Higher Education, Law Enforcement Officials Confront Sex Assault

From left, Colorado State University president Tony Frank, Lt., Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, Rocky Mountain PBS CEO Doug Price,  Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and  Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey chat at Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver  before the taping of the Colorado Quarterly program about sexual assaults on college campuses and military service academies on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

From left, Colorado State University president Tony Frank, Lt., Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent
of the Air Force Academy, Rocky Mountain PBS CEO Doug Price, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia
Coffman and Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey talk at Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver before the taping of the Colorado Quarterly program about sexual assaults on university and academy campuses on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the Air Force Academy’s inspector general conducted an inquiry into the athletic department in August last year, and that the watchdog concluded its inquiry in October without conducting a formal investigation. An earlier version of the story said that the academy’s inspector general had launched an investigation late last year.

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College administrators and law enforcement share a concern about incidents of sexual assault involving college students. And that can be a problem.

A high-level group from Colorado’s higher-education institutions and justice system, including Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and U.S. Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, met in Denver to address sexual assault for a panel that was broadcast on Colorado Quarterly on Rocky Mountain PBS and is available at rmpbs.org.

They agreed on the seriousness of an issue that has gained traction nationally in the last year, on the heels of an Obama administration initiative aimed at improving students’ safety and bolstering schools’ internal policies.

“Safety has to be a critical issue in our universities,” said Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “The issue of whether we’re offering a great education, whether it’s affordable – these questions pale in comparison to any parent’s concern for their child’s safety.”

Colleges are obligated under Title IX, a federal law, to adjudicate sexual assault in the name of gender equality on campus.

But universities’ obligations to investigate and adjudicate cases involving their students can be at cross-purposes with law enforcement, said Morrissey. Especially in cases where victims are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol and don’t remember details of an assault, university processes can sometimes get in the way of law enforcement efforts to investigate, he said.

“We find that Title IX causes us problems with that,” said Morrissey. College proceedings are often more transparent than police investigations – sometimes due to specific obligations of the Clery Act, which requires colleges to keep students informed about crime on campus.

“The Clery Act puts everyone on notice, including perpetrators,” said the prosecutor.

His office is working with six Denver-based colleges to develop a protocol for handling sexual assault cases to coordinate efforts and ensure that processes don’t interfere with each other.

The meetings have improved coordination between law enforcement and the colleges, he said, while they work toward a protocol for the cases.

The Obama administration efforts to strengthen the enforcement of Title IX have come under some criticism by conservatives who believe that the White House is overreaching. Critics have questioned the crime’s prevalence among college students – and the rate of false reporting – particularly after an explosive and later discredited Rolling Stone story about a rape on the campus of the University of Virginia.

But Frank said questions about the prevalence of assault, which is hard to gauge, are a distraction.

“Would we feel better if the numbers were half of what they are?” said Frank. “The numbers are too high. Period.”

CSU is one of five universities in the state under federal investigation by the Department of Education for its handling of sexual violence. Regis University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Colorado Denver, and the University of Denver are also under investigation, according to a list released by the Office of Civil Rights.

Frank said the university has been pushing education on issues like consent, among other programs aimed at preventing assaults.

He brushed off the significance of the federal investigation.

“It’s an audit, which we welcome,” said Frank, adding later that the investigation was not in reaction to any specific complaint by a student.

The Air Force Academy, as a military service academy, is not subject to Title IX requirements. It has the capacity to court-martial students who commit offenses like sexual assault.

But the institution has also come under public scrutiny for its handling of sexual violence. Johnson in August recommended that the academy’s inspector general look into the athletic department, following allegations that the academy had bungled an investigation into reported misconduct by members of the football team, including an accusation that players used date-rape drugs to assault women in 2011.

The inspector general found in October that the athletic department was effective, and found no problems that warranted a follow-on investigation. No further details were released.

The Defense Department’s inspector general has launched its own inquiry into the academy’s handling of alleged sexual assault, after two U.S. senators, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and John Thune, R-S.D., called for an independent investigation. That probe is ongoing, said Johnson.

The academy superintendent said the institution has strengthened protections for victims, and built more avenues for them to come forward confidentially with reports of sexual assault. The institution has also replaced the athletic director, and Johnson said she is working to educate academy leadership to bolster efforts to prevent sexual assault from happening among the cadets under their watch.

Doug Price, the chief executive officer of the Denver-based public media company, moderated the panel, which also included State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. The entire program can be viewed here.

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