WHAT OTHERS SAY: It's too late to help Sasha Menu Courey, but not too late for justice

Saturday, February 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Sexual assault victims at MU are better off reporting the crime to the Columbia Police Department than to the university’s rape counseling center if they hope for legal action against the attacker.

But even then, there is no guarantee. The tragic truth is that at Mizzou and elsewhere, colleges and law enforcement aren’t protecting women students.

Those are among the important messages to come out of the heartbreaking suicide in 2011 of 20-year-old Sasha Menu Courey, a Mizzou student and former member of its swimming team.

Sixteen months before her death, Ms. Menu Courey reported a sexual assault to campus counselors, doctors and nurses. She told them that she had been raped by a football player, but she did not report the crime to campus police or Columbia police.

School officials say they did not have enough information to bring the allegation to law enforcement or to investigate under Title IX, the federal law that addresses gender equity in education.

Following a lengthy report by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” show last Friday, university President Tim Wolfe asked the UM system’s Board of Curators to hire an independent counsel to review the way MU handled the case.

Policies and procedures

Mr. Wolfe sent an email to the chancellors of the four UM system campuses Sunday saying the review could show “ways in which to improve the handling of such matters in the future.” He asked them to review their sexual assault policies and procedures and to assess the availability of mental health services for their students. (Read more of the Missourian's coverage about campus sexual assaults.)

That is exactly what Mr. Wolfe should have done.

The university also is assisting the Columbia Police Department, which has opened an investigation. The accused rapist lived off campus, in the police department’s jurisdiction.

It’s too late to help Ms. Menu Corey but not too late for justice. Mr. Wolfe’s call for action could have a significant impact on how future assault cases are handled by Mizzou and the other schools in the system.

For all of the finger-pointing over who should have, could have, is or was responsible for investigating Ms. Menu Courey’s alleged assault, the problem is far more widespread.

At its root, it’s about a culture on college campuses — and in other hierarchical institutions including the military and the Catholic church. Sexual assault victims are afraid to tell their stories. The problem cannot be blamed on any single factor and should have everyone looking for solutions.

No fair hearing

Victims stay silent because they fear they won’t get a fair hearing. They’re concerned their attacker will get the institution’s support — the high-priced attorneys, medical experts and community backing needed to win a case in court, if it even gets to court.

Victims worry that their reputations will be tarnished and their futures destroyed if they challenge the star athlete, the lieutenant colonel, the beloved priest. They’re afraid they won’t be believed, that they will be blamed and that it will be for naught because the authorities won’t do anything, anyway.

For example, in 2012, Michael Dixon, a senior guard on the Mizzou men’s basketball team, was accused of forcible rape. The Columbia Daily Tribune reported that his accuser had told Columbia police that she was hesitant to report the attack because “people worship Mr. Dixon,” and she worried “they wouldn’t take her seriously, and the school wouldn’t take it seriously.”

Columbia police did not file charges against Mr. Dixon, saying their investigation determined there was insufficient evidence.

Brenda Bethman, director of the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and head of the school’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, said the situation won’t change until the culture does.

Ms. Bethman said that at UMKC, she has worked to create a climate where victims are comfortable telling their story, don’t fear being censured and are secure their report will not be ignored.

It’s not going to happen soon and it’s not going to be easy, she noted, adding: “I joke that my goal is to put myself out of a job.”

Protect all victims

Recognizing the scope of the problem, President Barack Obama last week created a high-level federal task force — including the attorney general and the secretaries of the Education, Health and Human Services and Interior departments — to coordinate enforcement efforts to combat rape on college campuses.

His action was spurred by a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls that showed rapes occur more frequently on campuses than anywhere else. While one in five students has been assaulted, only 12 percent of them report the crime.

The report said that many of the attacks occur at parties, while the victim is drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out or otherwise incapacitated. Today’s culture has done a terrible job at teaching men and boys to understand that a woman in any of those conditions is unable to provide consent. Sex in those situations is not consensual, no matter how available a woman may seem, no matter how drunk or high her attacker might be. Rape is rape.

Sasha Menu Courey did what few women do when they are frightened, she reported the assault and asked for help. Thanks to the courage of her parents, this very personal crime has a face. For that, women and everyone who cares about them, should be grateful.

Now school administrators, medical professionals, law enforcement officers and the courts must put procedures and laws into place that will protect victims everywhere.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

Related coverage of MU's investigation into the death of Sasha Menu Courey.

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