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One student's story of navigating CMU's Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity


Traverse City junior Brin Forlenza poses with her survivor tattoo.

Nervous. Numb. Scared. Intimidated.

That's how Traverse city junior Brin Forlenza remembers feeling as a freshman at Central Michigan University after she reported being sexually assaulted to the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity.

Forlenza was assaulted at an off-campus apartment in the early hours of Oct. 30, 2016 by a Kellogg Community College student who was visiting campus. The day after she was assaulted, Forlenza had an SANE exam done and was instructed by the sheriff at the hospital to OCRIE and report what happened to her. She made an appointment to meet with a Title IX investigator. 

When Forlenza arrived at the office, she was not greeted by the investigator she spoke to, but was instead met by Katherine Lasher, OCRIE director and Title IX Coordinator. Forlenza said she was thrown off and upset when Lasher asked her to share her story again.  

"When you're in that traumatic state, disclosing to so many people is like re-victimizing," Forlenza said. "Anytime you have to start talking about it, it's like you feel yourself in that bed with them again. You're putting yourself in that situation again every time."

Lasher was very "informative" during their meeting, Forlenza said. She told her about on-campus resources for survivors, like Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates. Forlenza remembers signing some documents and being told OCRIE could not do much more to help her. Lasher told her OCRIE could not do anything except refer her to Kellogg's Title IX Coordinator, Harold West.

"Once she found out (my attacker) was from a different college, it was like, 'Okay, we're done here,'" Forlenza said. 

Sexual misconduct policy

CMU's sexual misconduct policy details all of the university's procedures and guidelines in regards to sexual misconduct.

The first line of the policy itself states that acts of sexual misconduct and retaliation both on-and-off campus are prohibited. Sexual misconduct is defined in the policy as including, but not limited to, dating violence, domestic violence and intimate partner violence, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment and stalking. Retaliation is defined as an adverse action taken against a person because that person reported sexual misconduct or retaliation, or cooperated in an OCRIE investigation.

In March 2015, a revised sexual misconduct policy was implemented. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was established in January 2014 with a mandate to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to help combat sexual assault on campus. The university's policy was updated in accordance with that mandate. 

The revised policy requires OCRIE to perform sexual misconduct investigations instead of the Office of Student Conduct. However, if students who violate the policy receive sanctions, the sanction would be issued from the Office of Student Conduct.

The policy also requires all CMU staff and faculty to report information about sexual misconduct to Lasher. 

Resident assistants and multicultural advisers are considered "mandatory reporters," meaning students in these positions also must report sexual misconduct.

A 2015 Central Michigan Life story about the policy change detailed concerns raised by campus community members. Some believed that the new policy would deter survivors from reporting sexual misconduct, because anything mentioned to a staff member might be investigated. There also was a concern that Title IX could prevent survivors from coming forward, despite the fact that it made it possible for more reports to be investigated.

Lasher said in the story that survivors have several options outlined in the new policy and that they "try to leave it up to the survivor to make his or her own decisions."

Investigating a complaint

OCRIE opened 268 files involving incidents or complaints under CMU's sexual misconduct policy between Jan. 1, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2017, according to the October 2018 Title IX summary report submitted to the State of Michigan.

Of those 268 files, 19 were investigated by OCRIE.

To initiate an investigation, OCRIE requests that a complainant prepare a "brief written statement of fact sufficient to put a reasonable person on notice of an alleged violation of the policy." The statement may also be prepared by a third party on behalf of a complainant, or OCRIE will draft the complaint if the office is investigating an allegation without the complainant's active participation. 

The respondent, defined in the policy as the person accused of misconduct in the complaint, will be notified by OCRIE about the complaint. OCRIE provides the respondent with written notice of the allegations and a request to meet. If the respondent doesn't wish to participate, OCRIE will carry out its investigation based on available information. The respondent may still be subject to sanctions or disciplinary actions.  

OCRIE's investigatory powers include interviewing students, staff and faculty, inspecting documentary evidence or any other evidence that may be available. 

At the end of its investigation, OCRIE will issue a "determination." These include an overview of the investigation, a summary of all evidence testimony, findings and a conclusion as to whether or not a violation of the policy occurred and recommended sanctions to "eliminate the sexual misconduct, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects."

Although OCRIE and the Title IX coordinator is charged with the task of investigating allegations of sexual misconduct, the office does not implement any sanctions or punishment. Instead, OCRIE is required to recommend them to the sanctioning official. For students, that sanctioning official is the Tom Idema, director of the Office of Student Conduct. 

If the sanctioning official finds a student responsible for sexual assault, the minimum required punishment is suspension. 

Sexual misconduct is a violation of section of the CMU Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Disciplinary Procedures, which states that students must adhere to the university's sexual misconduct policy. The sexual misconduct policy itself does not specify mandatory punishments, but Section 4.4.11 of the Code of Student Rights states the minimum mandatory sanction for sexual assault is suspension. There are many other possible sanctions, including removal from campus housing, a written reprimand, dismissal from extra-curricular activities and dismissal from CMU.

In 2014, Students Advocating Gender Equality at CMU advocated for permanent dismissal to be the minimum punishment for students found responsible of sexual assault. The group delivered a letter to former President George Ross detailing their request which was part of an on-campus demonstration that ended in a march to his office in Warriner Hall. Their online petition gathered more than 5,700 signatures of people who supported the change. 

CM Life asked University Communications, OCRIE and the President's Office what came of this petition, and nobody had any knowledge or information about the event.

According to CMU's sexual misconduct policy, if a CMU student is sexually assaulted by someone who is not a member of the university community like when Forlenza was assaulted by the Kellogg Community College student, OCRIE may issue a trespass warning against that person, restrict where they may be on campus or help the victim file a no contact order against them. Forlenza said Lasher mentioned prohibiting the man from being able to "come near her dorm room," but heard no mention of a no contact order until she spoke to West.

When asked what or who played a role in helping her through this process, she smiled and said, "Harold West."

The difference in the way the two Title IX offices treated Forlenza was significant, she said. At CMU, Forlenza said it felt as if Lasher was there to deliver information about survivor resources and then "throw me out the door, kind of like a lawyer would." West, however, was empathetic. 

The first thing West said to her, Forlenza explained, was, "I want you to know I'm here for you. We're here to fight for you and find the truth in this matter. If this guy's guilty we're gonna get him." 

When West reached out to Forlenza, he told her she would need to obtain any recordings or reports from CMU's Title IX office. However, when Forlenza called the office, Lasher told her she had nothing to give her from the office. Their meeting was not recorded. Forlenza doesn't remember Lasher taking any notes while she shared her story. The only thing Lasher gave West was the sheriff's report.

"As someone who is studying criminal justice, and who is going to be working with victims in a legal sense, I know the first person you tell your story to is a huge thing – it shows consistency in your story, that the first time it's disclosed is the same as the 100th time," Forlenza said. "For a lot of survivors, the OCRIE officer is probably one of the first people you're disclosing your information to. For a lot of people when the assault is still so fresh like that, they're going to probably be a lot more raw about the information they give you too." 

In 2015, Lasher told CM Life, "Our goal is to have the survivor only talk once to us about what happened, and I want to make sure they are ready and informed if they want to go forward."

One of the most helpful things Kellogg's Title IX office did for Forlenza, she said, was provide an advocate for her. Advocates, who are paid to be a survivor's support system, are specifically trained to talk to someone who has been sexually assaulted. Forlenza said this is very helpful because they can help someone understand what happened to them, rather than simply asking, "Were you sexually assaulted?"

"That's definitely something I think our Title IX office needs to look at," Forlenza said. "When a victim comes in (to OCRIE) there should be an advocate in the room. There's a difference between a lawyer and an advocate – an advocate knows how to talk to people who are still in shock and are going through trauma."

CM Life attempted to contact OCRIE to ask why the office does not automatically provide complainants with an advocate, but received no response.

West immediately began investigating Forlenza's complaint by interviewing people who had information about what happened that night – even friends of hers who were there but were no longer living in the state. During the investigation, Forlenza's attacker was not allowed to be on the community college's campus. She said she appreciated that although she didn't attend the school, Kellogg was doing everything it could to make sure she felt safe during the investigation.

The 19-year-old Jackson man was found to have committed sexual misconduct and dismissed from Kellogg. 

The difference in the way the schools handled her complaint left Forlenza feeling disappointed in CMU and grateful for the empathy and support that Kellogg showed her. While the OCRIE meeting seemed like an obligation of CMU just to "get it done and over with," Forlenza said, Kellogg offered her support and a chance to be heard.

Forlenza said the most important thing anyone in charge of a Title IX office can do is to make sure survivors feel safe and comfortable throughout the reporting process.

"If this was your child," Forlenza asked, "how would you want this handled?"