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USF sees increase in reported on-campus rapes; victims see little justice

University of South Florida student leader Felicia D’Abbieri, left, leads a discussion while Keirsten Sekeres, 17, listens during orientation in Tampa on Thursday. Each freshman must take a three-hour online course about alcohol abuse and sexual assault.

LARA CERRI | Times

University of South Florida student leader Felicia D’Abbieri, left, leads a discussion while Keirsten Sekeres, 17, listens during orientation in Tampa on Thursday. Each freshman must take a three-hour online course about alcohol abuse and sexual assault.

TAMPA — One student said she was raped by a friend in her dorm room, another after a party across the hall.

A woman reported that a man she was dating sexually degraded her at a fraternity house. Another woke up to find her roommate's friend having sex with her.

Last year, seven people reported being sexually assaulted on the University of South Florida's campus. That's the most in any year since 2000, and more than three times as many as in a typical year.

University officials say the increase may be misleading. On a campus with about 40,000 students, experts say, hundreds of women are likely sexually assaulted each year, with the vast majority unreported.

Nanci Newton, director of USF's victim advocacy program, considers the increase a "triumph" of sorts. She says it means more people are stepping forward, which is a sign of a changing tide.

But if the assaults — all acquaintance rapes — did occur as reported, the victims are not getting justice.

Of the seven reported cases, only two resulted in arrests.

• • •

In April, a student reported that a friend she had invited over for a study session raped her in her dorm room.

She said "no," she told police, but the 20-year-old man replied, "I'm stubborn," and "You know this is going to happen," a police report states.

Hillsborough prosecutor Carol Hooper reviewed the case. She concluded the office couldn't file charges because there wasn't sufficient evidence.

In August, a freshman said she was raped after a party by two men who took the sleepy woman back to her room.

Afterward, she ran for help, and police searched the room for evidence. She gave them the names of the men she said attacked her, and police collected their DNA.

But prosecutors said proving a lack of consent beyond a reasonable doubt would be difficult.

Hearing that, the victim decided she wasn't interested in going forward.

Victim advocate Newton says a trial can be traumatic for some.

In September, a woman reported an assault she said occurred two years earlier. She had been encouraged by USF's Take Back the Night Event and decided to go to police with her story.

She was having oral sex with a fraternity member she was dating when she said she wanted to stop, she reported. He complied but stood over her and performed a degrading sexual act, a police report states.

At the end, he threw glitter in the woman's face. That's when the door opened, revealing several fraternity members.

The man told police what he did, and that he wrote about it on urbandictionary.com. He told the officer it was something he had always wanted to do, the report states.

Authorities didn't charge him.

They noted that the statute of limitations had run out for the crime of simple battery. And after a review with prosecutors, they decided not to file a sexual battery charge.

• • •

There are a lot of reasons sexual assaults are difficult to prosecute. Sometimes, even a signed confession isn't enough.

Prosecutors are not allowed to admit confessions into evidence unless they can independently prove a crime occurred, said Mike Sinacore, felony bureau chief for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

That can be hard when it comes to acquaintance rapes, when a case often boils down to the question of consent and prosecutors carry the burden of proof.

Also, most college rapes involve alcohol, said Rita Peters, head of the sex crimes division. That clouds memories and can prompt jury members to find cause for doubt, she said.

In her decades as a victim advocate, Newton has learned that juries often blame women for the bad things that happen to them when they're drunk.

"Nobody understands the ruinous impact it has on the victim," she said. "She was defenseless, helpless."

• • •

USF officials say they can't control the outcome of cases. Instead, they focus on education, prevention and helping victims after an assault.

At freshman orientation Thursday, a victim advocate told a room full of students that a drunken person does not have the legal ability to give consent.

Each freshman must take a three-hour online course about alcohol abuse and sexual assault. And most listen to a presentation on the topic in their required freshman English course.

On campus, residential assistants work to build a community that watches out for each other, said Ana Hernandez, dean of housing and residential education. And after students report assaults, they are always offered the aid of a victim's advocate.

Even if the accused never faces any charges, USF can take its own action. The cases usually go through a student conduct hearing, and the offender may be suspended, sometimes indefinitely.

"It's about ensuring the safety and well-being of all of us in our community," said Kevin Banks, dean of students. "And it's about our values. Threatening people, injuring people, are things we just don't tolerate."

In two of the seven cases, the accused men were arrested.

Herron Gaston, 23, is accused of sexually battering a 17-year-old male he mentored in USF's Upward Bound program. He has pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for July 25.

Another man, Samuel Cesaire, 24, pleaded guilty to raping his roommate's friend while she slept in her dorm room bed.

He had waited for the woman to fall asleep, he told police. He said he thought that because she didn't wake up and say "stop," it was okay to continue.

He took a plea deal offered by the State Attorney's Office: 10 years of probation, no jail time.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

. FAST FACTS

Resources for victims of sexual assault

• To report a sexual assault to law enforcement, call 911.

• USF Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention: (813) 974-5757, available after-hours through the USF Police Department: (813) 974-2628.

• The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay: 2-1-1 or (813) 964-1964.

USF sees increase in reported on-campus rapes; victims see little justice 06/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2011 9:04am]

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