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DEAR READER: Sometimes, the most important stories are the hardest to get

Saturday, September 28, 2013 | 7:05 p.m. CDT; updated 12:44 p.m. CST, Friday, November 15, 2013

The stories most worth telling are sometimes the hardest.

That's what I tell my students in the reporting class. We discuss epic tales of Journalist versus Institution and how, when people angrily refuse to answer a simple question, it can be a clue — a bright green light with a “Rough Road Ahead” sign.

FOR MEMBERS

Read reporter Samantha Sunne's story: MU officials are at a loss to explain why there's such a large discrepancy between the number of people who report sexual assault to the campus rape crisis center and the number of people who pursue a remedy through the student conduct process. (This story is available to readers with a Missourian digital membership.)



Or, as a colleague of mine put it last week, “You know you’re on the right track when people want to throw you off it.”

That was the case in the many months that reporter Samantha Sunne worked to publish last week’s report about the tiny number of sexual-assault cases that lead to punishment through MU’s Office of Student Conduct.

Sunne found that in 2012, when almost 100 sexual assaults were reported to the campus rape crisis center and police, only two cases were reported to the Office of Student Conduct.

What you might not know from reading the story is how difficult it was to obtain the information.

First, Sunne was told that the office didn’t keep records electronically of complaints of conduct violations involving sexual assault. Or that perhaps some were available electronically and others were not.

And then during the final stages of the Missourian’s accuracy-check process a few days before the article was scheduled to publish, I was told the records had always been kept electronically. We also were told that in mid-2012, a category of offenses had been added to the Student Code to encompass sexual assault, as well as harassment and stalking. That change, we were told, was probably responsible for the “confusion” about Sunne’s request for numbers.

Puzzled, I asked why the reporter had been told in the first place that the records weren’t electronic. Why did she have a quote in her notebook from the former coordinator of the Office of Student Conduct, Donell Young, saying that he hoped all of the office’s records would be kept electronically in the near future?

The actual records, which the law says should have been open, were never made available. Sunne wrote: “A 1998 law requires universities to divulge the outcomes of disciplinary cases in which students were found responsible for violent or sexual offenses. Despite that law, the Office of Student Conduct and the UM System only shared some of the required information at the Missourian’s request and only after a nine-month dispute.”

Records custodian Robert Schwartz went on to say that the disciplinary process operates best in an atmosphere of confidentiality.

That may be true. But what we found went beyond a respect for confidentiality. We found obfuscation. In phone calls to my office, university officials seemed to suggest that maybe Sunne had an ax to grind — that maybe she was acting out of some “personal” motivation.

If only all of this energy could be focused on addressing the problem we were trying to bring to our readers’ attention. I don't know about you, but when I feel defensive about criticism, I think maybe I have some work to do. Maybe there’s a problem I need to address.

I hope there’s more than one takeaway. The people who talk to sexual assault victims need to figure out why more of those victims aren’t pursuing some measure of justice. The cure for our “rape culture” is equally complicated and requires us to think about our reflexive, blame-the-victim responses to rape. Victims need to stop feeling ashamed so they will feel comfortable stepping out into the light and telling their stories to the people who can help.

None of that is likely to happen in an atmosphere of secrecy.

Katherine Reed is the editor for public safety and health. She can be reached at reedkath@missouri.edu or 882-1792.


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Comments

Ellis Smith September 29, 2013 | 8:02 a.m.

Every public and private American university owes it to students and prospective students to publish current crime statistics, not just for campus-related crimes but also for crime rates in neighborhoods immediately surrounding the campus. Some celebrated American universities are already surrounded by high-crime neighborhoods.

As for university records, UM System's web site called "Facts & Figures" is seldom up to date for campus enrollment information. How difficult in an electronic processing age should THAT be? Check it out. Sometimes it appears that the larger the administrative payroll becomes the slower the information flow also becomes. If so, why?

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