September 23, 2004

Rape Charges Raise Concern

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Recent rape allegations have again cast the spotlight on the University’s handling of sexual assault cases, with critics saying that the rights of victims are habitually violated and defenders saying that the system works as best it can in a academic framework.

The allegations, which stem from an incident on campus over Labor Day weekend, seem all too reminiscent of past events for Daniel Carter, the senior vice president of Security On Campus, Inc., a non-profit corporation whose stated motto is “safer campuses for students.” Carter, whose group prosecuted and won a recent case against Georgetown which forces colleges and universities to allow assault victims to discuss their cases, says that one of his main reasons for pursuing the Georgetown case was Cornell’s own Judicial Administrator, Mary Beth Grant.

He said that Grant’s enforcement of non-disclosure agreements in sexual assault cases brought his attention to the the use of such agreements, a practice he said was common at many universities but only actually enforced, to his knowledge, at Cornell.

“She appears to be unwilling to permit any type of dissent or questioning of the process,” Carter said. He said that a former Cornell client, in 2002, tried to talk about her case with groups on campus and was prosecuted by the J.A. for discussing her case, an action, Carter says, “that the federal government has disclosed to be an illegal practice.”

The J.A., however, has its supporters. Susan ’03 (name has been changed) feels that it is too easy for outsiders to attack a system that, by its nature, must be confidential.

“I was very happy with my results,” she said. “I think that given the circumstances of my case, it was the most I could hope for.”

Susan, who says she was assaulted during the second semester of her freshman year, added that the J.A. was able to get a conviction for a case the Tompkins County District Attorney would not pursue.

“The J.A. was willing to pursue and was successful … at getting convictions,” Susan said. “I don’t even think the Ithaca District Attorney’s office was incorrect, I just think that it was unfortunate [they wouldn’t pursue charges],” she added.

Susan said that Cornell’s sexual assault cases were especially difficult, because “sexual crimes at Cornell aren’t taking place with people running out of the bushes, that’s not how it is happening at Cornell.”

Andrea Parrot, policy analysis and management professor and chair of Cornell Advocates for Rape Education, also has positive things to say about the system, especially regarding the progress it has made over the last two decades. She cited “victim-friendly” changes such as mandatorily closed hearings and the victim’s right not to have to face the alleged perpetrator.

Parrot said the first change was significant because before the change, the accused would bring a group of his friends to intimidate the victim during hearings, leading many cases to be dropped outright.

It is this secrecy, however, that has Carter and others suspicious about the intent and effectiveness of the system.

“Hiding things or acting like things aren’t their problem is a really sad path to take,” said Michele Paiva, who works with Security on Campus and has focused on the University in her research.

“What I have found, through extensive research, and I may be wrong,” Paiva said,” but I have not found anyone that [the J.A. has] found guilty or have done any formal kind of repercussions that I would consider justice.”

Paiva said that she had researched over 30 cases occurring at Cornell. She also added that it was in the University’s best interest to prosecute sexual assault cases. “If [perpetrators] are held more accountable, there will be less violence,” she said. “If they would just sit in a kindergarten classroom: if you steal a crayon, you get sent to the hotseat for a few minutes and a note is sent home to your parents.”

“It’s that kind of mentality that they’ve lost for some reason,” she said. Paiva also says that the school’s support for victims is inadequate.

In corresponding with the school during her research, Paiva says that she asked hypothetical questions as a victim of sexual assault. “One of my questions was posed, what if this is affecting my studies? And their answer is … talk to the police, the police will help me with my studies.”

Carter agreed with Paiva’s assessment.

Victims, he said, “need to be treated with more respect. They’ve been emotionally devastated in many cases and to treat it like, oh well, this is just a routine proceeding, does more damage to them then I think a lot of people recognize.”

Carter also raised questions about whether perpetrators are “ever held accountable for sexual assault,” as Grant said in a recent interview.

“I think questions have been raised about how many cases go before the judicial administrator actually have a finding of responsibility,” he said.

Susan, however, said that such feelings of anger were misplaced.

“I think people are often frustrated by the very nature of the crime, and are holding that frustration against people who were limited by the nature of the crime,” she said. “Not even necessarily the system, but by the nature of the crime.”

Susan also said that the Cornell Police department was very helpful throughout and after her case.

“‘They were wonderful to me,” she said, adding that they traced threatening phone calls back that she had received and offered to press charges.

Susan also said that the support services provided by the University were adequate. “They encouraged me to work with the victim’s advocate, which I didn’t do. They encouraged me to go to Gannett, which I wasn’t as committed to doing as I should have been,” she said. “Mary Beth talked to me while I was at home and was very honest and forthright,” she added, saying that the J.A. notified her when the perpetrator hired a private investigator to look into Susan’s private life.

“They were supportive as I could have asked, they’re not therapists, they’re not supposed to be,” she said.

Addressing victims’ concerns that the accused is allowed to bring in multiple witnesses while the accuser is more limited in their witnesses, Parrot noted that, “Nobody is charging the victim with anything, why would the victim need to bring witnesses in the same way that the accused would?”

However, Parrot, too, feels that the Campus Code of Conduct could use some improvement. “One of the parts of the campus code I’d like to see changed is jurisdiction,” she said. “If something happens one foot off campus, the J.A. has no jurisdiction.” Parrot said she would prefer a system based not on geography, whether students are or are not on campus, but on temporality, in effect the entire time while the students are enrolled at Cornell. “If we as a university feel like we need to provide more rights available to the victims, we have to change the Campus Code of Conduct.”

In regard to claims that the J.A. doesn’t pursue cases, Parrot said that “I think our J.A. is very good at going after inappropriate behavior whenever the evidence is sufficient. But sometimes the evidence is not there.”

As far as the Labor Day case goes, however, the family members who have contacted The Sun say that the University’s claims of an effective system ring hollow and that all claims otherwise are part of a facade to keep the University’s image clean.

“I feel like we’re being stonewalled,” said one relative of the victim. “We still feel like nothing is being done with the quote, unquote investigation.”

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Senior Writer