Privacy Laws Prevent Sex Assault Investigations

Mary Friedrichs, who directs the Office of Victim Assistance at the University of Colorado, the District Attorney for Boulder County Stan Garnett and Joanne Belknap, who survived a sexual assault as a student at CU in 1980 and now researchers sexual violence as a professor at CU, discuss the tangle of conflicting priorities between preserving confidentiality of victims and law enforcement’s ability to identify and prosecute attackers.

In the fall of 2008, University of Colorado students who’d sought help from the school’s Office of Victim Assistance told counselors they’d been the targets of date-rape drugs used at the same fraternity in Boulder.
“There was definitely a pattern of women being drugged at a particular fraternity,” said Davian Gagne, who leads gender violence prevention at the office.

But the school’s therapists said they are barred from telling police or anyone else any details about the alleged crimes – which have never been publicly acknowledged until now.
Neither the university nor the police could investigate “because we didn’t tell them” the name of the fraternity, said CU Victim Assistance director Mary Friedrichs. “And we can’t.”

Friedrichs said state law, and the therapists’ code of ethics, prevent her from giving police or the public the details of the alleged crimes. And the university has no jurisdiction over the fraternities because they are not officially part of the school.

Joanne Belknap stands in front of Old Main on the University of Colorado campus where she was sexually assaulted in 1980.


Joanne Belknap stands in front of Old Main on the University of Colorado campus where she was sexually assaulted in 1980.

The law and the ethics code say all licensed therapists must keep what clients tell them confidential, unless the client wants that information shared. If therapists had to disclose details of a sexual assault to police, Friedrichs said, then victims might never come forward.

Mary Friedrichs

“It’s not that we want perpetrators to get away with it,” Friedrichs said.
But law enforcement officials say that’s exactly what could happen if CU and other schools across the state – and the nation – don’t find a way to both protect victims and prosecute criminals.
“That becomes a real problem,” said Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett. “It’s frankly up in the air how we will resolve this.”

Across Colorado – and nationwide – counselors and police officials are conflicted over how to both protect the victims of sexual assault and prevent more people from becoming victims. The tension is emerging amid major changes in the way universities in Colorado and elsewhere try to prevent sexual assault and how they publicly report crime on campus.
All this is happening in the context of what some experts call an “epidemic” of sexual assault on campus. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in 28 college women is the target of rape each school year, and that eventually, one in five women is the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during her college years.trong>Public Reports

MPublic Reportsany colleges in the U.S. did not report serious crime on campus at all until Congress began requiring it in 1990. Four years earlier, Jeanne Clery, a freshman at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., was raped, tortured and murdered in her dorm room.

Clery’s attacker entered her dorm through a series of three doors that had been propped open. Clery’s parents became convinced that if students had known about the 38 violent crimes on campus in the three years before their daughter’s murder, those doors would have been locked. They led a campaign to require campuses to report serious crime to the public, which became the federal Clery Act.

The Clery Act requires colleges that receive federal funding to collect and publish the number of serious crimes – including sexual assault – that occur on their campuses or immediately adjacent to them each year.

Only one in 20 ever reports the crime.
An investigation of sexual assault on college campuses in Colorado found that across the state, the number of assaults that colleges reveal to the public is often just a fraction of those that are known to campus officials.
Federal law requires each college that receives federal aid to report to the public the number of sexual assaults and other serious crimes on campus. This is called the Clery Report.
But at three of Colorado’s largest universities, counselors report neither details nor the aggregated number of alleged sexual assaults they learn about from clients.
The most recent data show:

  • The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley reported four sexual assaults, but school officials knew of more than twice that many.
  • Colorado State University in Fort Collins reported two sexual assaults, but knew of at least three times more than that.
  • CU reported 9 sexual assaults, but officials there say about two dozen more students reported sexual assaults to school therapists. It is not clear how many of those assaults may have occurred off-campus, and thus not be part of the Clery Report.

So because the majority of victims go to counselors instead of police, the crimes against those students remain hidden – unless the victims themselves tell police.
This is not true at all colleges. For example, at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, the number of sexual assaults listed each year in its public report includes both those seeking assistance from counselors and reporting directly to police.
At other schools, there is often confusion over who is supposed to report what.
“We operate in terms of confidentiality in Colorado like therapists, but we are not therapists,” said Lisa Ingarfield of the Phoenix Center of Auraria, which serves students from the University of Colorado at Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver and the Community College of Denver. “And so that, I think, is where the confusion comes in about whether or not we have to report.”

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