April 28, 2008

Alleged Assault Incites Controversy

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“Hey ho! These sexist assholes have to go!”
The chants heard on Ho Plaza last Wednesday reverberated throughout campus, within earshot of the University’s administrators tucked behind the walls of Day Hall. The student activist group, Sexual Violence Resistance Network, touted pickets and distributed pamphlets, inciting inflammatory statements such as, “one in four women at Cornell will have experienced rape and/or attempted rape.”
“Our campus is rife with rape culture,” said Marlena Fontes ’10, in front of a few dozen noisy protestors on Ho Plaza. “I tell you this not to bring you down, but to bring you out to fight.”
Since July, the Cornell Police Department has reported six sexual assaults on campus, four of which were classified as rape. Though the Ithaca Police department handled four of the assaults, Kathy Zoner, deputy chief of the CUPD, could only confirm that one had resulted in arrest.
SVRN’s mobilization and the protest that ensued over the last few weeks has attacked President David Skorton, the entire Cornell administration and the University’s crisis management team for their supposed inability to help and respond to rape victims.
The impetus for the protest began three weeks ago with the alleged rape of a sophomore named Alex (named changed for victim’s confidentiality). According to Alex, it was her friendship with a drug dealer formerly in a West Campus fraternity that spurred the incident. While on ecstasy, she believes she was forced to perform oral sex on him, and possibly engage in vaginal intercourse.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines rape as, “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her consent.” Since Alex was under the influence of drugs, U.S. law dictates that her claims can be classified as rape.
When Alex’s Spanish professor saw her in class the day after the incident, she had what she described as bruises and scratches on her face, at which point the professor told her to go to Gannett Health Services. After being assessed, Alex claims that the nurse verified she had been sexually assaulted.
“I went to the hospital the next day. My mouth was really fucked up,” Alex said. “Inside my mouth was all swollen and it looked like second degree burns. [It was actually from] forced oral … At first I was just like ‘what happened to me?’”
Alex was called to a meeting with an assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, where she says she was told she “looked like a junkie from the ’70s” and that she needed to seek help.
“I get there and instead of it being just me and her, there’s a bunch of people there,” Alex recounted.
She said that the assistant dean had also been worried that Alex had a potential drug problem because she had done a project on legalizing heroin, and that when she attempted to say who committed the sexual assault, the dean did not seem to care.
The assistant dean was unavailable for comment.
“I told them what happened and they did not take me seriously,” she said.
Alex maintains that she and Alice Green, another assistant dean of students, agreed that her parents would not be involved in the case.
A week after the incident, Alex said that Green came into her off-campus apartment and told her that her parents were waiting to talk to her in her office.
In a letter she wrote to administration members a few days ago, she stated, “I was basically told, ‘if you don’t pack up and leave now, for your safety you cannot come back to Cornell in the fall’ … Why am I the last one to be informed of my parents coming up? That is such an invasion of privacy.”
Alex told The Sun that she made an agreement with Green that if she were to tell her mother anything, it would be that she “got beat up and that’s why [she] had to go home.”
According to Prof. Andrea Parrot, policy analysis and management, chair of the Cornell Advocates for Rape Education, confidentiality plays a crucial role in dealing with rape victims.
“If you are not a minor, we can’t release that kind of information to your family,” Parrot said.
However, Simeon Moss ’73, director of Cornell Press Relations, said that in extreme cases, “it is a policy to contact parents when someone is in danger to oneself or others, and cases that question the student’s continued enrollment in the University.”
He said that it is the Office of the Dean of Students, along with a support team, that decides when to release a student’s case to his or her parents. However, there are no hard and fast rules for when parents must be contacted.
Alex claimed that the University told her it was “best to get the parents involved.”
Currently, according to the Ithaca Police Department, a case is pending in Alex’s name. Though it is not a criminal complaint, there is a second-hand investigation underway. Moss encouraged anyone with information regarding the incident to come forth and help the authorities.
“[The] case is under investigation,” said Officer Don Hoyt of the IPD, adding that when the case was first opened, “the victim refused to cooperate” with authorities. Often times, Hoyt acknowledged, a “victim is scared and upset and refuses to cooperate, but eventually they come around.”
Now at home, Alex claims that the University has changed its decision daily on how to deal with her situation. After writing the letter to the administration, Alex says that Cornell has told her she will be able to go abroad next fall, as she had planned to do before the incident. She currently has a lawyer, but has yet to press charges against the University.
“Cornell is wrongly making this into a ‘drug problem’ and forcing me to get evaluated when the real problem here is that I got sexually assaulted and nothing is being done about it,” Alex stated. “I am being treated like the problem.”
Parrot said that the services Cornell provides to victims of sexual assault depends on what the individual wants to pursue, specifying that the police, Gannett, the judicial administrator and Victims Advocate Nina Cummings are all available to help.
Triggered by the incident, Alex’s friend Kristin Herbeck ’10 began a campus-wide campaign through SVRN in response to Alex’s case, and what she believes to be the University’s sub par response to rape victims. In a statement distributed at the rally, she wrote, “There is no way we will let Cornell get away with this to maintain a system of impunity for sexual violence against women [sic].”
Others stood up at the rally to speak out against what they believe to be an injustice. The protestors’ impassioned voices rang loud last Wednesday, bringing up concerns about Cornell’s response to sexual assault cases on campus. Their remarks uncovered past dissatisfaction with action taken by the Judicial Administrator.
“We are informed [by Cornell] when someone’s iPod is stolen, but we’re not informed when someone is harassed and assaulted,” one protestor lamented. “President Skorton is responsible. This is unacceptable.”
Four years ago, The Sun reported a rape that occurred on Labor Day of 2004 on University property. Relatives of the victim claimed that the Judicial Administrator silenced the case.
However, Parrot emphasized to The Sun yesterday that the J.A. can only prosecute students on sexual assault charges if there is evidence. Often — especially when a victim waits a long time to report the incident — there is insufficient evidence to implicate rape. Furthermore, the J.A. will not press charges if the victim does not want to.
Judicial Administrator Mary-Beth Grant was unavailable for comment.
The larger issue of rape on college campuses has raised much concern over the last few years. Rape charges filed against members of the Duke University Lacrosse Team fell into the national spotlight in 2006, eliciting criticism regarding assault on college campuses.
Today’s university culture, largely described as involving “casual hook-ups,” has also raised concerns about student safety. According to the Brown University Health Education website, 90 percent of campus rapes occur when alcohol is involved.
Though Alex’s case has drawn attention on campus, many more rapes go unreported. The University Rochester’s 1992 Sexual Assault Statistics report that only 16 percent of rapes are reported to the police. This means that about 650,000 rapes actually occurred in 1992.
For now, Alex is waiting for confirmation regarding her academic status at Cornell. Though she claims otherwise, Moss said that Alex is currently a full-time student, and he expects that she will finish the semester.