Auburn University Campus Safety and Security held town hall meeting on topics of sexual assault following student protests

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AUBURN, Ala. (WRBL) — Wednesday, Sept. 22 Auburn University Campus Safety and Security held a town hall meeting hosted by Student Affairs to cover various topics on sexual assault. The meeting follows a series of student-organized protests to ask Auburn University to take more aggressive actions in the alleged sexual assault reports.

In addition to students, there were multiple organizations in attendance including; Student Affairs, representatives from Campus Safety and Security, the Auburn Police Division, SGA, Health Promotion and Wellness, and Title IX. The meeting was held in the Student Auditorium and made available to students online via. Zoom.

Representing those organizations were seven panelists, an additional speaker, and one moderator:

  • Moderator: Dr. Gheni Platenburg, a freelance journalist for The Washington Post and Solutions Journalism Network and Assistant Professor of Journalism at Auburn University
  • Panelists:
    • Assistant Chief Clarence Stewart of Auburn Police Department precinct at Auburn University
    • Director of Campus Safety & Compliance Susan Mcallister
    • AA/EEO & Assistant Director for Title IX Coordinator Katherine Weathers
    • Ph. D. Associate Director Group and Practicum Coordinator Joeleen Cooper-Bhatia
    • Graduate Assistant for Violence Prevention & Survivor Advocacy Bridget Nelson
    • Coordinator for Survivor Advocacy and Violence Prevention Judith White
    • President of national sexual assault prevention organization “Its on Us,” Grace Cox
  • Additional Speaker: Department of Campus Safety and Security Executive Director Kelvin King

Assistant Chief Clarence Stewart of Auburn Police Department precinct at Auburn University says the town hall meeting is important because it opens up a line of communication between survivors and the surplus or resources offered at Auburn University. He wants to let people know Auburn University stands behind their students. He says, “We want to know your concerns, we do. Certain groups, student groups, any types of groups, community groups we’re here. We want to hear what’s going on.”

Statistics on reported cases

Assistant Director for Title IX Coordinator Katherine Weathers shared statistics towards the beginning of the panel saying, “Since August of 2020 starting back in Fall 2020 through today we have received 64 reports of sexual assault. Now, out of those 64, 27 of them had no named perpetrators, so we don’t know who the person is in18… two of those 64 reports had no victims identified. We had 18 people respond to our outreach, so we reached out to 62 because we did not know two of the victims, we reached out to 62 of the victims and we had 18 respond to us.”

Weathers said she would like to see those numbers of responses go up however she says, what happens after a report has been made is left up to the victim.

“Currently, right now we have one of those cases resulted in an informal agreement between the parties. One went to a hearing and the person accused was found responsible, and we also provided a number of academic accommodations, no contact directives, those are options individuals who contact us we can explain those things and we do them for them. We have two ongoing investigations going on currently in the office,” Weathers said out of the 64 reports between Aug. 2020 to now, only two have resulted in a formal investigation.

Assistant Chief Clarence Stewart followed up those statistics saying out of the 19 identified and named cases, there were about seven presented to the district attorney’s office.

Power in reporting

Emphasis was made on the importance of reporting throughout the meeting. Dr. Gheni Platenburg asked a series of questions provided by SGA before the meeting, one of which asked panelists what the importance was of filing a complaint with law enforcement or Title IX before the university can move forward.

“I think it does help hold people accountable. I would like there to be trust in that process,” Weathers says. “It does hold someone accountable, even the informal resolutions can hold individuals accountable.” Before handing the question Stewart to explain the importance of filing a complaint for a formal process.

“Its important for us to get ahead of this even if it is for documentation purposes. Even if we’re already behind the power curve behind this, even if its delayed a day we can still have evidence that is essential for us to process. Even if they decide they don’t want to process at that time,” Stewart explained. “The fact of the matter is these are incidences that need to be looked into. And that the person who has undergone these incidences, they need help. And there’s a ton of resources up here and in order to do that someone up here needs to be notified.”

Stewart reminds students that filing a report or complaint is the first step in gathering evidence needed for prosecution in a formal case that would include things like an investigation, a time period to gather evidence, and conduct a hearing to decide if the perpetrator has a history and needs to be removed from the university.

Director of Campus Safety & Compliance Susan Mcallister added to the importance of the reporting by saying, “We can’t really understand the magnitude and the nature of the problem if we don’t have sufficient reports. And so, that’s another good reason to report is it helps us understand what the problem really is and the extent of it is so we can better address it.”

Coordinator for Survivor Advocacy and Violence Prevention Judith White also added to the importance from a Safe Harbor perspective, “I think for anybody that has gone through this situation. If you could reach out to Safe Harbor I think we are a great place for you to have time to understand what the options are before you sign up for something you may not understand. Reporting is great and it gives police a lot of space and a lot more ability to handle things. We can also put you in touch with a lot of resources.”

Stewart was asked a question directly by a student in the open-forum discussion referring to L:ee County’s former District Attorney, Brandon Hughes who was arrested and charged with misconduct.

“You mentioned the involvement of the district attorneys office, in Lee County as a method of accountability when reporting. Less than a year ago, our district attorney was convicted of felony charges that had to do with sexual misconduct… how should Auburn residents feel safe or comfortable reporting to police, Lee County, or the D.A. when the sitting D.A. is stated as being complicit in silencing victims coming forward.”

Stewart said the grand jury was made to keep the government from trumping the voice of one individual. The grand jury is composed of citizens and facts are presented by the investigator of the case and decisions to prosecute are made by the jury and not one individual.

“Its really to protect people from the government from putting charges on people that are unnecessary.”

He then says the sentencing responses depends on a number of factors that a judge oversees.

“Its not solely based on what a prosecutor says, it brings up victim statements or witness statements that are used in court too. A lot of that has to play in the dismissing process.”

Safe Harbor

In a statement published by Auburn University on Sept. 16, it says, “Auburn prohibits sexual harassment and power-based personal violence. We take action to prevent it through a variety of sexual assault awareness and bystander intervention programming, as well as safety programs and resources.”

Safe Harbor is an organization on campus that provides services to survivors relating to crisis response, support, information and referrals. They serve as an informative resource to aid survivors in navigating the options during or after experiencing personal violence.

The 24-hour survivor advocacy program has an after hours answering service with professionals trained in trauma and emotional distress situations and crisis. A report is also sent to Safe Harbor after that call.

24/7 crisis phone number: 334-844-SAFE (7233)

“Even if you are not sure about what happened, if you just want to come and talk through if you are not feeling safe for any particular reason. You can call the Safe Harbor line and I promise you will not leave feeling like you were dismissed or ridiculed. We’ll hear you out if you are not feeling safe we are figure out what we can do to make you feel safer,” White says.

White also says Safe Harbor is full of sympathetic ears, it is a safe place for survivors to navigate the, ‘what now?’

“Please just come because you have so many welcoming ears who just want to help you feel safe.”

On-campus counseling

Ph. D. Associate Director Group and Practicum Coordinator Joeleen Cooper-Bhatia with Student Counseling Services has a broader audience for students. She says clinicians at Student Counseling Services have experience and training in working with trauma to prevent the victim from feeling traumatized when speaking to clinicians about a traumatic experience.

She also says there is a 24-hour emergency line that is available to students through counseling services.

For those experiencing a mental-health related crisis, the after hours number to the Student Counseling and Psychological Services is 334-844-5123 for counseling. For some reason if the student services cannot respond, East Alabama Mental Health Center can be reached at their 24 hour number for emergencies; 800-815-0630.

Green Dot on by-stander intervention

Graduate Assistant for Violence Prevention & Survivor Advocacy Bridget Nelson also talks prevention measures, like their Green Dot by-stander intervention training that is ran by Safe Harbor. That program talks to audiences about being an active by-stander and what that looks like.

“The whole point of that training is to shift the culture on our campus, in our community of Auburn so we are all looking out for each other when we’re going out. Two out of the three of the timely warnings had by-standers present. Think about that if we can implement that training and really augment that focus I think that will really shift that culture and prevent this instances from happening.”

In the open forum portion one student asked about the lack of address in the power imbalance or cultural oppression that prevents by-standers from stepping in to utilize Green Dot intervention training. She used the example of minority students that may not feel as comfortable as others to report something to police.

Nelson assures as a facilitator that is not the case however, it is the same people requesting Green Dot training every year. She said the Green Dot training as a national entity encourages universities to tailor the training to their student demographic.

She also speaks on cultural implications that would inhibit someone from stepping in as by-standers, referred to as barriers by Green Dot.

Green Dot provides strategies to combat barriers to find other ways to work around what is getting in the way of intervention. “Their message isn’t policy and dynamic power changes its more so how can we work in within these systems in this moment to get this person safe.”

Stewart reasserts the importance of intervention. “Step in and do something, don’t wait for someone else to do it… think about what you can do to intervene. Tomorrow, what are you going to be thinking about. Three years from now, four years from now when you are no longer a student here at Auburn what are you going to be thinking about. This doesn’t just apply here to university, it applies everywhere.”

Auburn Police presence on campus

Another unique feature of Auburn University is their contract of police services with the Auburn Police Department.

Department of Campus Safety and Security Executive Director Kelvin King began by saying, “Auburn University is a safe campus. Auburn University, among the priorities among campus safety, is to ensure this is a safe place for the students, for the faculty, for the staff, and for all those who may visit.”

He then explained the collaborative partnership created in 2004 to provide public safety to the campus. Campus Safety and APD is housed in the same building on campus so incidents are easily communicated in the synergetic relationship.

“In 2004 with this agreement with the city and the university, we merged resources… in 2018 we moved into a state of the art police facility, public safety facility on campus. That facility also houses our compliance division as well as our emergency management division with police officers that receive specific training for their presence on campus.” King also explained police that work on the city-side also receive training to combat incidents on campus.

Stewart broke down what that looked like, “Right now we have over 39 officers that are assigned to core campus. Out of 150 officers or more that are here for the city of Auburn, a good third of those officers are assigned to just this core campus area. Along with that we have three investigators that are assigned to this core campus area.” He assured viewers that all officers received training to serve the university as well as the city of Auburn because a majority of students do live off campus.

King also reminded attendees that security campus surveillance is used to add an extra level of protection for students.

Resources on campus created to help students feel safe

Dr. Platenburg asked SGA’s question regarding what people should to when they do not feel safe on campus.

“We’ve got a security operation center with 24/7 staffing to monitor an extensive security camera network. We’ve got security staff that are employed by the university as well as contract security staff that patrol campus at different time of day and night… we’ve got our Auburn Safety app that has a lot of links to information and supporting resources as well as resources like the Friend Walk which you can use to share your location with someone… we also have the security shuttle which runs from 6 p.m. – 7 a.m. seven days a week while classes are in session… we offer a lot of different training as well we offer a campus safety awareness and active shooter response course, our rape aggression offense course… we’ve got an emergency preparedness course as well. We have a lot of different offerings there to help educate our campus community. We have nearly 200 blue light emergency phones that dial directly in to the police station so they can dispatch an officer immediately,” Mcallister answered.

She says she wishes to continue to expand the university’s safety programs, so hearing back from students is something she needs to fill the gaps in the school’s current safety programs.

In the open forum section, one student drew attention to a gap in the security shuttle. She said she encountered multiple incidents where the security shuttle has either not shown up, or arrived late. The student said she typically would end up walking home alone at night.

Mcallister responded to the student, asking her if that happens again to call their main number:

844-88888

Requests for shuttles can also be put in through an Auburn Safety app, there students can submit a tip about a service issue. Tips will be followed up with the student to discover what caused the service issue so it does not happen again.

Title IX

Weathers explained another resource that their office offers to survivors that want immediate and fast responses to an assault.

Informal resolutions allows the victim to come up with a set of terms that they would like to come out of that case. An agreement is made, signed and then the respondent or accused is held accountable to complete those terms. Some examples include counseling or a separation of parties in classes or on campus, mediation. The Title IX office in Auburn University facilitates informal resolutions if that is the route the victim wishes to go.

Weathers also says Auburn University goes above and beyond what is required of them, specifically in reference to Title IX requirements.

“The Title IX regulations require if there is a sexual assault that the student who is making the complaint be affiliated, be a student currently at the university. For us though, Auburn says ‘you know what, that’s fine but we also want to hold someone accountable to sexually assaulted somebody and if that persons affiliated with Auburn university we don’t care that the victim isn’t affiliated with the university.’ We allow victims who live in the community, who may be sexually assaulted by somebody who is affiliated with the university to file a formal complaint. We expanded the scope just beyond what the Title IX regulations require.”

She went on to explain what other requirements Auburn University extended beyond baseline requirements.

Weathers states Title IX does not apply to students who study abroad. However, the university has their policy that holds perpetrators accountable if a sexual assault happens while students are studying abroad.

She also says the regulations do not require universities to get involved in cases that happen off-campus. She used the example of an off-campus apartment, “normally under the regulations, the university does not have to do anything in that case. We expanded the scope and in our policy we can hold someone accountable for sexually assaulting somebody in an off-campus apartment.”

Another regulation that Title IX does not require is mandatory reporting, all faculty, teachers and staff are mandatory reporters. If they know of an incident they have to report it.

Weathers says, “We are trying to reduce the number of gaps as much as possible in order to make a safe environment for our whole university community.”

Awareness is prevention

Mcallister says there are three different notices the university makes in regards to sexual assault; from CLERY which is a federal law requiring notices to be sent out, campus safety notices or timely warnings for incidents that happens on campus property or around campus, and all crimes within the patrol jurisdiction are posted in the crime log within two days of a report being made.

Mcallister says if the perpetrator or organization that is unknown then it is considered an ongoing threat. “We are also generally not going to name a perpetrator or organization if it is disclosed and it is a limited information report. We owe due process to everybody involved and a lot of times we are making a decision to send something out within an hour or so of receiving the initial report of an incident.” She then explains that the CLERY law does not allow an investigation to happen before a notice is sent out as there may be an ongoing safety threat that students, faculty and staff need to be made aware of as quickly as possible which is why the three notices were sent out in the span of one week.

In reference to the timely warnings, students protested the amount of sexual assault reports released in one week, they felt as if the university was not doing enough in response to the allegations.

In a previous article, Auburn University student and organizer of the Toomer’s Corner protests Jordan Musantry acknowledges what Auburn University is doing but feels as though there are areas that need improvement, “Its a weird in-between of getting it out while also maintaining the fact that they do a good job, but not good enough.”

In a statement Auburn University published Sept. 16, the university claims the timely warnings intensified Auburn’s commitment to create and maintain a safe environment for students in the name of transparency.

The first of a series of three reports was released Sept. 8 where a student reported an acquaintance rape in a residential building. Following, a report was released on Sept. 10 where a student reported she was groped on a campus sidewalk near Aubie Hall. The third report was released Sept. 14 in reference to a reported rape in a fraternity house.

Auburn University also disclosed that the three victims chose not to file police reports or formal complaints with the university or police, to which Auburn University responded, “and we support their right to do so.”

The notices issued by campus safety about the assault reports are CLERY-required notices that the university utilizes to keep students aware and vigilant on crime-related incidents on or near the campus. They say the transparency provided to students is a critical step in the maintenance of campus safety.

Also, the university releases annual statistics on sexual misconduct. She says the 2020 statistics for the university will be published Oct. 5, 2021.

President of “It’s on Us” Grace Cox says their campus chapter of the national sexual assault awareness campaign focuses on intervention and talks about things like domestic violence, partner violence. The chapter also offers training on their website. She said, “It’s really on us to engage, and to be aware of what’s happening and to also have the training to do that. It’s on us as an on-campus resource.”

Greek life

One student brought up the call for more education of sexual assault training in Greek life because the current trainings, she believes are inadequate. The module forums have been administered online and she says most people will ignore the trainings or do something else during the trainings. “Can your offices make those trainings mandatory for the more vulnerable populations in Greek life? Sororities and fraternities alike.”

Cox explains the program It’s On Us is working on revamping their Greek life engagement, as she understand first hand that trainings are more often than not seen as a checkpoint.

“That’s one of my top priorities as president of It’s On Us, is to actually make the conversation mandatory, make it engaging and collaborative with not just Greek organizations but everyone on campus. But that’s definitely a problem I’ve seen specific to Greek organizations.”

The student also wanted to address the silent culture that she believes is a direct result of the lack of knowledge on the topic in Greek life. “There is a culture of silence in Greek life that is perpetuated by sorority and fraternity members striving to keep their group within the good graces of both the university and other Greek chapters. That fear of university, peer, or community retaliation leads to under reporting as chapters try to keep incidents quiet.”

She asked panelists how their organizations will let victims know their reports will not lead to backlash and support them to come forward.

Weathers discussed the violation that is called retaliation in the policy that is put in place to protect witnesses, victims, and others to come forward in the reporting process. She acknowledges that the policy does not guarantee a halt to all backlash but says if people learn about it, they will do their best to hold people accountable.

“If an organization ends up shut down, that’s the way it goes. But you don’t take it out on the person who was coming forward because something was happening to them and revictimize them. But we can move forward with retaliation violation if that is something that occurs.”

Starting conversations

All of the panelists agreed that the town hall meeting was important to open a line of communication between students and faculties. Panelists representing each organization expressed their want to help students if or when something happens.

Each representative agreed they felt Auburn University has done everything they knew how to do to aid students in the prevention and response process of personal violence. Also, events such as the town hall meeting and the student-organized protests are important to spread information, resources, and acknowledge the shortcomings of the university to better equip them for future incidents.

White says, “I’m really grateful that we are talking about these things, and to me its exciting and empowering that we can all do something. We can all be apart of the change.”

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