SAAP policies limit admin. knowledge of repeat sexual assaulters

by CAROLYN KLYSTRA | 11/21/06 6:00am

Several Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors have reported that their program's confidentiality policy protects the identities of students accused of multiple sexual assaults by making it impossible to keep track of their names and the number of times they have been accused.

SAPAs are students who undergo 22 hours of training "to learn all the information necessary to being a good resource to survivors of sexual abuse," according to the SAPA program website. Dartmouth students who have been sexually assaulted have the option of speaking with any student on a list of current SAPAs if they do not feel comfortable talking with a dean, a counselor at Dick's House or Leah Prescott, Dartmouth's Sexual Abuse Awareness Program coordinator.

Whenever a victim talks to a SAPA about his or her assault, the SAPA files a report with Prescott containing all the information that the victim allows him or her to divulge, according to Prescott.

"[SAPAs] are supposed to contact Leah and tell her general descriptors about the perpetrator like age, sex and race that she uses when she reports to national [statistics]. It tends to be pretty vague. She wants a [SAPA] to give her as much information as the person who came to the [SAPA] feels comfortable sharing," Laura Felder '09 said.

Prescott and SAPAs said they want the victims to feel that they are in control of the response and recovery process.

To achieve this, they said they must keep the information students provide completely confidential. But the result of this confidentiality policy is that Prescott does not have a complete list of students accused of assault -- even if multiple accusations have been made against them.

The confidentiality policy also prevents SAPAs who know that a person has been previously accused of sexual assault from sharing this information with other victims.

Libby Hadzima '06 said that while she was a SAPA she heard the same students accused of sexual assault multiple times, but could not tell anyone because of confidentiality rules.

"I've heard many stories from a number of different girls about the same few people," Hadzima said, "and those were just the ones I've heard about. We don't speak to other SAPAs about the names we've heard to protect the survivors, so other SAPAs may have heard the same names also."

Sexual Abuse Awareness Program intern Soralee Ayvar '07 said that this policy aims to prevent victims from experiencing additional stress.

"To sit there and say that if you don't do something this person is going to go out there and do it again, that's a lot to handle," Ayvar said. "For somebody who's under a lot of stress already, it's a very traumatic experience."

But Hadzima said that SAPAs cannot adequately help or advise victims because of these confidentiality rules.

"Because none of these girls know about the other girls [who have accused the same person], they all assumed that their tragedy was an isolated incident," Hadzima said.

Abby Tassel, who was SAAP coordinator from 2001 to 2005, said she believes that sexual assault victims are more likely to report their assaults if they understand that they were not just one-time mistakes.

"My experience was and is that women are much more likely to come forward and take some sort of action if they realize they're not the only victims," Tassel said.

Director of Undergraduate Judicial Affairs April Thompson said that the College would like to learn of any repeat offenders.

"If we have someone who is sexually assaulting women in a serial fashion, absolutely the administration needs to know, because we want to be as supportive as we can of all the students involved in this and we want to make sure students are not allowed to do this on our campus," Thompson said.

David Lisak, founding editor of the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity and faculty member for the National Judicial Education Program, has done extensive research on rapists and found that about 63 percent of rapists are serial offenders.

About 91 percent of rapes are committed by serial rapists, one of Lisak's studies found.

In a previous article in The Dartmouth, Prescott said she believed that about 109 cases of rape occur at the College every year. If Lisak's statistics hold true at Dartmouth, then 99 of those 109 cases are committed by serial rapists, and only 10 rapes every year are one-time events.

When interviewed by The Dartmouth, Prescott said that she was not the best person to comment on whether Lisak's findings could be applied to Dartmouth since she has only been at the College for about 15 months. She did say, however, that "Dartmouth is not excluded from the rest of the world."

"Our campus is no different from another campus that has problems with sexual assault. It's possible, but I haven't looked at the study to be able to apply it to Dartmouth," Prescott said.

Hadzima said that because these statistics show most rapists are repeat offenders on a national scale, SAAP needs to amend its confidentiality policy.

"Nobody wants to think we have repeat offenders," Hadzima said, "but the College needs to totally rethink the way they address sexual assault if repeat offenders are indeed committing these crimes."

Other SAPAs, however, said they do not feel as strongly as Hadzima does.

"I could see how [the policy] could seem negative. On the one hand, a SAPA can get very frustrated if she knows something this one person is doing to repeated girls and she can't do anything about it, but the point of the program is for victims themselves to take the action they want to pursue. It's not our job to have them release these names," SAPA Ione Curva '07 said.

Prescott said that revealing the identity of accused serial rapists to the administration could also impact the victims of sexual assault.

"If there are people out there knowing that there's a serial rapist on campus, the administration needs to follow up and make sure that complaints are made," she said. "But once we start doing that, we remove the power and the control of the survivor. I think it's really complicated."

For now, though, if the administration becomes aware of a possible serial rapist, "there's no set rule book for what to do in that case," Prescott said.

Thompson said that when the administration receives a lead regarding a sexual assault case, the victim is the first person contacted. If the victim decides not to proceed with an investigation, "unless the College has significant evidence, we likely would not go forward," she said.

Thompson also noted that if she heard an individual's name mentioned multiple times, but no formal complaints were made and no evidence was available, the College could still take action.

"There are so many ways to reach students outside the judicial process and this is where a class dean would call someone in and talk to them [and say], 'Look, this is what I have heard, I'm not going to tell you where I have heard it and it is not a disciplinary matter but I have questions for you,'" she said.

In some instances the College would deal with a sexual assaulter through counseling and appointments with deans, Thompson said.

"Even after one offense, it doesn't take multiple offenses, but if we have access to a name, a dean would certainly call a student in, put them on notice, talk with them in an educational format about sexual assault, get them connected with counseling," Thompson said.

She said questions such as, "What are the reasons you are doing this or people are feeling like you are doing this?" would be asked of the student.

Prescott said, "I'm not sure I can comment to that," when asked why Thompson cited procedures for dealing with sexual assaulters in contrast to Prescott saying no "rule book" exists.

Thompson further emphasized the sensitivity of the subject of sexual abuse and the difficulty in addressing the parties involved, which include the victim, the SAPA, the accused student and the Dartmouth community as a whole.

"How you balance all that and what is the best way to balance each of those interests is a constant struggle for anyone who works in this area, so I don't have a 'This is the best solution,'" she said.

Amita Kulkarni and staff reporter Hillary Wool contributed to this story.