Sexual assault law won’t change police policy

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By Kimberly Wethal

April 13, 2016

 

A bill protecting sexual assault victims and bystanders on college campuses – a piece of legislation Gov. Scott Walker says is a “commitment to supporting survivors” – is a “moot point” to UW-Whitewater Police Services Chief Matthew Kiederlen.

The Act 279 legislation, formerly named Assembly Bill 808, aims to protect students who come forward in a sexual assault case as a victim or a witness from being given citations by university police services for underage drinking.

At UW-W, this is already common practice – it’s been the status quo since Kiederlen joined the department in April 2007.

“Sexual assault is already a very difficult crime for anyone involved, whether you’re the victim or the witness involved, to come forward and inform the police,” Kiederlen said. “It’s not a comfortable situation, there’s certainly a lot of aspects that can feel, quite frankly, cold and clinical when going through the process that we require the individuals to go through.

“Any time you would start issuing citations, you’re punishing someone for being involved in an involuntary situation,” Kiederlen said.

Because alcohol is involved in most sexual assault cases on campus, Kiederlen said, it “doesn’t make any sense” to have any other policy.

“We’re not going to just compound that and throw a citation on top of it,” Kiederlen said. “It lacks compassion and it lacks foresight for what’s involved in victim recovery, and victim trauma.

Walker traveled to UW-Stevens Point to sign the bill, stating that it’s the “top priority” of legislators to ensure safety of all students on college campuses throughout Wisconsin.

The bill doesn’t reference private colleges outside of the UW System, nor does it make any mention to the 49 schools in the Wisconsin Technical College System.

Act 279 was co-authored by Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon).

The law also prohibits disciplinary action by the UW campuses, as well as the Board of Regents, at all of the two- and four-year campuses, should the student have been committed an underage drinking violation, but “cooperates with emergency responders when they arrive.”

“The prevalence of sexual violence across our nation and in our college campuses is nothing short of alarming and deeply concerning,” Petrowski said in a news release.

Petrowski was involved in authoring a bill, signed into law last July, protecting victims against stalking and harassment by making it a misdemeanor offense to place a GPS tracker on someone’s vehicle.

Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Milton) says the passing of the bill was one of the “few moments” the Assembly, Senate and Governor’s office worked together in a bipartisan fashion in the past session.

“It can be done,” Jorgensen said. “This is a bill that is common sense, so someone who has information isn’t afraid to go to authorities because they’ve had some alcohol in their system.”

Jorgensen says this bill will need some time to get its message out to college students who don’t know about their amnesty when it comes to underage drinking citations.

“It’s going to be an awareness phase first,” Jorgensen said. “We’re going to be educated on this … I’m sure this [law’s] effect is going to be a good one, and that people will feel they can come forward and not feel they are going to be intimidated by the law and keep it to themselves.”

Campus impact

While the police services department’s day-to-day interactions remain unchanged, the act of communicating the policies of the new law to students through different campus organizations is where the law will be most visible.

Whitney Henley, wellness coordinator for University Health Counseling Services and adviser of the student organization Supporting a Violence-Free Environment (SaVE), says it’ll help them be able give them a better idea of their rights.

Right now, UHCS has to inform students of the UW-W Police Services policy on campus where they won’t be cited for underage drinking when reporting a sexual assault, and to be careful on other campuses where it may not be the case.

“Even though our campus has what they refer to as an amnesty policy, other police departments weren’t so quick to be supportive of victims,” Henley said. “Most police departments are really understanding, but just for full disclosure, you can never be sure. Now this provides a lot more protection.”

The biggest challenge in the legislation will be the way it’s communicated to students, and the time it’ll take to do so, Henley said.

“Even though this legislation has been passed, a fear is still going to linger for quite some time until people understand that they can come forward,” Henley said.

Senior Samantha Gutbrod, president of SaVE, said the law will assist the organization educate students and create an open dialogue for students to talk about rape culture.

It’ll also lessen the impact rape culture has on victims when they come forward, Gutbrod said.

“There’s already so much stigma when it comes to [sexual assault],” Gutbrod said. “The first questions the victims are asked are ‘what are they wearing?’ or ‘Where you drinking?’ It shouldn’t matter, and now, legally, it won’t matter.”