C of C's email on assaults criticized Did alcohol warnings imply victims at fault?

Campus police patrolling the College of Charleston campus last fall.

The day after authorities fielded two reports of sexual assaults, the College of Charleston’s police force took the opportunity to warn students about the dangers of alcohol.

Sent Tuesday, the notification provided basics about the two assault allegations near the downtown Charleston campus. In each case, the victim was said to be drinking before the encounter.

Little information about suspects was made available. Nobody has been arrested.

But the email also listed statistics about how commonly alcohol is deemed a factor for a victim or a suspect in a sexual crime. That move raised questions Wednesday about whether linking alcohol and assaults could be seen by some as blaming the victim.

The school had no intention of that, according to Vice President of Student Affairs Jeri Cabot. The blame should still lie with the perpetrator, regardless of whether alcohol is involved, she said.

“Consent is the central issue,” Cabot said. “Just because someone is drinking does not give anybody the right to go forward with a sexual act. ... We would not want those people to be members of our community.”

Cabot added, though, that school officials couldn’t ignore the correlation between alcohol consumption and the increased probability of risky behavior.

To Dean Kilpatrick, board chairman at People Against Rape, that’s a potentially troublesome approach.

Kilpatrick, who also directs the National Crime Victims Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, agreed that alcohol is a major risk factor in sexual assaults.

But in stressing alcohol’s possible role in the assaults, Kilpatrick said, the school could alienate the victims. While avoiding outright criticism of the school’s notification, Kilpatrick said the public’s “interpretation of it” could be problematic for the college.

“There’s often a subtle message that if you do something wrong, it’s your fault,” he said. “Just because you do something foolish, that doesn’t give anybody the right to rape you.”

Alcohol use has posed a challenge to the school’s investigations of sexual assaults. Heavy drinking can muddy an accuser’s recollection of an incident and sometimes delay its reporting.

According to a Post and Courier study in January, 10 of the 13 reports of assaults that campus public safety officers took from 2008 through 2012 involved a victim using alcohol.

Though both of the recent episodes reportedly occurred off campus, the school also has come under fire for its handling of on-campus assaults. Some critics said the campus police force doesn’t have the same investigative expertise, resources or unbiased approach as outside agencies.

Public safety officers started leading such investigations in 2009, after the state passed the Jessica Horton Act. Campus officers got input from the State Law Enforcement Division but shut out the Charleston Police Department from being involved.

The father of a student who alleged that four varsity baseball players had assaulted her said the school’s approach exposed the need for involvement by an impartial agency.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, proposed a bill in March to allow for the involvement of other law agencies. But the legislation remained at the committee level.

The discussion this week came after two alleged sexual assaults within three days.

Both incidents happened near the college and prompted investigations by Charleston police.

In the first, a student told officers from the school’s Public Safety Department that she had been drinking tequila and smoking “hookah” with friends at an off-campus apartment Friday night and early Saturday, an incident report stated. She didn’t tell campus police officers about the incident until Monday.

The woman left the apartment with a friend, who was said to be a student. The pair walked to a vehicle parked near Marion Square, where she said the assault occurred.

The woman could not recall where the car was parked, officials said. Because of that, college spokesman Mike Robertson said, it took some time for officers to figure out who had jurisdiction.

Public safety officers and SLED agents handed over the investigation to Charleston police officers Wednesday, Robertson said.

In the second incident early Monday, a woman told authorities that she had been drinking with friends at a bar and again at an apartment near King Street and Burns Lane, officials said.

She is not a College of Charleston student, according to school officials.

The woman told the police that she woke up at the apartment to find a friend sexually assaulting her.

Cabot, the vice president, said students, faculty and staff members were notified about the assaults because they happened within blocks of the campus. The college encouraged everyone to walk in groups and in well-lit areas. Officers are also available to serve as campus escorts, the notification said.

The alcohol-related statistics in the “community notification” were included as additional information for students to consider, Cabot said.

The email cited Campus Safety Magazine, which reported that 20 percent to 25 percent of women will experience rape or attempted rape during college. At least 50 percent of sexual assaults involving college students are associated with alcohol, the magazine reported.

“Statistics do help young adults ... stop and assess some of the things we do and some of the decisions we make,” Cabot said.

To Kilpatrick, the People Against Rape chairman, the school’s notification of the alleged assaults was a positive sign because colleges have long been “less than totally enthusiastic” about divulging such information, he said.

He also supported education about the dangers of alcohol.

“But if we’re really going to do anything about this, it’s not going to be about women restricting their behavior,” he said. “Men have to understand that (committing such a crime is) despicable behavior.”

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.