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UMPD plans to change sexual assault crime alert policies following student criticism

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

In response to criticism regarding a crime alert email for an on-campus sexual assault that occurred Dec. 11, the University of Massachusetts Police Department plans to examine its practices regarding sexual assault crime alerts.

Liana Ascolese, a senior political science major who sent an email to the UMPD expressing her concerns with the Dec. 11 crime alert, criticized what she said was victim-blaming wording of the UMPD’s alert via email and social media.

“I understand that the purpose of sending the email was to inform people that a crime had occurred,” she said. “But I think some of the little safety tips that they put on the end misunderstand sexual assault and why it occurs … there’s this issue of power and male entitlement and what consent means,” she said.

According to the National Institute of Justice, which is an agency of the United States Department of Justice, about 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

The wording of the tips at the end of the email put the onus to prevent assaults on victims instead of perpetrators, she said.

“If I had survived an assault and I had received that email, I would have read that as, these people who are supposed to protect me are saying that I should have done more to protect myself,” she said.

Ascolese said that she was encouraged to send the email to the UMPD after her post about her concerns on Facebook received over 100 likes.

The police department first learned about Ascolese’s concerns through social media, said Patrick Archbald, deputy chief of administration for the UMPD.

The UMPD read her email soon after it was sent on December 18, he said.

(Graphic by Randy Crandon/Daily Collegian)

(Graphic by Randy Crandon/Daily Collegian)

Archbald spoke with the department’s lieutenant who oversees compliance of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires disclosure of certain campus crimes, and the two determined that the detail regarding how the victim was assaulted should not have been released.

The email alerts are written by various staff members depending on who is on duty. At a minimum, two members of the command staff are required to review alerts,  Archbald said.

Archbald and the lieutenant reviewed this alert before it was sent out.

“It did not raise any concerns for me at the time, but once it was raised, I understood what the student was saying, and we’re going to correct that going forward,” he said.

Ascolese’s friend Katie Bonica, a senior nursing major, was also angered by the wording of the email.

“It didn’t say anything like… ‘(The UMPD) will be vigilant. We will have more cops on campus because its finals week and more people are out late.’ It’s infuriating to me.” she said.

Archbald said the department does plan on changing the tips, which he said have been included in alert emails and on the department’s website for many years.

“I think the student had a good point, that some of the tips are very victim-centric,” he said. “I think, going forward, we’ll take a closer look at our tips.”

The UMPD has made adjustments to its information on sexual assault on its website, said Archbald. For example, the department’s web page on sexual assault, rape prevention, reporting and counseling now explicitly states that sexual assault and rape are “never the fault of the victim,” he said. Some of the 25 bullet point tips on that page are based on the department’s research of other college police department websites, he said.

The department is also considering providing a link to the full list of tips on its website in alert emails to ensure that the department is sharing all the information it can, said Archbald in an email.

The investigation into the Dec. 11 assault is ongoing. The office has received tips through the website and anonymous tip lines, Archbald said.

Of the UMPD’s 60 police officers, over 30 are trained sexual assault investigators, he said.

“With every officer we train, we’re increasing the likelihood that the victim is getting the best services they can, so that’s why we do it,” he said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at patricialebo@umass.edu.

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