Reporting sexual assault is first step, officials say

Photo by Jenny Goldberg
From left, panelists Heather Cavise, Caroline Lawlor, Brian O’Malley, Mensah Peterson and Jennifer Erdos recently discuss the topic of sexual assault on college campuses.

CRANFORD, NJ — Back in February, a Union County College employee saw what he thought was a student carrying a weapon on campus. The employee notified campus security, who along with police, approached the student and confiscated three fake guns, one resembling a rifle and two resembling pistols.

It was an example of the campaign: If you see something, say something.
This phrase was repeated by the college’s administration during an April 25 panel discussion about sexual assault.
“Report it to campus authorities, professors or staff members,” Mensah Peterson, dean of student affairs, said at the event. “From there, it is the employee’s responsibility to tell administration. At the administrative level, the local police would then be called.”

Brian O’Malley from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office Special Victims Unit added: “If questions of complaint or a law violated arises, then the local police would refer the case to the UCPO, where we would conduct an investigation.”

The crime of sexual assault has a different legal definition in each state. In New Jersey, it reads as “the penetration, no matter how slight, in which physical force or coercion is used or in which the victim is physically or mentally incapacitated.”

In the United States, one in five women experience attempted or actual sexual assault during their college years, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. The same statistics show that men are also victimized. It has been noted that more than 6 percent of men experience attempted or actual sexual assault in college.

In recent years, reports of sexual violence and assault on college and university campuses has led to increased education and prevention campaigns, such as the panel discussion that occurred at the UCC Cranford campus.

During the discussion, four panelists fielded questions ranging from how law enforcement investigates these criminal matters to the definition of consent.

Recalling a 2005 criminal case handled by Union County Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, she noted it had originated from a report to the administration by a UCC professor about a student who had been sexually abused by her biological father.

Because the abuse happened since the student’s childhood, “She didn’t know it was an issue until she read a class-assigned book at UCC that involved an incestual relationship,” Lawlor said.

After hearing questions and comments from fellow students, the woman confided in her professor, who then reported the abuse.
“The father is now incarcerated,” Lawlor stated.

This anecdote sparked one young woman in attendance to ask if state law enforces a time limit on reporting sexual violence to authorities.
Sharing a personal experience of a man following and pinning her against a wall, she said wanted to report the incident, but didn’t know if it was too late to do so.

“You don’t have to worry about the length of time to report it,” O’Malley responded.
Under a state law that passed in 2014, the statute of limitations was expanded from 90 days to five years, giving the victim time to decide whether they want to report the crime, Lawlor said.

“We understand the delay in disclosures. We understand there is fear and embarrassment,” O’Malley said. “We fully expect that, and as long as it fits within statutory limits, the report is accepted.”

Other questions focused on the legality of consent.
While there is a long complex definition as to what constitutes consent, Lawlor said it boils down to “common sense.”
“No means no. If someone is intoxicated, they can’t consent,” she said.

The panel was organized to commemorate Denim Day, an international campaign against sexual assault that was triggered by an Italian Supreme Court ruling in the 1990s. In that case, the justices overturned a rape conviction because the victim was wearing tight jeans, so they reasoned that she must have helped her rapist remove her jeans, thus giving her consent.

The next day, women in the Italian Parliament dressed in jeans to show solidarity with the victim.