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UA's handling of sex crimes on campus angers students

by Jaime Adame | April 24, 2021 at 3:17 a.m.
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this Aug. 30, 2014, file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Students gathered Friday to express support for survivors of sexual assault, with many expressing anger about how the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has responded to student concerns and assault reports.

"Why are there not stronger protocols to watch out for one another on this campus? Once it's too late, we get an email saying that it's our fault," said Kay Simon, a member of UA's Lavender Society, a student organization that celebrates LGBTQ students on campus.

Simon referred to an email addressed to the campus community and sent Feb. 17 after three rapes had been reported in less than a month at campus residence halls.

The email to students stated in part: "We must all take precautions and exercise good judgment in situations where there is additional risk or heightened vulnerability such as being out alone late at night, leaving our doors unlocked, and especially after consuming alcohol," also noting that "the reality is that most individuals reporting an assault know the person who harmed them and often describe the person as someone they felt they could trust."

Several students criticized the email as coming close to blaming student victims and also for not stating that consent is required before sexual encounters. UA's Graduate-Professional Student Congress approved a resolution calling for an apology for the message. Chancellor Joe Steinmetz in a talk with students called the Feb. 17 message "a terrible memo that should have never gone out."

The UA Graduate-Professional Student Congress and other student organizations put together the Friday event held not far from UA's main administration building.

One student who addressed a crowd of about 40 people said the first question she was asked after reporting her assault was, "'Well, were you drunk?'" This led her not to complete her report, she told the crowd, stating that she instead took steps to try to protect herself while living in fear. She said she was assaulted "a couple of months ago" and that she had "contacted the right people that I should have." She did not state what office or person she went to with her report.

"I've done everything that a survivor could do, simply because I wasn't protected by them," she said, pointing to the nearby building that houses UA administrators. "And there's other girls, other people who feel exactly the same way I do. Because the university failed them time and time again."

The student's remark prompted an immediate response from Anthony DiNicola, inclusion liaison for UA's chancellor's office, who called the question about being drunk "ridiculous" and told the crowd "that is a fail and I am so sorry."

UA spokesman Mark Rushing, asked about questions posed to student sexual assault victims regarding alcohol use, said he didn't have the context for remarks made by the student Friday.

But, speaking generally, when it comes to campus investigations of sexual assault, sometimes "whether someone has been drinking is relevant to whether they would have had the capacity to engage in consent," Rushing said.

Rushing said it "would be best to inform the person, before asking, of the rationale for the inquiry."

He added: "A question like that would not imply that if a complainant had been drinking that they would therefore be culpable for any misconduct that occurred, but may be relevant to understanding the overall context for the incident and capacity as related to consent. Investigators strive to handle any questions in a fair and respectful manner."

Elizabeth Burger, a junior from Bentonville, said in an interview she attended the event because she is "outraged at the systematic silencing of victims." Burger, 21, said she's also "embarrassed to be a part of the university right now, after finding out that there was a $20,000 settlement" paid by the university to a former student who sued after being found responsible for sexual misconduct.

The student, "John Doe" in court documents, claimed in his lawsuit that the university discriminated against him because of his gender and failed to follow U.S. Department of Education guidance in its investigation and disciplinary proceedings. In the campus case, the UA Title IX coordinator had found him not responsible for misconduct. A panel ruled in the case on appeal, voting 2-1 to find him responsible in 2018 using a preponderance of evidence standard.

The settlement was made public this week. Heather Zachary, an attorney who represented "Doe" before an appellate court, did not respond Friday to an email requesting comment.

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