COLUMN: CMU should be open about sexual assault


I've covered the topic of sexual assault extensively since starting at Central Michigan Life three years ago. 

I've interviewed survivors about Central Michigan University's policies and how they fit into federal law and the lack of viable rape kits available in Mount Pleasant. On the police beat, I've heard first-hand how some students have violated others. 

While it's complicated to report on sexual assaults, there are some questions students — especially women on this campus — deserve answers to. 

In the fall, I started asking the university, via Freedom of Information Act requests (which help citizens gain access to public documents), to tell me the locations of rapes reported on campus.  

Let me be clear: I wasn't interested in knowing anyone's name or exact addresses. I wanted to know the name of building or residence hall in which the incident occurred.

When a sexual assault is reported to university police or the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity, it is compiled in the Clery Act, which requires state universities to disclose statistics for crimes that occurred on or near campus. 

A report published in October showed 10 rapes were reported for the 2014 year. Seven of those assaults happened in residence halls. That number also includes sexual assaults that occurred in off-campus housing affiliated with the university, like Greek houses.

While this number might seem small, the problem of sexual assault on university campuses is much larger. When you think about how 68 percent of rapes are not reported according to the U.S. Justice Department, it is chilling to learn the number included in the Clery Act only scratches the surface. 

I asked for police reports for these incidents, so I could eventually publish a map showing the locations. All of my FOIA requests were denied. Why? We all deserve to know this information. 

The university's Office of General Counsel cited a violation of privacy, as someone could connect the dots and figure out which survivor was assaulted at each location. It also cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects students' educational records. 

FERPA protects students' private information, like grades. Police reports are subject to FOIA. You have to formally ask for them, but law enforcement records can never be withheld on the grounds of "student privacy."

As a woman, I'd like to know where I'm safe on campus and where I'm not. If rapes were reported at Greek houses, I want to know which ones so I can avoid them. 

But it's more than just about me. Through reporting on the topic, and being a generally empathetic person, I've learned many women around me have been sexually assaulted. The majority of them have not reported it.

 Before submitting FOIA requests, I asked the campus police to give me the reports. They referred me to general counsel. I submitted a handful of FOIA requests, all worded slightly differently, in the past year, that were all denied for the above reasons.

Though we can appeal FOIA denials, I set up a meeting with the police instead, to talk about what I might be doing wrong. They informed me general counsel was not letting them grant me access. 

When I asked to meet with general counsel, I was told the denials in the FOIA were self-explanatory, and that they had no interest in meeting with me to discuss it further.

Learning the law

In my pursuit of answers, I talked to Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization which gets called upon regularly to help collegiate journalists access public records from universities.

LoMonte and I agreed — police reports are public records — there is no disputing that. Police departments everywhere give out reports describing the nature of every crime they respond to. CMU police has its crime long, which lists the crime, when and where it occurred.

Why is sexual assault any different? 

I was told by the chief of police that sexual assault is a "gray area" of open records laws. He also said Title IX requires the university to be "less transparent" about it. 

There's nothing in Title IX that overrules state public records laws, LoMonte explained. Further, the police department's crime log lists sexual misconduct incidents that happened as recently as yesterday — usually with the location. Is this better or worse than providing the locations of assaults in 2014 and earlier? 

There was also a small tidbit of information everyone forgot to mention to me, while request after request for this information was denied: Police are required to keep a 60-day crime log available for public access. Beyond this, the information is archived.

But, if you ask for past crime logs, seven years of them have to be available within two business days. So I asked for them, and I got them, all 130 pages dating back to 2012.

An untraceable scope

Out of every 100 rapes, 32 are reported to police, according to the U.S. Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey. 

I've done a lot of reporting on Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates, CMU's 24-hour sexual crisis hotline. I can't convey the value of this organization and what its founder, Steve Thompson, has done for sexual assault survivors. 

Before he retired, I interviewed Thompson maybe a dozen times. He was always very open with me — he knows keeping the topic on people's minds fosters discussion and education. Thompson told me in 2014 that SAPA gets about 300 calls per year, which makes the number 10 in the Clery Report seem like it's showing only part of the problem. 

SAPA's new director, Brooke Oliver-Hempenstall, refused to tell me the number of calls the organization received this year, citing victim privacy. Providing that number could seriously help identify the scope and problem of sexual aggression on CMU's campus specifically. 

How do you discuss a problem if you can't accurately identify there is one? 

Public information matters

CM Life's mission is to give students — our primary audience — information they need to know. It doesn't always happen easily. I've spent a lot of days recently feeling frustrated about where I go from here. 

I've tried my hardest to not feel like university officials are hiding information. 

But I don't understand why, as this is the case with so many other requests, our university won't just redact personal information and give me the damn public records.

It bothers me.

I hope it bothers you too. 

As a journalist, I have the duty to tell you these things. Though I'm graduating in May, leaving information unreported doesn't sit well with me.

This will be the last thing I write for CM Life. This column was supposed to be a story opening your eyes to the scope of sexual assaults on our campus. 

What I've learned is no one wants to talk about it. 

The people who say they are protecting the survivors are, in reality, also shielding the predators and misrepresenting the scope of the problem on campus. 

It isn't state or federal law that is keeping us from having an honest, open conversation about sexual assaults at CMU. 

It is the people in power, who should have the best interests of survivors in mind.


About Sydney Smith

Sydney Smith is a super-senior at Central Michigan University. She comes from metro Detroit ...

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