In response to two e-mails from Northwestern Police last week — one to report that a Northwestern student had been sexually assaulted and another to report that the student’s claim was “not bona fide” — the Sexual Health and Assault Peer Education group organized a panel to provide “information and discussion about Sexual Assault at NU and on a broader scale,” according to an e-mail from the group.
More specifically, the forum, held in the conference room of the Black House at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening, clarified in general terms the policy dictating “false report” of rape, and Northwestern’s interpretation of that policy. Attendees questioned the detailed nature of the e-mail’s descriptions of the victim and perpetrator, and the less-detailed nature of the second e-mail. They suggested that the way the e-mails are written reinforces dangerously over-simplified perceptions about sexual assault.
The panel members — guest Lisa Frohmann, University of Illinois at Chicago professor of criminology, law and justice; Don Misch, director of Searle student health services; Renee Redd, director of the women’s center; and Laura Stuart, coordinator of sexual health education and violence prevention — could only offer information about rape reporting practices in the abstract.
“None of us can say for sure what happened [in the case of the Northwestern student and e-mails],” said Stuart, coordinator of sexual health education and violence prevention. She said she knows as much as the students based on two e-mail alerts that were sent out to the Northwestern community last week. The first, from Oct. 27, notified students that a female Northwestern student (whose name has not been released) was sexually assaulted and the second, which appeared in many inboxes on Oct. 28, had a subject line that declared the first e-mail’s report “false.”
The second alert offered no explanation as to why the claim was dismissed, but said the decision was made after detectives interviewed the student.
Interim Dean of Students Burgwell Howard explained that NUPD is required to send the e-mails by the Clery Act, signed in 1990. The act calls for universities to “make timely reports to the campus community on crimes considered to be a threat to other students and employees.”
This year, NUPD has consistently sent out e-mail alerts right after the crimes as a way to carry out “timely alert” policy, Howard said. The potential problem with e-mails sent too hastily, though — brought to light by the case last week — is that these e-mails can broadcast a case without having all the facts. Howard said that universities are still interpreting the Clery Act, and looking for the correct way to inform students of crimes in a timely, accurate and lawful way.
While NUPD sent out e-mail alerts last year that appear on their Web site, Northwestern Deputy Chief Dan McAleer said more e-mails are being sent out this year.
“We have tried to implement more e-mails to inform our community as we see the necessity to make sure a broader notification takes place,” he said.
The panelists and students in the audience also noted the unusual detail of the e-mails, both in their description of the events that occurred on the night of the alleged sexual assault, in their specific physical and racial description of the attacker, and in their insistence that the report was false.
The specific language in these e-mails — in particular the word “bona fide” — stirred up strong opinions among students who spoke out. Some said the word automatically created the idea that the victim had lied.
Frohmann said the term, which is sometimes used interchangeably by police with the word “unfounded,” can have many different meanings behind it. Reasons for labeling a case “not bona fide” can range from victims’ stories changing to witnesses not choosing to testify because they are too embarrassed.
Weinberg senior Kirsten Powers said she was concerned about how the language of the e-mails encouraged other students to assume the student was a liar, question her choices on that night, and even wish her harm, all of which she saw in an online forum.
“I personally was enraged that [the way online commenters have portrayed the Northwestern student] is still the dominant way of thinking of assault,” Powers said.
The panelists also noted the unusual detail of the first e-mail, both in its description of the events that occurred on the night of the alleged sexual assault, and in its specific physical and racial description of the suspect. Panelists and students alike were concerned that this level of publicized detail about the events could discourage students from reporting sexual assault cases in the future.
The e-mail’s explicit description of the suspect also drew concern. The description, which portrayed the suspect as an “African American male, approximately 25 years old, 5-6 – 5-7 inches tall, with a thin but muscular build, wearing a black leather jacket and dark jeans,” provoked a discussion about race.
One student in the audience said when she first read the e-mail she was more concerned about how it might reinforce racial perceptions than how it would influence perception of gender. She said she was surprised by the specificity, when previous cases have had more blanket descriptions that could apply to people of any race.
Howard said he will meet with the chief of police to discuss issues like whether victims know that the university is required under the Cleary Act to report assault cases publicly as well as why the reports are so detailed.
“It’s always about improving the system,” Howard said.