Letter to the Editor: “The Elephant in the Atkinson Room”

This Letter to the Editor was submitted by Hailey McDonald, president of the Student’s for Women’s Issues.

 

On September 18, BURG Peer Education Network hosted Red Zone, their annual program on sexual assault prevention, in the Atkinson Room of the Lane Center. The program began with a skit on sexual assault which took place at a house party – a relatively common occurrence among college students. I appreciate the fact that it was stressed that it is never the victim’s fault. No one is “asking for it,” rapists choose to rape. There seemed to be a decent turn-out, as there were a little over 40 people in attendance.

However, I was struck by something: Chief Cynthia Smith, the Chief of University Police, spoke several times at the event and encouraged survivors of sexual assault to report to university police, yet at no time made any mention of the allegations of sexual assault against several campus police officers, some of which have been reported in previous issues of the bottom line. This was not brought up at any time during the event. So, by the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 7, I had arranged an interview with Chief Smith and was on my way to the University Police Station to get her views on the allegations and the Red Zone event itself. Once I arrived, I saw that Chief Smith had asked April Baer to attend the interview as well and assist her in answering questions about Red Zone.

 

Have you been to a Red Zone event before? What did you think of this year’s event?

Smith responded, “I’ve been to every one since I’ve been here [six years]. I thought it was good – I didn’t really like the layout.”

 

At the event, you stated that sexual assault is not a women’s issue, but a social issue. Can you elaborate on that?

I asked this question fearing that Chief Smith would dismiss the role that misogyny (the hatred of and prejudice against women) plays in sexual assault. While of course it’s important to remember that it’s not only women who are sexually assaulted and that it happens to people of every gender, women are targeted much more frequently than men. Fortunately, Chief Smith answered that she says it’s a social issue because while reports in the media are focused on women and how women can defend themselves, “The rhetoric misses bystander intervention… [and] men’s role in preventing sexual assault.” Some rhetoric perpetuates victim-blaming as well. Chief Smith states that she chooses to frame sexual assault as a social issue because she wants to stress that men are a part of the solution.

 

Can you tell me a bit about the university’s policy on sexual assault, and has it changed at all under the Title IX investigation?

At this point, I was given a stack of papers and several brochures from both Chief Smith and April Baer. They explained that while Frostburg’s policy on sexual assault has not really changed directly as a result of the Title IX investigation, it has changed as a result of the University System of Maryland’s policy change. Chief Smith explained it as what was already a strong policy is now being revised, made stronger, and being “tweaked in response to the Federal level.” Updates on Frostburg State’s policy on sexual assault will be out around the New Year.

 

At Red Zone, you commented that you’re appreciative of the counseling services available on campus for sexual assault survivors because, in your words, “I think we focus enough on the accused.” Could you explain what you meant by that?

Chief Smith stated that she does not remember saying that, adding “I think you misunderheard me” [sic]. She said that it does not sound like something she would say, as she is “all about supporting and empowering the survivor.” While Chief Smith denies having said that, I and others who attended the event maintain that it is what we heard.

 

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 60% of rapes are never reported to authorities, and 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. Can I get your thoughts on that?

Smith believed that the RAINN statistics sounded consistent, agreeing that rape is severely underreported and saying that even 60 percent seems low. She added that she finds sexual assault to be “one of the most difficult crimes to investigate.”

 

I was hoping you would address the sexual assault allegations against certain campus police officers at Red Zone. Why didn’t you, and do you think the investigations of these claims have been handled well?

“Open investigation, cannot comment at this time.” I nodded in response and started scribbling down her answer. She then added that she was surprised that no one asked, but allowed that it was probably a pretty intimidating subject to broach while the Chief of University Policy is standing in front of you and not mentioning it. She also stated, “My expectations of my officers is that they always exhibit the highest integrity.”

 

Do you think that the allegations against campus police make it less likely that students will report their own sexual assault in the future?

Chief Smith’s initial and honest response was, “I hope not.” However, she relented that she knows students may be reluctant to trust campus police now, saying “I live in the real world, Hailey.” She says that any student who has an inappropriate interaction with a campus police officer or any other faculty member may contact her personally. She also suggested Beth Hoffman or April Baer.

 

I’ve heard that there is talk of an ethics course for campus police being taught by the philosophy club. Can you tell me anything about that?

Smith explained that she had approached the new ethics professor about the idea at the beginning of the semester. She says that it’s “always good to explore ethics with law enforcement officers,” and that the program would be open not only to campus police, but other law enforcement in the region as well.

 

I hear that “Welcome to the Party” has been replaced with another program, do you have any information of the new program?

April Baer answered, stating that the Welcome to the Party has not been replaced, there is just a second program on sexual assault for first year students being offered now. The idea came from the President’s Advisory Council on Gender-based Violence as a result of their taking in feedback on Welcome to the Party and deciding to “diversify program options.” The new program is called Step Up and focused on bystander intervention (students can learn more at notalone.org). Orientation instructors choose which program their class will attend. This is in addition to Haven, the online program that all incoming students are required to complete at the same time as taking Alcohol EDU.

 

After conducting the interview, I still feel that the allegations against campus police officers should have been addressed at Red Zone, regardless of whether they are currently under investigation or not. It is important that new students are aware of the situation and feel that they can trust the university to handle these cases. University police are supposed to protect us as students, yet a few officers have allegedly elected to sexually assault us instead; if you have such low regard for women, you do not belong in law enforcement at all.

Students who are uncomfortable going to campus police to report a sexual assault can contact Chief Smith herself, as well as the coordinator for University Wellness April Baer, the Family Crisis Resource Center at 301-759-9244 or the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) here on campus at 301-687-4234.

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