Timely warnings criticized

By Jaclyn Archer, News Editor

When an assault is reported on campus, like what happened on Sept. 16, Sept. 21 and Oct. 2 of this school year, there is a process of notification and investigation which often ripples across the campus in the form of a timely warning sent out via email to all Eastern students.

Since mid-September, six timely warnings, public safety advisories and follow-ups have been issued by the Office of Student Affairs. These warnings traditionally include a summary of police involvement in a report of criminal activity, the basic circumstances of the crime reported, as well as a suspect description if necessary and safety tips for the student body. However, the specific language contained in the timely warnings changes on a case-by-case basis.

“There is no set language because each case is going to be different,” said Deputy Chief of EWU Police Gary Gasseling. “Ultimately the chief is responsible, but it’s vetted through several different avenues.”

According to Gasseling, those avenues depend upon the status of the crime. If the report is taken at night, the officer who took the report will contact Gasseling at home.

“My first question is, are they in custody,” said Gasseling. If the suspect is not in custody, Gasseling, along with the sergeant on duty and the chief of campus police will review language for a timely warning to be sent out as soon as possible.

“[There are] times when we send it out without showing it to anyone else because it’s an an emergency situation … [such as the recent case]. We want to get it out right away because there’s a chance that he’s still a danger to the community,” said Gasseling.

If the crime was reported in the daytime, the language for the timely warning will be sent to Eastern’s Public Information Officer. Stacey Morgan Foster, vice president for Student Affairs, is also given an opportunity to look at the language. The Office of Business and Finance is also involved.

If they respond promptly – “Two or three hours is too much time,” said Gasseling – they will have an opportunity to weigh in on the language before it is sent out as an email through Eastern’s Office of Student Affairs.

Such was the protocol with the timely warnings sent out this school year. However some students took issue with the language used in the timely warnings. Rebekka Shelp, a senior, wrote an open letter to the EWU Community. Written with the help of Kelli Crawford, a graduate Master’s of Education student, and Brit Davis, a graduate social work student, the letter claimed the language contained in timely warnings was “perpetuating rape culture.”

Shelp urged the administration to take steps to make students feel more safe, such as increasing patrols and lighting on campus. She further asked, “Why don’t we work with incoming and returning students to discuss what constitutes consent. As well as inform the student body on what the consequences of sexual assault are; instead of only victim blaming…?”

When asked to respond to the concerns in Shelp’s letter, Gasseling said, “Put yourself in our shoes, how do you say how to be safe without alluding to things that happened that night?”

Gasseling was alluding to the recent assault of a female student on campus, however he later added, “The young lady did everything right, except that she was alone. Her cell phone was charged, she called us immediately, that’s why we were able to get there so fast.”

In the same letter to which Gasseling was responding, Shelp wrote, “I shouldn’t have to walk in a group 24/7 in order to feel safe on your campus.”

When asked what the police department was doing to prevent sexual assault from the perpetrator’s side, Gasseling said, “We’ve had that in place for a millennium, it’s called laws. One of the basic premises of law is ‘you won’t assault people.’”

Gasseling continued, “A criminal intent on doing wrong will do wrong. Now it’s up to the good people – the 99.9 [percent] of people to be aware of that and try to prevent it … I understand what [Shelp] was getting at, but I think it was a little short sighted. My job is to enforce the law.”

Morgan Foster shared a similar perspective, noting that it would be largely ineffective to simply tell people “Don’t rape,” when that is a basic expectation of society.

Instead, the office of student affairs puts on safety workshops during orientation.

“I don’t think any of the workshops are given in a way that re-victimizes people, and we certainly talk to students about what our expectations for their behavior are … but it’s also good to talk to people about how to be safe,” said Morgan Foster.

Shelp has no problem with safety tips but argues there is a lack of balance in the timely warnings.

“I think it’s important to remind people to aware of their surroundings … . Just like if you’re in the forest, you bring bear spray, or you teach children to cross the street. It’s just that when you’re only saying those safety rules, you’re not really telling the victim that you support them, you’re just sort of blaming them for not being prepared,” she said.

Shelp believes support should be offered to those who may think they have the potential to assault someone.

“Why aren’t we given them the resources to help them through those feelings? Why are we not as a community telling them that we’re here to help them through … the urge to hurt someone? … I think we as a community could come together and find a way to support these people, because they are people who are part of this community,” said Shelp.

For Shelp, who was raped at the age of fifteen the issue is not just theoretical, but personal.

“My sister was best friends with a girl who was really close friends with the person that raped me,” said Shelp. “They both told me that it was my fault because I was hanging out with this person alone … To this day, my sister tries to tell me that I made the choice to go over there, and so in a way I was asking for it.”

Shelp has arranged to meet on Oct. 7 with Katie Sweeney, ASWEU Health and Safety; Amy Johnson, Dean of Students; Lisa Logan, Women and Gender Studies Center Manager; and
Tricia Hughes, Dir. of Health, Wellness & Prevention on campus, who Shelp said reached out to her.

“I’m just hoping they would be open to changing the wording. … Just less on the victim and more on the assaulters,” said Shelp.

The timely warning for Oct. 2 was released after Shelp’s letter. While the basic format was consistent, it also included text not seen in previous alerts:

“No action or inaction by a crime victim makes that person responsible for their victimization. Perpetrators are responsible for crimes and their effects. The following suggestions may help reduce the possibility of experiencing a crime.”

The wording, undoubtedly approved in part by Gasseling, undergirds his claim that the student health, mental and physical, is at the forefront of campus police priorities.

“We never want to revictimize someone. That is never, never, never the intent,” said Gasseling.

Shelp maintains the conversation will continue.