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Dartmouth and Ayotte Discuss Plans to Address Sex Assaults



Saturday, November 22, 2014
Hanover — Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon held a panel discussion Friday on the lawmaker’s recently introduced bill on sexual assault reform and potential changes in Dartmouth’s handling of the issue, including the hiring of professional investigators and talks of a partnership with WISE, the Lebanon-based women’s crisis center.

Ayotte’s visit to Dartmouth comes as the topic of sexual assault is being hotly contested on campus and across the country, and the potential move to bring in WISE is the latest step in months of reforms to the college’s policies on binge drinking, Greek life and sexual assault.

“You happen to be in a community that has a strong crisis center,” WISE’s director Peggy O’Neill said to the panelists.

O’Neill mentioned that she had been speaking with Heather Lindkvist, the college’s new Title IX coordinator, about staffing the campus with one of WISE’s survivor advocates.

Friday’s panel, which met at Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center, included Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo, Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, two students and numerous college officials.

Saffo chimed in her support, calling WISE’s participation in college sexual assault cases a “vital option,” and mentioning that in “case after case,” she had seen situations where local advocacy organizations could have been useful to colleges.

One of those times, Saffo discovered that a survivor who repeatedly dodged calls from the attorney’s office was a recovered addict who felt that the pressures of a trial posed a risk to her sobriety. When Saffo told her that her support group could come to trial, the victim quickly agreed to press charges, and her rapist is now in state prison, Saffo said.

“It’s my hope and cautious optimism that WISE and Dartmouth will formalize an M.O.U. (memorandum of understanding)” to involve the advocacy group in Dartmouth’s handling of sexual assault, said O’Neill.

Four Democrats and four Republicans sponsor Ayotte’s bill, introduced to the Senate this summer, and include Dartmouth alumna Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The proposed law includes a raft of provisions intended to combat sexual assault on college campuses and strengthens penalties for colleges found in delinquency, allowing federal officials to fine schools as much as 1 percent of their operating budgets.

The U.S. Department of Education already can withhold federal funding from offending universities, but Ayotte said that the current enforcement measures were not enough.

“It’s never been used because it’s never been a realistic penalty,” she said in an interview afterward.

The first-term senator said that her goal was to achieve more uniformity in educational institutions’ handling of sexual assault cases, which is sometimes spotty: In a recent hearing with NCAA officials, Ayotte said, it came to light that some athletic departments were investigating reports of rape on their own.

“We have a really strong, passionate ally in Sen. Ayotte and we’re delighted to have her here today ,” said Hanlon, who thanked the senator for her collaboration with colleges and universities as the bill went forward.

Dartmouth has weathered negative attention in recent years over binge drinking and sexual assault on campus and faces a federal investigation under the Clery Act, which mandates that all institutions receiving federal educational funding maintain and distribute statistics of on-campus crimes and issue timely warnings for offenses that threaten their students or employees.

Besides implementing a bystander training program and hiring Lindkvist and survivor advocates, the college instituted a new sexual assault policy this summer that defines consent as “clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions. ”

The policy also says that Dartmouth will employ professional investigators in its adjudication of sexual assault cases.

Asked how many investigators the college was hiring and what their backgrounds were, Dartmouth General Counsel Robert Donin said, “We’re putting together a small group of investigators whose backgrounds are primarily attorneys.”

Donin didn’t name any of the new officials, but said that the lead investigator had experience as a sex crimes prosecutor and that the other members of her team were also lawyers.

Hanlon told reporters that the college would conduct in April both a sexual assault survey and a general climate survey, and Provost Carolyn Dever said that the college would release the results.

Student survivor advocate Murylo Batista, a senior, said he was excited to hear that WISE may come to campus, but cautioned the other panelists that students needed to be better informed of the resources available to them.

“Students don’t make decisions around truth, but around our perception of truth,” he said. “Most students don’t even know that a survivor advocate exists already on this campus .”

The proposed legislation also aims to further cooperation between educational institutions and law enforcement, and to that end would provide amnesty for circumstantial crimes — such as underage drinking or consumption of illegal drugs — to reporters of sexual assault.

Another student, senior Sophia Pedlow, who heads the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault, lauded efforts to coordinate with police, but suspected that students would still be reluctant to contact law enforcement without a specific list of items included in the amnesty clause.

Saffo said that although amnesty would have to be a negotiation for friends or other potential witnesses to an alleged assault, “obviously we’re not going to prosecute for drugs and alcohol.”

For his part, Dennis said that he had a good relationship with the college’s security director, Harry Kinne, and that the two men had recently discussed training sessions they could attend together.

“To be able to work together, there has to be that trust,” Dennis said, and when victims are afraid to report crimes, “Lara (Saffo) and I take that personally.”

Dennis said he was considering adopting a national program called “You Have Options,” which outlines best practices for law enforcement in eliciting and investigating reports of sexual assault.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.