By McKenna Luzynski, Contributor
Furman students received a timely warning email from Furman University Police Department (FUPD) Chief Tom Saccenti at 10:02 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2. The email informed the Furman community that a male student allegedly sexually assaulted a female student in the early hours of Sunday, Oct. 30. The female student has not requested a criminal investigation, though that option remains available, according to the email.
The email message was sent as a result of Furman’s adherence to the Jeanne Clery Act Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, more commonly known as just the Clery Act.
The Clery Act, signed into law in 1990, requires all higher education institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs to both collect and report information about crime on or associated with their campuses.
“A timely warning is communicated to the university when there is a Clery violation that may present a threat to the university,” said Melissa Nichols, Furman’s Title IX coordinator.
When a sexual assault is reported, a series of steps is followed to ensure that the situation is handled properly. One of the first phases of response is deciding whether or not to issue a “timely warning.”
“There’s a small team, made up of Captain John Milby, myself, Melissa Nichols and Jason Cassidy that assesses the situation and decides if we should issue a warning,” Saccenti said. “And if we feel that we should, we take that to a more executive team and they approve the issuing of that notice.”
After that initial decision, the two separate entities of FUPO and Title IX begin to work with the complainant (the survivor of the sexual misconduct incident) to determine the best course of action for him or her.
“When the student comes to us, they have three options. Option number one is to prosecute. Option number two is ‘I don’t want to prosecute, but I definitely want to file a conduct charge.’ If the student chooses option one, filing a conduct charge is automatic” Saccenti said. ”We will not file charges if the student does not want to. Option three is ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but I want it on record so that I can make a decision at a later date.’”
If the complainant chooses to pursue legal action, his or her case is transferred to the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department (GCSD).
“While we [at FUPD] have incredibly trained police officers, sexual assault or sexual misconduct cases are not something that they do daily,” Saccenti said.
According to Saccenti, most of the reported eight to 12 sexual assaults go through Title IX.
“Our department only does about two investigations a year, traditionally. With two a year, you can’t really become an expert,” Saccenti said.
Thus, Saccenti reached out to GCSD, who has a specialized unit of, among others, 11 full-time investigators, who handle sexual assault calls. Saccenti admits that he had to swallow his pride to turn over Furman’s sexual misconduct calls to GCSD for sexual assault complaintants who pursue legal action, but he believes it is in the best interest of the students. The majority of the time, students reporting sexual assault or sexual misconduct incidents do not wish to press charges. In those cases, Title IX takes over.
“Title IX is a gender equality statute. So Title IX says you cannot discriminate on the basis of sex if you are an educational institution that receives federal funding. The federal government says that if you are being harassed on a daily basis, for instance, that interferes with your ability to get an education. Sexual assault is an aggravated form of sexual harassment. So one act of sexual assault would interfere with your education, making it a Title IX issue,” Nichols said.
Title IX is designed to be a swift process to stop the conduct, prevent it from reoccurring and remedy the effects. In contrast to a legal investigation, Title IX attempts to determine if the respondent (the accused) “more than likely” violated Furman’s sexual misconduct policy, rather than if he or she has broken South Carolina law.
Though Title IX aims to resolve cases within 60 days, the thought of going through an investigation like that can be overwhelming to some complainants. Nichols emphasized that they try to give the complainants as much control over the situation as possible.
“If you tell a responsible party about a sexual assault, they are required to report it to Title IX, and we will always reach out and ask you to come to a meeting. We let you know what your rights are, what your options are and what resources there are,” Nichols said. “If someone says, ‘This happened to me, but I don’t want to pursue it,’ what we have to do is determine if there is a safety risk to the university or to the complainant, or a pattern of conduct. Absent that concern, we generally won’t go through with the investigation. And even if we do, we will never require the student to be involved.”
The most important part of either a criminal or a Title IX investigation is the collection of evidence.
“There’s a lot of evidence that’s going to be collected. There’s digital evidence from cell phones, text messages, GPS and emails. There are interviews with friends and camera footage from our entrance gates, so there’s a ton of information that’s going to be reviewed,” said Saccenti.
Nichols added, “Within 72 hours of the sexual assault, you can go to the hospital to have a sexual assault forensic exam. A specially trained nurse will collect all the forensic evidence, and will give you antibiotics against bacterial STD’s, as well as Plan B, and will look for any signs of trauma. These exams are all paid for by the state.”
Within the 72 hours after a sexual assault, a complainant may not have decided to pursue an investigation, either legally or through Title IX. That being said, Nichols encourages anyone in that situation to seek medical treatment, regardless.
“You can go and have that kit done anonymously, and they give you the entire exam and the medical treatment. You never talk to law enforcement, the kit is not labeled with your name, and then if you report your assault to law enforcement within a year, then that kit can be used as evidence,” says Nichols.
Physical health is not the only significant element of a person’s health after he or she experiences a sexual assault. Mental health is just as important. For this reason, one of the biggest goals of Title IX is to connect complainants, as well as respondents if the situation necessitates, to appropriate resources.
Students have many options for seeking help. On campus, Nichols encourages students to see student health services, the chaplain, case managers or the counseling center. An app, called “Reach Out — College Edition,” for both Android and iPhone has been developed to connect students with Furman-specific resources.
There are also numerous off-campus resources available to students. For instance, the Julie Valentine Center runs a 24-hour rape crisis hotline, and there are numerous organizations, such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network that provide websites with valuable information and links to other resources.
However, the best way to handle sexual assault on Furman’s campus is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Saccenti and Nichols agree that, although it seems like a self-explanatory concept, understanding consent is crucial to decreasing the number of sexual assault cases on campus.
“It is incumbent upon both parties to ensure they have consent,” Nichols said. “You cannot get consent from someone who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Clearly, that includes someone who is passed out. If you are with someone, and you are not sure if they are incapacitated, err on the side of not going forward.”