Reports on College of Charleston sex assaults show challenges for police
On Halloween 2010, an 18-year-old freshman at the College of Charleston called the campus police to report that she had been sexually assaulted in her dorm room just minutes earlier.
The College of Charleston recently released reports about all sexual assaults on campus for the past five years. The campus police started taking the lead of investigations in 2009, after the passage of the state’s Jessica Horton Act:
2008: 3 reports
2009: 3 reports
2010: 3 reports
2011: 1 reports
2012: 3 reports
In response to a request for reasons for closing each case, the school responded only in general.
Without specifying, it said one case is pending a State Law Enforcement Division report, but is considered closed by campus police after investigators consulted with state investigators.
All other cases were closed because of accusers’ unwillingness to prosecute or because of a lack of evidence.
When investigators showed up, they learned that there was more to the story.
The woman told the police that she and a fellow student were drinking vodka in her room. At some point they started to have sex, but she felt uncomfortable and asked him to stop.
At his urging she agreed to continue — but only if he spent the night with her. He gave his word, according to the account she relayed to the authorities.
But when their encounter was over, he said he needed to go home and sleep. She grew angry, according to a report about the incident, and “started chasing him around the room.” Once he left and sent her a “goodbye” text message, she phoned the police to report that she had been raped.
She later opted not to pursue a criminal case against the young man.
Documents about such incidents, obtained from the College of Charleston through a Freedom of Information Act request, lend insight into the factors that complicate investigations into sex crimes on the college campus.
Authorities often are handicapped by problems with stories, accusers’ hesitancy to stay the course during emotionally taxing prosecutions and a lack of evidence caused by late reporting.
They help explain why the college’s Department of Public Safety has made only one arrest in recent years in sex-assault cases. The charge in that lone case eventually was dropped when solicitors determined that the evidence would not support a successful prosecution.
The case facts, the school has said, also bolster its insistence that campus police investigators are fully trained to handle sex assaults.
In November, The Post and Courier first reported a case that involved a softball player who accused four varsity baseball team members of sexually assaulting her during a dorm-room party.
The student’s father questioned the school police force’s capability and expertise to thoroughly examine sex crimes, and he faulted a state law passed in 2007 that the school says requires it to take the lead in rape investigations from more experienced agencies such as the State Law Enforcement Division.
The training challenge
Police completed 13 reports of sex assaults on the College of Charleston’s downtown campus since 2008, all of which were turned over to the newspaper.
Until the beginning of 2009, the Charleston Police Department led those probes.
In their reports about three cases in 2008, campus officers described their initial response, but they stated that the cases were passed on to evidence-gathering experts and detectives from the city.
Campus police officers took the lead for the first full year in 2009, viewing the new Jessica Horton Act as a mandate that school authorities should handle investigations.
Lawmakers have since disputed that interpretation, arguing that the law’s intent was to place investigations into the hands of the most experienced police force. They vowed to discuss whether a clarification of the law was needed.
In responding to concerns that its police force wasn’t equipped to handle investigations into sex assaults, the school touted the frequent training seminars that some of its officers attend.
A school statement listed five such courses over the past year that touched on the topic.
Training records for its two investigators that were mentioned in Post and Courier coverage in November, however, did not reflect that training. College officials also declined to say whether they had taken any measures before the Jessica Horton Act went into effect to prepare for taking over investigations.
Early last year, members of the campus police squad’s training and command staff went to a four-day conference in North Myrtle Beach that covered sexual assault and harassment.
In August, the school’s two detectives attended an eight-hour seminar on advanced sex-assault investigations at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
In late November, two weeks after The Post and Courier’s report, police investigators, commanders and trainers attended a presentation at Medical University Hospital about the forensic examination of assault victims.
Dr. Kathy Gill-Hopple, the supervising nurse of the hospital’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program, also discussed programs that the facility offers.
“Our police officers and investigators regularly attend training classes and seminars to remain current on policies and procedures concerning all aspects of law enforcement,” campus Police Chief Paul Verrecchia said. “Many of these trainings are dedicated to the investigation of sexual assaults and other gender violence issues.”
The alcohol problem
Drinking can complicate the accusers’ recollection of the incident, and some cases present a suspicion that the women were drugged.
Of the 13 reports of sex assaults on campus in the past five years, at least 10 of the alleged victims had been consuming alcohol, according to the reports obtained from the college. The three others did not specifically mention that they had been drinking, though it’s a possibility.
One 18-year-old freshman reported in April that she had been assaulted seven months before, and her memory of it was hazy.
She recalled that in late August or early September, she drank beer during a house party in downtown Charleston. She thought of few details, but could remember that Louisiana State University was playing in a football game that day, according to the report.
After the party, she walked to her dorm with a group of friends, but was unable to recall residence-hall officials allowing entry to her and a guest.
In her room, she remembered asking someone for clothes to sleep in. She was in and out of consciousness after that, and at some point became “aware somebody was on top of her,” the report stated. She thought the man was black, according to the report, but she could not provide a more detailed description.
She awoke naked. It’s unknown why she waited weeks to report the incident.
In another case from May, a 21-year-old student told campus authorities that she met a man at the Market Street Saloon and invited him to her dorm room. (A safety alert later sent to the campus said she knew the man as Mark, but that name was redacted from an incident report.)
They got in bed together, and she vaguely remembered having sex. But her senses were “fuzzy,” she said, and she fell asleep at times.
After the rendezvous, the student told the man to leave, and she walked him out. She bagged her clothes, a used condom and a towel, and she threw them away.
She reported the encounter late the next day, but by then the evidence was gone.
The reporting issue
Five of the 13 alleged sex assaults during the past five years were reported to campus police on the same day.
In four other cases, the alleged victims or their advocates called police within a couple of days of the incident. Four more came forward about a week later, and in some cases months later.
Mike Robertson, the school’s senior director of media relations, said the college takes each report seriously no matter when it is received.
He said the school prides itself with liberally reporting all allegations of sex assault to the government as required under the federal Clery Act — whether they are reported to police or to counselors, or if they seem to lack credibility.
The Post and Courier previously reported how the school’s average of six assaults annually was twice the typical rate for similar-size schools nationwide.
Robertson said that other schools might tally statistics differently and include only reports taken by the police, not advocates.
“If you come to anybody here at the college, (the sex assault report) gets recorded,” Robertson said. “It’s more of a complete picture.”
The cases reported days later were not the result of any effort by the school to discourage reporting to the police, the college added in a statement. Instead, policy demands that employees urge students to address the matters with law enforcement, it said.
“Any member of the college community who believes they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or abuse has a responsibility to report the situation,” the statement said.
One student who contacted the newspaper said she was unhappy that victim advocates at the school learned of her assault, because she did not wish to report it.
She was drinking at a party on Pitt Street at the start of this school year. When she looked away from her drink for a second, she said, she thinks someone slipped a drug into her cup.
After that, she remembers little. The next thing she knew, her friends were pulling her from a house where she had been taken and sexually assaulted.
She was naked and bruised and speaking gibberish.
Embarrassed, she didn’t want to report the assault, but a resident assistant in her dorm overheard her story and told the Office of Victims Services.
“I just wanted to curl up in a ball and not let anyone know what happened,” she said. “I wanted to drop it and forget about it.
“But that didn’t happen.”
Instead, her grades suffered. Her depression drove her to skip a class, then two. Before long, she wasn’t leaving her room to attend classes.
She lost a scholarship. She remained enrolled, but only as a part-time student. She took one class last semester.
This year, she withdrew from the college and moved away from Charleston.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.