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Face Time: Should campus crime alerts name student perps?

Three recent crimes reported to the George Washington University, and how the university identified their perpetrators to students and staff:

•     Crime No. 1. On Feb. 15, former G.W. mailroom worker James Markley was arrested for making a “non-specific threat” to faculty and students over the telephone. A crime alert was issued to the campus community naming the former employee, circulating his photograph and informing students to immediately inform G.W. police if they spot him on campus.

•    Crime No. 2. On Feb. 14, a G.W. library worker received more than just a threat; while she was assisting a man inside the library, he “put his hands down her pants and up her shirt.” A crime alert was issued describing the suspect, a 35- to 45-year-old black male “wearing a white sweater”; a few weeks later, a follow-up alert notified the campus that the man had been identified through surveillance tape as a current G.W. graduate student. The university declined to release the suspect’s name to the campus at large; the unnamed student was referred to G.W. Student Judicial Services.

•    Crime No. 3. On Jan. 6, an incident of “sex abuse” occurred inside on-campus freshman residence Thurston Hall. It was reported to the university a month and a half after the incident. The case, which remains open, didn’t inspire a crime alert—just a single line in the University Police Department log.

Wondering why crimes like No. 2 and No. 3 don’t inspire a campus response that’s more in line with crime No. 1? So do campus security experts, who are turning their focus to a very common crime that rarely inspires an all-campus alert—acquaintance sexual assault. “As a general rule, institutions are reluctant to put out an alert for any acquaintance sexual assault,” says S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for campus safety non-profit Security on Campus, Inc. The organization, founded in 1987 by the parents of Jeanne Clery, began advocating against crime on college campuses after Clery, a freshman at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University, was raped and murdered in her dorm by a fellow student. By 1990, Security on Campus had succeeded in making the Clery Act federal law, requiring most U.S. colleges and universities to report certain crimes that occur on their campuses. If a reported crime poses an ongoing “threat to students and employees,” schools are required to report those crimes quickly, through “timely warnings” that will “aid in the prevention of similar occurrences.” Which crimes rise to the level of an ongoing threat—and what information ought to be aired in the alerts—are decisions largely left up to individual schools.

In 2006, the Department of Education made it clear that institutions covered by the Clery Act must at least consider issuing a timely warning in cases of acquaintance rape. At G.W., the person making that case-by-case call is University Police Department Chief Dolores Stafford, a nationally recognized expert on the Clery Act. Stafford will be leaving G.W. in a couple of weeks to become a consultant on campus security and Clery Act compliance, but for the past 18 years, Stafford has determined which of the dozens of crimes reported to the university each month deserve an all-campus e-mail blast. G.W.’s published crime reporting policy says that campus alerts are “considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the facts of the case and the information known by GWPD.”

According to Stafford, the “facts of the case” are most difficult to determine in acquaintance rapes, where reluctant victims sometimes report the crime months after the fact and often decline to provide pertinent details—like the identity of the perpetrator—if they report the crime at all. The majority of sexual assault reports that do reach the university are reported not to university police directly but rather to a “designated campus security authority”—like dorm staff, athletic coaches, and deans. These authorities are required to notify the police department when a student reports a rape to them, but they’re under no obligation to squeeze any specific information from the victim. “If we had all the details about every acquaintance rape, we’d probably put out a warning for each of them,” says Stafford, adding that her office has issued timely warnings in acquaintance rapes in the past. “The expectation of a warning is that you’re providing individuals with some information about what occurred and how to protect themselves. If I don’t have that information, it may not result in a warning.”

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Still, even if campus authorities do have adequate information about an assault, a campus alert won’t necessarily be activated. According to Stafford, once the university is aware of the identity of a crime’s perpetrator, the university can take steps to “mitigate the threat.” And because the perpetrators of acquaintance rapes are, by definition, known to their victims, victims who report all the details of their assaults can often preempt the need for a timely warning. “If we arrest them, put them through the judicial process, or bar them from campus, we’ve taken some action to mitigate the threat,” says Stafford. Add up all the acquaintance rapes that are never reported to G.W., those that are reported with too little detail, and those that reveal the identity of the perpetrator, and acquaintance rapes are not likely to inspire a G.W. campus alert.

One aspect of G.W.’s timely warning policy [PDF] suggests that its response to acquaintance rapes may not be solely influenced by a lack—or surplus—of information. The policy notes that crimes that arise from “disagreements” between students aren’t generally considered an ongoing threat: “if an assault occurs between two students who have a disagreement, there may be no on-going threat to other GW community members and a Crime Alert would not be distributed.”

But according to Carter, students who victimize other students are likely to pose a threat in the future, and issuing a timely warning can actually serve an instrumental role in mitigating these threats. Students who are jailed can get out on bail, and those that are shuffled through the campus judicial process can still drop in on frat parties while they await a hearing. In the meantime, it can be helpful for students to know who to trust their drinks with and who to avoid in the stacks. Carter’s Clery Act recommendations lean heavily on the work of researchers David Lisak and Paul Miller, who found that a majority of “undetected rapists”—or rapists who haven’t been convicted of any crime—go on to rape again and again [PDF]. In Lisak and Miller’s sample, two-thirds of rapists raped more than once—on average, each was responsible for six rapes. Over 90 percent of rapes are committed by repeat offenders, and the great majority of rapes that occur on college campus are committed by these undetected predators. “At these institutions, there’s the assumption that if the victim and perpetrator are known to each other, it’s not an ongoing threat, and that’s absolutely not true,” says Carter. “In the overwhelming number of cases, acquaintance sexual assaults are likely to indicate a threat to someone else,” he says. “Odds are, if you assume there’s not a threat, you’re going to make a mistake the overwhelming majority of the time.”

Despite the research, Carter says he’s only aware of a “handful” of schools that have responded to acquaintance rapes on campus with alerts—and none that actually named the perpetrator. Some institutions choose to alert students to the general possibility of acquaintance rape on campus, without singling out any particular accused rapist. In 2008, G.W. released a crime alert warning students and staff of the danger of acquaintance rapes on campus after eight sexual assaults were reported in the space of two weeks. The alert didn’t name any of the alleged perpetrators of the assaults, but it did identify one common player in most of the attacks: alcohol. The approach helps to raise awareness of rape on campus, but it also can work to shift the blame off of the perpetrators, who remain nameless. “I think there is a reluctance to believe that someone in their community is capable of this, to label one of their own community members—including a paying student—as a threat,” says Carter. “But I would be hard-pressed to identify how a timely warning of that type could truly be effective without that information,” he says.

Schools that do choose to publish perpetrators’ names may be at risk of losing more than just a student’s tuition. Because the campus alerts are widely distributed, there’s also the possibility that the student named in the alert will sue for defamation. In 2007, Johnson & Wales student Christopher Havlik sued the university for naming him in a campus crime alert. After Havlik was accused of fracturing another student’s skull in an on-campus fist-fight, the university sent out a campus-wide alert that directly named Havlik (and his fraternity). Johnson & Wales chose to air Havlik’s name after determining that the incident presented an ongoing threat to students—the fight was attributed to “fraternity-related animosities,” and Havlik was regarded as “the likely aggressor” in the fight. After being acquitted of his criminal assault charge in court, Havlik decided to make his name even more public by suing Johnson & Wales, and then appealing the decision up to federal District Court—which decided that the school was within its bounds in naming Havlik, as it had a duty under the Clery Act “to inform the university community of a reported crime.”

At G.W., when a former employee makes “non-specific threats” over the phone, he’s named, his photograph is released, and he’s barred from campus; when a current student sexually assaults a worker in the library and runs away, his case is quietly adjudicated within the campus community; when another student suffers “sex abuse” inside her freshman dorm, only the closest readers of the UPD crime log are even aware that the incident occurred. Every university faces significant challenges in persuading victims of acquaintance crimes to come forward. When they do, campus perpetrators should be regarded as just as much of a threat—if not more of one—than the stranger who can be easily isolated from the campus community. After all, students who solve their “disagreements” with violence—or who resolve a disagreement between sex partners with rape—are likely to disagree again.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery