Sexual assault symposium
Florida Atlantic University on Wednesday morning hosted an interesting and important but at times frustrating discussion about sexual assault at American colleges.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel invited representatives from higher education and law enforcement, who gathered at FAU’s Alumni Center to speak about what Frankel’s office called the “sexual assault epidemic on college campuses.” Problem? For sure. “Epidemic?” Inconclusive.
As other lawmakers have done, Frankel cited a survey that supposedly concluded that one in five American women is sexually assaulted while in college. Writing last month in USA Today, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University and a professor of sociology at Mt. Holyoke College cited flaws in the survey’s methodology: It was conducted at just two large universities, and there was a large non-response rate, meaning that it could be top-heavy toward victims. Joseph Cohn, of the group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the FAU meeting that the survey classified as a sexual assault any encounter involving alcohol. The survey also classified any “unwanted touching” as a sexual assault.
Reports of gang rapes on campus and other horrific actions, though, are real enough. Even in high school, classmates have used cell phones to photograph girls passed out from drinking. There’s compassion for you.
I attended both a small, private college and a large, public university in the 1970s and belonged to a fraternity, and I can recall no such terrible incidents. I asked Ashley Sturm, an FAU victim advocate, if sexual assault on campus is up or down. She didn’t know, which isn’t her fault. There are lots of anecdotes but no reliable trend line.
Still, helpful points emerged from the discussion. The most important is that victims need to report an assault promptly if they want the legal system to go after their attacker. Michelle McCardle, a sex crimes detective with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, noted that investigators must assemble a rape kit within 96 hours. One college official pointed out that victims have a year to change their minds if they don’t initially want to report the assault. Dennis Nicewander, an assistant state attorney in Broward County, responded flatly that if prosecutors don’t get evidence within 48 hours, “The case is done.”
A related point is that while victims might believe it sufficient if a university expels the perpetrator, such action leaves that person free to assault someone else. When speaking with a reluctant victim, Nicewander said, he tells her—on-campus victims are almost always female—that coming forward “could save 20 or 30 others.” For those who are still reluctant, he asks, “Can you live with that?” Those lowlifes taking pictures of victims, Nicewander said, also are collecting evidence.
So colleges must create a climate that allows a victim to feel comfortable pressing a case. One participant ventured Wednesday that colleges should provide sufficient services for victims without showing so much compassion that they are disinclined to file charges. Talk about a delicate balance to strike.
And if law enforcement is reluctant, the victim could be victimized twice. Last fall, reporting by the Tampa Bay Times showed that the Tallahassee Police Department moved slowly, at best, investigating the alleged assault by Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston. FAU is not FSU when it comes to football, but another important point is that no university should allow an athletic department to lead any investigation into a student-athlete.
Another frustrating aspect is that we don’t know the main cause of sexual assaults on campus. Alcohol can be a factor, of course, but what about the “hook-up culture” that can make sex look expected? Do students raised in the digital age have more trouble with face-to-face relationships?
Sturm, the FAU victim advocate, believes that it has less to do with technology and more with educating students. For example: It’s a “misconception” that alcohol always is a factor in sexual assaults. “It’s not just at parties.” Young women can be taught to recognize “red flags” and take action. When someone comes to her, Sturm said, the priority is “building a rapport” that can give a victim courage to seek justice and to take responsibility if, say, excessive drinking on both sides was involved.
Whatever the debate over the number of on-campus assaults, there is general agreement that it is an underreported crime. There also was agreement Wednesday on the need to educate students, in all ways. Participants spoke of creating more “ethical bystanders”—those who could help to head off an assault by doing something as simple as turning on a light in a dark room where a party is taking place.
Credit Frankel for getting all the right people, with differing opinions, in one room. Credit FAU, given its turnout and the statements from its representatives, for taking the issue seriously. The most frustrating thing is that we have to be talking about the issue at all.
Delray city charter change
It didn’t have nearly the immediate impact it might have had, but the Aug. 26 vote in Delray Beach changed the city’s charter in a way that could help future city commissions.
By a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, voters decided that three of five city commissioners can fire the city manager, not four. When the issue went on the ballot at mid-summer, the change was the last-resort way of firing former City Manager Louie Chapman. He would have been gone in May if the commission majority—Mayor Cary Glickstein, Jordana Jarjura and Shelly Petrolia—could have had its way. But Adam Frankel and Al Jacquet held out, for reasons they can’t or won’t explain adequately.
The four-vote rule was a holdover. The city had imposed it more than 20 years ago, when warring factions on the commission regularly fired managers after taking power. What had been helpful then was harmful now. Chapman could have been gone as early as May, for cause. Instead, he had to be suspended, and the commission finally approved a settlement in July.
Without the settlement, Chapman could have been fired tonight, at the first regular meeting since the election. Petrolia, who voted against the deal, would say the city could have saved $75,000. Of course, the search for a permanent manager got a head start of nearly two months, and Chapman can’t sue.
A similar situation may never arise again. But Delray voters gave the commission the ability to act if it does.
Guns & kids
The case of the 9-year-old girl who shot and killed an instructor at an Arizona gun range made me think of Zuri Chambers.
She is the 3-year-old girl who accidentally shot herself in her Lake Worth home last February. A loaded gun had been left within her reach. Though Zuri was the victim and the girl in Arizona was not—at least not in the physical sense—each tragedy resulted from negligence involving children and firearms. The gun in Zuri’s house should have been secured. The gun range in Arizona should not have allowed a child to fire an Uzi.
Zuri Chambers’ father—the only other person in the house at the time—is charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child. It is a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The prosecutor in the case said Wednesday that the state attorney’s office is “trying to resolve” the case. A hearing is set for this month.
As when parents leave children in sweltering cars so long that the children die, this case makes some people ask why the charge is necessary. What punishment could the state impose that is worse than what the father already has imposed on himself? But the law is on the books for a reason. And consider that in 1989, the Legislature held a special session after a string of accidental shootings when children had easy access to loaded weapons.
The girl in Arizona won’t be charged. Of course not. It wasn’t her fault. Zuri Chambers died because an adult was negligent. If the state isn’t going to enforce the law, why is it on the books?
In discussing the Palm Beach County Commission’s vote to allow development of the former Mizner Trail Golf Course in Boca Raton, I have mentioned that however angry neighbors in Boca Del Mar are about the decision, they can’t take out their anger at the polls. County commissioners run from single-member districts. Steven Abrams, who represents Boca Del Mar, voted against the request for 252 homes.
There might be a way to make more county commissioners accountable to more voters. Like Palm Beach County, Hillsborough and Pinellas are large counties with seven commissioners. But only four are from single-member districts. Three run countywide. As a result, each resident votes for a majority of the commission.
There’s no talk now of such a change for Palm Beach County. But the idea makes sense. We will discuss it more.
You can email Randy Schultz at email@example.com
For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author
Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.
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