Sexual assaults evoke concerns

by Sarah McKenzie

A University Police investigator and the Program Against Sexual Violence coordinator fielded questions Tuesday from more than 20 students and staff members concerned about recent sexual assaults on campus.
The Minnesota Women’s Center organized the afternoon meeting in response to two incidents reported earlier this month. A student was allegedly verbally harassed and sexually assaulted on Sept. 3 by a stranger in a second-floor women’s restroom in Nicholson Hall.
Four days later, a 24-year-old woman was allegedly sexually assaulted in Vincent Hall. University Police are investigating both incidents; no arrests have been made.
Those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting questioned whether the University has an adequate system to inform students, staff and faculty about criminal activity posing a threat to public safety.
University Police issued a crime alert on Sept. 12, but few faculty and staff members had received a copy, attendees said.
“There was a need for some people to vent,” said Janet al’Azar, a resource specialist for the women’s center. She said organizers intended the meeting to stimulate dialogue between campus safety officials and the University community.
Although University Police Detective Marianne Olson and PASV Assistant Director Roberta Gibbons moderated most of the 90-minute discussion, staff members and students frequently posed questions and made comments.
Jeffrey Cookson, a staff member in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Program Office, said departments and student organizations need to start organizing effective ways to cope with safety concerns. Waiting for administrative action might not be effective, he added.
“It’s a very important issue,” Cookson said. “Men need to be visible in the movement to prevent sexual assaults as well.”
Olson and Gibbons didn’t downplay the recent assaults but reassured attendees that assaults by strangers are extremely rare at the University.
A majority of sexual assault victims know the perpetrator, Olson said. Most students who report assaults to University Police live in on-campus housing.
According to University Police statistics, 12 sexual assaults have been reported to the department this year. Records indicate that 39 sexual assault victims have come forward to PASV since Jan. 1.
Both Gibbons and Olson urged students and staff members to use the University’s 24-hour escort service provided for anyone who does not want to walk alone on campus.
They also suggested departments pay attention to safety concerns much like they would in neighborhood organizations.
“We are a community here at the University,” Olson said. “You can’t depend on the police department all of the time.”

Sarah McKenzie welcomes comments at She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3222.