The director of a Utah coalition says Thursday's announcement by United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is an insult to victims of sexual assault.
“Secretary DeVos’ comments, while they were fairly ambiguous, the message was crystal clear,” says Turner Bitton, executive director for the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit organization that provides education and resources to various groups around the state.
Bitton and his group work as advocates for survivors of sexual violence.
DeVos announced she is pushing for an end to the Obama-era rules for Title IX, the law requiring universities to investigate claims of sexual misconduct, as well as ensure a safe and equal environment for all students.is responding to a possible loss of federal support for programs that protect victims of sexual assault.
He expects the announcement is a precursor to ending sexual assault procedural and processing guidance from the federal government. The education secretary says she is reviewing guidelines some consider to be unfair toward the accused. Included in the law is the “dear colleague” letter that outlines how schools should handle sexual assault allegations.
“I don’t necessarily believe that institutions will quit acting in the best interest of sexual violence survivors,” Bitton said. “Fortunately for the state of Utah, many of our colleges and institutions work well with the community programs in their areas. They’re doing a lot of programming, doing a lot of work to help provide information on sexual violence.”
Although he sees an increase in awareness and advocacy at the local level Bitton says the lack of support from the federal government poses a problem for survivors of sexual violence, especially at universities.
“Without the ‘dear colleague’ letter, really what we risk doing is going back to a day when someone who experienced sexual violence was on their own,’’ he said.
DeVos is not revealing specifics about how she plans to approach Title IX. Bitton says until she does he is being proactive in encouraging universities and colleges to support policies that will still put sexual assault survivors first.
SALT LAKE CITY — Local advocates for survivors of sexual assault say college students will be less likely to report attacks in the wake of an address by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday.
Speaking at George Mason University School of Law in Fairfax, Virginia, DeVos vowed to replace an Obama administration system of campus assault enforcement that she says is broken for both survivors of sexual assault and those wrongly accused, and "fails all students."
Too often the conversation has been framed as "a contest between men and women," or the rights of sexual misconduct survivors and the due process rights of accused students, she said.
"The reality is, however, a different picture. There are men and women, boys and girls, who are survivors, and there are men and women, boys and girls, who are wrongfully accused," DeVos said.
"I've met them personally. I've heard their stories. And the rights of one person can never be paramount to the rights of another."
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who has successfully carried a number of bills on various aspects of sexual assault through the Utah Legislature in recent years, described DeVos' address as "troubling."
"I'm afraid that victims won't report because they'll feel like people won't believe them," Romero said. "There's a reason why we've been heading toward this victim-centric approach to where we give the power back to the victim of sexual assault, and I think we're taking steps back.
"At the end of the day, rape is rape and sexual assault is sexual assault. As we know, only 2 to 10 percent are false accusations," she said.
The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault said in a prepared statement that DeVos' announcement "tips the scales of justice away from survivors of sexual violence."Read more
The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, along with the Utah Department of Health and the Center for Women and Children in Crisis presented resources, information and scenarios for bystander intervention on Tuesday at the Fulton Library Lecture Hall.
Student for Choice UVU, Spectrum UVU and the UVU Women’s Success Center co-hosted the event.
The training presented by Martin Liccardo, the men’s engagement specialist with the Violence and Injury Prevention program at the state health department, focused on how to intervene safely, especially in situations involving harassment and assault.
Liccardo began the training by discussing ‘diffusion of responsibility’ theory, the tendency toward inaction when others are present. Liccardo also took time to discuss cultural conditions such as rape culture, stigma, biases/ judgmental attitudes, all of which allow for and promote harassment and sexual assault.
According to Liccardo, a cultural shift needs to occur in the way people view and talk about gender, sex and sexuality. He stressed that people need to be more deliberate in talking about sexual activity and gaining consent.
“We are more comfortable having sex than talking about it,” Liccardo said.
In addition to trying to prevent physical harassment and assault, Liccardo repeatedly referenced people feeling safe, and certain culturally accepted behavior and attitudes can often take that away from people.
Liccardo continued by providing guidelines and tools to aid in bystander intervention and then presented scenarios for practice. He expressed that intervening is difficult and complex, but that taking action will become easier with the correct tools, knowledge and experience.
The training attracted students from BYU and Salt Lake Community College as well as those from UVU.
Tyler Clancy, a sophomore in family services at BYU, attended the training to take action and to assume responsibility for the world around him. The training is an opportunity for men like Clancy to address what was described by Liccardo as a “men’s violence issue”.
Clancy has been involved with athletics for much of his life and he believes that the “machismo” that can develop in all-male sports teams contributes to the occurrence of harassment and assault.
“I think that athletics, both in the world around me as I see in the news – some of these big cases like the Stanford swimmer guy, the Duke lacrosse team—and then in my own life I’ve seen habits or mentality towards women that I don’t think is necessarily evil, but I think that it could lead to bad things,” Clancy said. “I think we need to change that.”
Students started arriving at college for fall classes about a week before Labor Day.
About that same time, news broke that the federal government is investigating five of Utah’s 10 largest colleges and universities for the way they handled allegations of sexual violence.
Weber State University is not on the list. And perhaps that’s for a reason — the Safe@Weber program.
Under Title IX, schools must quickly investigate reports of sexual violence and harassment. Additionally, if requested, they must provide counseling, tutoring and relocation.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints against Utah Valley University, Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, Westminster College and Dixie State University.
The Dixie State investigation stemmed from its handling of a sexual harassment report. At the other four schools, the complaints stemmed from sexual violence cases.
College campuses can be dangerous places, especially for newcomers. RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, reports that more than 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur between August and November.
And according to RAINN, college students face the highest risk of sexual violence during the early months of their first and second semesters.
The risk is great. Nationally, RAINN reports, 23.1 percent of undergraduate women experience sexual assault. So do 5.4 percent of undergraduate men.
Weber State addresses sexual violence through its Safe@Weber initiative, which requires all students to participate in an online sexual violence prevention and awareness course.
As part of Safe@Weber, the WSU Women’s Center also provides a number of services for assault survivors, including counseling referrals, medical treatment and legal advocacy.
But the school didn’t stop there — it built on Safe@Weber to add a sexual violence prevention program for LGBT students.
For good reason. According to RAINN, 21 percent of the nation’s transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted. For non-TGQN females, it’s 18 percent. For non-TGQN males, the number is 4 percent.
When the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault honored Safe@Weber as its 2017 Partner of the Year, UCASA Executive Director Turner Bitton singled out the program’s LGBT initiatives.
"We see really high rates of violence committed against LGBT folks, so having specific programming for LGBT individuals is a huge step forward for the community," he told Anna Burleson, a reporter for the Standard-Examiner.
It’s a new semester. Take steps to protect yourself from sexual violence.
At Weber State, that means learning about Safe@Weber.
The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault announced the creation of a new statewide LGBTQ Coordinating Council to ensure that LGBTQ survivors of and victims of sexual violence, as well as the broader LGBTQ community, are represented in victim services organizations, institutions, and partnerships that serve sexual violence survivors statewide.
“LGBTQ people experience violence at a disproportionate rate compared to our community at large,” said executive director Turner Bitton. “We believe fundamentally that LGBTQ people have unique insights, experiences, and backgrounds that will enrich and strengthen our efforts to end sexual violence in Utah.”
“We’re hoping to get a lot of interest from folks across the state who are interested in participating in the Council and ensure that LGBTQ people are represented throughout our work. This Council, at its core, is about building power and ensuring that LGBTQ people have a voice in the broader movement to end sexual violence,” said executive director Turner Bitton.
Bitton says that several studies indicate sexual violence is often an overlooked dimension of hate or bias-motivated crimes against adults who identify (or are perceived to be) LGBTQ. Sexual harassment between same-sex peers: Intersection of mental health, homophobia, and gays and lesbians are more likely to experience sexual violence compared to other groups typically targeted for hate crime victimization.
“All of this is particularly concerning because research also indicates that such hate crimes are less likely to be reported to authorities than other types of hate crimes, due to fears of bias against LGBTQ people who experience violence,” Bitton said.
The Council seeks to ensure adequate representation of LGBTQ survivors in all of Utah’s Sexual Assault Response Teams. These teams ensure a victim-centered response when sexual violence has been reported. This helps start the healing process, but also helps the survivor maintain the courage to go through the investigation and prosecution processes.
LGBTQ-affirming training will also be provided statewide to sexual violence programs, law enforcement, and any other institution that interacts with sexual violence survivors.
The group will also produce information for LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence, and will focus specifically on rural, underserved, and culturally-specific programs and communities.
UCASA has opened applications to the public for those who are interested in serving on the Council. Council members are expected to agree to a one year term on the Council. Members of the public who are interested in the council can find additional information at ucasa.org/LGBTQ.
University of Utah administrators are taking steps to make the campus safer. The changes include mandatory sexual assault awareness training for students, faculty and staff.
U President David Pershing convened the Presidential Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault back in December when campus safety and sexual assault dominated news reports locally and nationwide. This week, Pershing approved nearly $400,000 in funding for the group’s recommendations. They include more lighting on campus, additional staff, mandatory safety and prevention training for everyone and a new website that Barb Snyder, vice president of student affairs says will be a resource for crime victims and people who have safety concerns.
“How to report if something has happened to you,” Snyder says. “Making students feel like they can report, not just crimes but a light that’s out at night or they’re walking across campus and they feel, this doesn’t feel like a safe part of campus to me. They’ll be able to more easily report that as well.”
U employee Sheri Jardine thinks the sexual assault awareness course is a good idea.
“Especially students coming in who are young and maybe haven’t experienced a lot of life yet,” she says. “And then they get here and they’re on their own and I think it’s easy to miss where that line is.”
Zach Putnam is a sophomore. He agrees.
“Awareness always helps,” Putnam says. “But is it a massive problem here? I don’t know anyone personally but I hear stories all the time. Like in the news more than anything.”
Turner Bitton is with Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. He says a safe campus can be defined in two ways.
“There’s a recognition by staff and faculty and students, really the entire campus community that sexual assault will not be tolerated and that the university is committed to eliminating it,” Bitton says.
The second, he says is having systems in place to properly investigate reports of sexual assault. He says the U is well on its way to achieving both.
The impact of sexual violence on people in a plural marriage relationship can be complicated. In Utah, the state’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault is working with victims who struggle to find support for families who may have more than one spouse. Many legal issues and feelings of isolation can complicate matters for those who need help.
Plural marriage, which is better known as polygamy, is illegal in the U.S. However, there are still those who have more than one spouse. For some, this practice is religious, for others it is culture based. Alina Darger has one husband and two sisterwives. She is the founder of Cherish Families, an organization that focuses on helping domestic abuse and sexual assault victims in a plural marriage context. She said there are a lot of assumptions about her and others who are in a plural marriage.
“I’ve been asked a couple of times in my life how I escaped polygamy or questions about my prophet Warren Jeffs, which I’ve never met him, I don’t know anything about him,” she said.
Darger is part of a group of independents that practice plural marriage because of religious reasons but do not belong to any specific church. Each group and family has varying beliefs that range from fairly modern lives like the Darger’s, to more conservative lives and dress that you might see in someone who is part of the FLDS group, formerly led by Warren Jeffs. Because of the stigma surrounding plural marriage and various raids targeting this population, Darger says many people don’t get help when they need it.Read more
By HALLIE GOLDEN, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers hope a new, unusual law cuts down on increasingly troubling forms of cyber harassment by giving authorities the ability to send online bullies to jail for a year.
Law enforcement, school officials and support groups back the effort, but some lawyers and a libertarian-leaning group have balked at what they call vague language in the law. They believe it could be unconstitutional and lead innocent people to be charged with crimes.
The regulation won unanimous approval in the Legislature and makes it a crime to post information online that can identify someone, including their name, photo and place of employment, to "intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, frighten, or disrupt the electronic communications of another."
Similar laws in New York and North Carolina have been ruled unconstitutional in recent years, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who called Utah's measure a violation of the First Amendment.
He helped launch a lawsuit last week challenging a similar law in Ohio.
"There are some situations where you might say this is punishable, especially if it's a threat," Volokh said. "But again, it deliberately applies to speech that doesn't fit within any First Amendment exception."
An advocacy group says the measure might have helped a gay Utah State University student who was afraid to come forward in 2013 to report being sexually assaulted after someone started posting his photo and phone number on Craigslist along with details on the forms of sex he was interested in.
The student hadn't revealed publicly that he was gay and was terrified about the possibility that people would find out, said Turner Bitton of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Such cyberbullying has increased in recent years and can be especially damaging when used in relation to sexual violence, he said.
Those critical of the Utah law contend it could apply to innocuous, normal online behavior, such as somebody criticizing his neighbor's choice of house paint on Facebook or complaining about a state lawmaker in an online comment section.
The law means the disgruntled house owner or lawmaker could initiate criminal proceedings by arguing that the information was posted to harass or frighten them, said David Reymann, a First Amendment lawyer in Utah.
"It's not going to just apply to the typical stalker who is moving to an online platform to continue what we consider to be stalking," Reymann said.
This is not the first time Utah lawmakers have attempted to combat this type of cyberbullying.
Last year, they considered a similar measure but stripped out a section on identifying information because of some concerns with its broad language, according to then-Rep. David Lifferth, a Republican who sponsored the 2016 bill. Lawmakers said they ran out of time to approve it.
"I just can't imagine a situation where this would be inappropriately applied," said Republican state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, adding that he sponsored the new law at the request of the Department of Public Safety.
Maj. Brian Redd said the department supports the general effort to reduce cybercrime, but it was Lifferth who pushed to address the issue.
Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning nonprofit group Libertas Institute, said he plans to push for a measure next legislative session that narrows the scope of the law's language.
He said he wants to replace words such as "harass" with "significant harassment," so "prosecutors have a higher bar to meet in order to prove their case."
By HALLIE GOLDEN, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Republican state representative is proposing legislation to require that Utah colleges give immunity to sexual assault victims for conduct code violations related to alcohol and drugs and allow school officials to report serious assaults to police.
But a sexual assault survivor and an advocacy group are pushing back against the proposal, saying it wouldn't stop schools from investigating many victims.
Bill sponsor Kim Coleman said the measure is meant to make sure institutions are taking the right steps to reduce these crimes, and handle them appropriately when they do happen.
The news comes about one year after Mormon-owned Brigham Young University faced a major backlash when it was revealed it was investigating sexual assault victims for violating the school's strict code of behavior. The institution announced in October that it would revise this policy.
Madeline MacDonald, one of the students who reported being sexually assaulted while a student at BYU, said on Wednesday that a bill that only protects students from being investigated for violations related to alcohol and drugs would not have protected her.
"Drug and alcohol cases are a minority of the cases where women are scared to report," said MacDonald.
Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said in an email that amnesty is not appropriate in all sexual assault situations, but did not provide any examples.
"It is important for the higher ed institution to have discretion," she said.
Coleman introduced a similar bill during the 2017 legislative session, but it failed amid concern that it wouldn't protect all victims from investigations and would take control out of the hands of these students.
She said she is still working on the new bill and may consider revamping it so that students who report sexual assaults are granted full immunity.
Coleman said the measure may also allow schools to refer reports of abuse to law enforcement agencies if they appear to pose a major threat to campus safety.
Turner Bitton, of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that could actually result in fewer people reporting assaults to their school because they don't want officials going to law enforcement.
"It takes away that power from the survivor and gives it to the institution," he said.
BYU announced in October that it would no longer investigate student victims who reported sex assaults for violations of the school's strict honor code that bans drinking and premarital sex.
The change came after several sexual assault victims said they felt silenced by the policy and the Provo university launched an internal review.
The probe found that the Title IX office on campus sometimes shared victims' names and details of assaults with the honor-code office after investigations were completed.
One is Arkansas.
And, as a result, Gov. Gary Herbert’s refusal to comply with the 2003 law cost Utah more than $420,000 in Justice Department grants since 2014.
Herbert wrote to the DOJ in May 2014, outlining his objections to PREA.
While he supports the law’s intent, Herbert said, he refused to implement some requirements “because they are not sound policy and in some circumstances undermine our efforts to eliminate prison rape.”
One example of unsound policy, according to Herbert — a requirement for officers to announce themselves upon entering a unit containing inmates of the opposite gender.
Herbert said that would allow inmates to hide sexual assaults already in progress and put the officers at risk.
So, governor, are you saying it’s better for an officer to stumble upon an assault and try to subdue a desperate attacker?
Are you saying it’s better to let an assault continue until an officer sees it, when the announcement of an officer’s arrival could immediately stop a rape?
Are you saying Utah corrections officers aren’t trained to recognize the signs of sexual assault and inmates could easily conceal evidence of a violent attack?
Herbert also objected to the PREA audit program as costly and time-consuming.
Would those audits help Utah prisons respond more effectively to sexual assaults? Would they help the public assess the performance of the Utah Department of Corrections?
Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says they would.
"What advocates understand is that sexual violence is never a punishment for any crime," Bitton told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Would the cost of the audits been offset by the state’s $422,000 in lost Justice Department grants? The DOJ withheld more than $146,000 in corrections, law enforcement, juvenile justice and women’s programs in 2016, The Trib reported. That’s on top of nearly $135,000 in 2015 and more than $141,000 in 2014.
In a state that cannot find room for prisoners in its state mental hospital and fails to adequately fund its public defender system, an extra $422,000 would’ve helped save lives and protect the rights of indigent Utahns.
Herbert’s spokeswoman, Kirsten Rappleye, said in an email to The Trib that the governor still maintains his 2014 position on PREA.
If so, it’s now up to Herbert to demonstrate how his approach does a better job of protecting prisoners than the federal guidelines adopted by 48 other states; it’s up to Herbert to explain how refusing to announce the arrival of officers in a unit with inmates of the opposite gender is worth $422,000 — and counting.
And if he can’t, it’s time for Utah to end its holdout on PREA.