STORY BY HANNAH KEISKER
Drake University’s system for handling sexual assault allegations has flaws that need correction, Alysa Mozak, the coordinator for sexual violence response and healthy relationship promotion, said.
“More students that I’ve worked with in four years being here are frustrated with the system and have more concerns with the system than they are feeling supported by it,” Mozak said.
Universities across the country are under fire from their students and the federal government over whether their handling of sexual assault claims provides enough protection to victims and punishes perpetrators sufficiently.
Mozak said students believe there’s a lack of transparency and communication with school officials. Students also argue that poor communication with victims often leaves them wondering if their complaint has been heard or if a determination has been made, she added.
Sam Brenner, a senior biology major, helped spearhead Demand a Better Drake, a student-run campaign that wants to change the current sexual violence policies on campus.
Brenner said a group of students came together last fall after the U.S. Office of Civil Rights received a complaint against Drake over the resolution of a sexual assault case. These students started researching different policies and created a list that would improve the process at Drake. They also created an online petition to gain support from students, alumni and faculty.
There is a comment section in the petition. Brenner said students have commented that they didn’t go through the process because they didn’t trust the university to hold the offender accountable, they’ve seen that the process isn’t working and pose questions as to why students are the ones leading this change.
“It’s really disheartening to hear some of the things that people write, and it can be really frustrating to hear comments about the process specifically because we know that with a different procedure these kinds of things could be avoided,” Brenner said.
Mozak does not receive any funding for programming or student groups that she runs. The campaign is pushing to change that.
Mozak, a mandatory reporter of sexual assault, said if a student comes to her first to report a sexual assault she is required to inform the dean of students of the situation. If a student wants to confide in her, she begins the conversation by telling the student her role as an advocate and that the student isn’t required to provide his or her name as she would have to tell the dean.
Mozak doesn’t have to report anything after the initial report unless the victim is experiencing suicidal thoughts. As a victim’s advocate, Mozak is allowed to sit in on university hearings, help sexual assault victims understand their rights and prepare safety plans.
Venessa Macro, Drake’s Title IX coordinator, makes sure that the university follows the proper processes and procedures under this law. This includes overseeing a fair, timely and impartial hearing of sexual assault cases.
Macro said she thinks Drake is successful in following its processes, but emphasized that Drake is constantly working to better the system.
“If we were to say, ‘We’re doing great, we’re done,’ we’re not doing our job. We need to be always looking and constantly evaluating what we can do better,” Macro said.
The university’s first focus is on the safety and security of the student who reports an assault, Macro said.
There are many accommodations that are offered to victims of sexual assault such as a no-contact order, which requires the accused stay out of contact with the victim. The victim or the accused could also be moved to a different residence hall or section of classes.
Students don’t report assaults because of self-blame, guilt, the fear of not being believed, lack of trust in the justice system and the desire to remain confidential, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
There are confidential services on campus such as Violence Intervention Partner, a 24-hour confidential hotline run by students and faculty, Polk County Crisis Services and the counseling center.
Mozak said university officials can’t honor confidentiality requests if they know the offender, if he or she is considered a habitual offender and they pose a great threat to the campus population. The victim’s name will not be listed in the investigative file, but the university will still review the accused’s behaviors.
Mozak said she’s noticed completely different outcomes from cases when there is advocate involvement.
“Work with an advocate or work with someone who can be on your side completely because if not, the system is very confusing,” Mozak said. “It would be a benefit for them in the long run to have somebody who can help them navigate it.”
A formal investigation of a sexual assault by police is run independently from the university. Free lawyers are offered to students through the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Sentwali Bakari, Drake’s dean of students, oversees investigations of on-campus sexual assault cases. Bakari said the university’s code of conduct requires due process for the victim and the accused. During the investigation, both sides can present evidence and witnesses to share their side of the story.
Bakari said he is sympathetic and saddened when these situations occur and he feels sorry for both students involved and their families. But he added that he has a responsibility to investigate the matter.
“So when I hear something, I don’t rush to judgement and it’s not fair to the person that’s being accused,” Bakari said. “For me, I have to be as objective as I possibly can and let the evidence take me where it takes me.”
The dean of students doesn’t have the power to suspend or expel a student. If he wishes to move forward, he is required to present his argument to a hearing.
Bakari said the university can do a better job communicating resources to students and where they can find information.
Students on the Demand a Better Drake campaign advocate for clarity in the code of conduct and wish to make it more accessible for students. These students want the code to include a list of punishments given to offenders. Brenner said right now the punishments given to offenders are very ambiguous.
“Right now, you can read the whole policy and you really have no idea what would happen if you were to be sexually assaulted,” Brenner said.
Mozak said Drake should make the code of conduct easier for students to understand, whether it’s changing the code language or through flyers and brochures.
“Our code is very legally-oriented. It’s even hard for me as an advocate that’s been doing this work for 10 years to decode it,” Mozak said. “The jargon is just not transparently written where a student can understand it, especially a student who’s going through trauma.”
Brenner said some people get confused when they hear about a push for policy change because they think it’s an attack on school officials. It’s just important to remember that this isn’t an attack on administration, it’s an attack on the system and how it’s set up, she added.
“Colleges become a home for students and for something like [sexual assault] to happen to a student while they’re here makes this a place where they don’t feel comfortable and I think it’s really important for students to feel like they’re in a safe place where they can learn and thrive,” Brenner said. “That really inspires me to work towards the best possible Drake that we can have.”