The district attorney’s office where I worked was the first one in the Commonwealth to create a specialized unit dealing with sexual crimes against women. It was staffed by smart, aggressive, sympathetic women who became skilled in handling these type cases. Even when they had too many and handed them off to other prosecutors not in the unit, they closely oversaw them. Other district attorney’s offices followed our example. The units consisted of trial lawyers, counselors and in our case, specially trained state police investigators.
Their first priority was the concern for and protection of the victim and doing what was best for her. Thereafter it was bringing the malefactor to account in the justice system. Having people highly skilled and dedicated to that work gave us the assurance we were doing the best we could in those cases that were reported to us.
I had a particular interest in advancing their work because I had personally seen the dire effects of a sexual assault. There was a young girl who grew up in my neighborhood who was friendly with my children. She was perfectly normal happy kid who graduated from high school in the Boston area. Being a little more adventurous than her friends she decided to go to a college down South that loved its football. As luck would have it, she was gang raped by some of the football team. She reported it and became an outcast. The university and others in the college setting turned on her. I could see parents’ torment and her suffering. She became a changed person. The ill effects are still apparent today many years after that event.
I write about this because of the articles last week about a young woman at Williams College, Leslie Brackenridge, who had somewhat of a similar problem; not a gang rape but a rape none the less by a member of the hockey team. To my knowledge this was first reported by WBUR on May 13 and followed up by other newspapers. The sexual assault was handled by the college. The man was found responsible and suspended from school for three semesters. Leslie, feeling no longer wanted or supported at Williams, transferred to Columbia.
Leslie’s parents had met at Williams and they were overjoyed when she decided to attend there. Imagine the torment they suffered in seeing this happen to their daughter at their alma mater. Imagine also the suffering of Leslie who was abused and through no fault of her own deprived of the right to go to the college of her choice. It was snatched from her because of the manner in which the college handled the case.
This story about Leslie also reminded me of a young woman Lizzy Seeberg (photo shown above) who was sexually assaulted at Notre Dame by a football player and ended up committing suicide. I had read of the case after it happened. A year or so later during the hearings in Whitey Bulger’s case I met the woman reporter, Melinda Henneberger, a writer with the Washington Post, who had written about it in the Catholic Reporter. She told me that because of her writing the article how she was black balled by some of those involved with Notre Dame a school she and he dad had graduated from. She most recently wrote another article noting how much more has to be done in the area.
It seems to me to perfectly clear that there is a major problem here. The college officials are not primarily concerned with the victims of the assault, they are mostly concerned with what is best for the college. What is often best is keeping things on the q.t., protecting the college’s reputation. Any campus that develops a reputation as a location unsafe for women will find its applicant pool starting to drop. Take Dartmouth where sexual assaults had occurred. It saw that the applications to the college were down 14%. It is understandable that the colleges want to keep these matters hush hush but doing so prolongs this problem and keeps young women at risk.
Apparently it is accepted in our society that these cases involving women who have been sexually assaulted on college campus are to be handled by the college. We have to asked though where is it in the law that gives these colleges the right to handle criminal cases? Isn’t the conflict of interests obvious? When a college handles these rapes and sexual assaults they are being treated like nothing more than infractions of college rules and regulations. That they might be but they are also criminal acts. The criminal statutes do not give the colleges the authority over these crimes since they are not only offenses against women but also against the laws of the Commonwealth.
Not only that, the people who are most skilled at handling them and have no other concern than that of the victim nor any conflict of interest are in the local district attorney’s office. It’s time to make our college campuses safe for all women. The colleges should not longer be able to insulate criminals from the effects of the criminal laws just to protect their reputations. Things must change. When any woman is raped or sexually assaulted the matter must not be hidden. Those in charge of enforcing our criminal laws must be brought into the process
In Massachusetts we have a mandatory reporting law which requires that people in official positions must report to the appropriate agency when they learn of a case where a child is suffering physical or emotional injury or specified other matters detrimental to the child’s well being. It is time we pass a similar law with respect to rape or sexual assault and make it mandatory any such incidents be reported to the district attorney’s offices.
Some of the women I spoke about earlier who were in these sexual assault units have gone on to more responsible positions. I would have hoped that their interest in this area remained. Let’s start protecting the young women in our colleges.