

“This served as a catalyst for continuing this discussion and a reminder of how closed-minded people can be about what sexual assault is and who is to blame,” Stiehl said.

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