By Steve Woodhouse
---- — Central College has faced scrutiny following a series of articles in the Des Moines Register regarding its alleged response to sexual assault complaints. Central President Mark Putnam is prohibited from commenting on any specific case, but shared information regarding how the college responds to complaints and the reasons behind the college's steps.
“We are responsible under Title IX,” Putnam said. Title IX is the law that requires colleges which receive federal funding to provide an environment free from sexual harassment. There is much more to the law, but this is the section that dictates the college be involved in the prevention of such offenses.
Central College plays no role in the criminal justice system, unless law enforcement asks for its cooperation. Whether or not the college chooses to contact the police is weighed on a case-by-case basis. If there is an imminent threat, a very violent incident, etc., the college will call the police immediately.
“That's exceedingly rare,” Putnam said.
In most sexual assault reports received by the college, time has passed since the actual incident. Often, the college learns of an assault weeks or months later. Time can pass because the assaults have a deep emotional and psychological effect on the victim. When the time has passed, it becomes the decision of the complainant (victim) to choose whether or not to involve law enforcement.
Pella Police Chief Robert Bokinsky said that every time a crime has come to his department's attention, in any way, his officers immediately look into it. This includes incidents on the Central campus.
Bokinsky provided an example of an alleged sexual assault on the Central campus in October 2013.
According to the PPD report, Officer Shawn Veenstra was provided information from Bokinsky regarding the incident. Bokinsky received the information from Charles Strey, Central College Dean of Students. Central had already performed an investigation into the incident.
“When it came to my attention, we worked on it,” Bokinsky said. He did not know why the incident had not been shared with his department immediately. The college cannot compel victims to call the police. If the college sees a pattern of incidents, the administration can make the police aware.
Bokinsky did not learn of the incident until December 2013. During the ensuing investigation, the accused told police that the girl was asked if she wanted to have intercourse. When she said yes, he went to his room to retrieve a condom and they had intercourse. The accuser said she was too intoxicated to provide consent, which is why Central began its investigation.
The accuser, after being invited to the PD to speak to an officer about what happened, told police that she never intended to press charges. Veenstra met with her on Dec. 15, and she reiterated that she did not want to press charges. She was told that if she did not want to press charges, the police would not investigate the matter further. The report says that she understood and she was given the officer's business card in case she changed her mind. The PPD considered the case closed and no criminal charges were filed.
Central's administration handles many complaints, but when the incidents rise to the level of a crime, the PPD gets involved. Bokinsky said everyone involved is cognizant of the effect this incident had on the alleged victim.
“(Central's administration takes) these things seriously,” Bokinsky said. “They work very hard to do the right thing.”
Central's initial response to a complaint is to care for one who may be suffering. The college could take “interim measures” to help the complainant continue the educational process.
Title IX provides Central the authority to suspend, remove from classes or the entire campus, one who is accused of sexual assault. If the college did nothing, the federal government could view the inaction as not being responsive and failing to meet the requirements of Title IX.
Balancing these requirements, and the needs of a complainant, with the rights of the accused is a challenge for the college. Upon making attempts to immediately mitigate the stress a complainant may feel, the college begins to conduct its own investigation. Investigators speak with the complainant and the respondent (accused) to get initial responses. These interviews lead to other witnesses to interview.
Investigators include those with Title IX training. Putnam said it is difficult for the college to employ a full-time Title IX coordinator. The college does not involve private investigators for these situations. Putnam added that the college screens those chosen to investigate a particular incident to ensure that the investigators can be impartial. If an investigator has regular contact with one of the parties involved, it may make the process more difficult.
“We look for any conflict of interest and look for impartiality,” Putnam said.
The respondent is entitled to a hearing. A hearing is not a judicial matter and in no way involves the criminal justice system.
“We're not trying a criminal matter,” Putnam said. The hearing is a grievance process. However, there are similarities to criminal trials, as witnesses may be called, evidence presented, etc.
If, following a hearing, a respondent has been found to have violated a college policy, he or she is found responsible. Punishments for being responsible of a policy violation include restrictions within the campus. No contact orders, restriction of access to facilities and classes, movement restrictions and suspensions can be handed out by the administration, depending upon the severity of the violation.
A responsible party's actions in college can haunt him or her beyond their college days. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives educational institutions the power to decide which parts of a student's record is released – even to parents.
Sharing educational records often requires student consent. There are some circumstances, such as the college being aware of a potential sexual predator, in which the college has the right to warn others.
“We may deem, in a certain situation, that disclosure was important to provide because of the potential impact elsewhere,” Putnam said. The college can notify a third party if the college feels it is in the best interest of society. This decision is made on a case-by-case basis.
There may be incidents in which one is deemed responsible for a sexual assault policy violation that never went to the police. According to Putnam, some complainants want some kind of justice but choose to not involve the police and make the incident public. Even if such an incident does not go to the criminal justice system, thus leaving a responsible party without a public criminal record, that person may still pose a threat.
When a complaint is brought to the PPD, the length of every investigation, as well as the approach to each complaint, is based upon its own merit. Bokinsky added that every incident is investigated to exhaustion. The point of every criminal investigation is to seek the truth.
The majority of sexual assaults occur between people who know each other. For college students, the issue may hinge on whether or not consent is given. Central provides seminars to students to try to educate them about the importance of consent, and ongoing clarity in a relationship of how intimacy can advance.
Students are taught that they need clear consent from the other party. The fact that alcohol can play a role in alleged sexual assault incidents can complicate the matter. Confusion and misunderstandings can take place when one is drunk, the Central's policy clearly indicates that inebriation – on the part of either party – is not an excuse in these incidents.
“The issue of consent becomes the key question,” Putnam said.
In the days since the initial Register report, President Barack Obama has called for all college campuses to review their sexual assault policies. Central has engaged the outside firm of trainED, based in Minneapolis, Minn., to lead its policy review.
While Obama has called for this review, Central College has revealed that 10 percent of its operating budget is spent meeting federal, state and local regulations. Oftentimes, there are various agencies that seek compliance, though there is redundancy, overlapping and conflicting requirements the college is expected to meet.
“We do our work and we try to do it well,” Putnam said. He said he understands the need for regulations, but the college would love to have a more clear pathway to meet government expectations. Title IX and FERPA are just the beginning, and legislation can sometimes be unclear.
“It's a wide interpretation zone,” Putnam said. The 10 percent burden, just from government, is a factor in increased tuition costs.