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ISSUE 118 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/1/2004

Group reviews past assaults: Sex offenders release coincides with changes

By Jean Mullins
News Editor

Friday, October 1, 2004

Two weeks ago, Kurt Jennings was released from prison and listed as a level 2 sex offender. While he does not live in Northfield, he still lives in Rice County.

Jennings, a former employee of Bon Appétit, was convicted of a felony count of attempted criminal sexul conduct in the second degree, a felony count of burglary in the second degree and a felony count of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree on April 6, 2001. All of the incidents that he was charged with took place on campus against St. Olaf community members  two students and an area coordinator.

Jenningss case, while serious, is not the only sexual assault to take place on campus.

St. Olaf has been involved in its response to sexual assault over the last few years and hopes to encourage more students to report cases of sexual assault and get help.

During the 2002-2003 school year, St. Olaf put together a committee to review the sexual assault and harassment policy. The committee made several changes to the policy and made it available for students; the policy now outlines exactly what the college would do with a reported sexual assault or incidence of harassment.

"Before the policy came out, it was an unknown for students," Pamela McDowell, director of residence life, said. She mentioned that students would be able, because of increased access to the policy, to know exactly what process they would go through when reporting a sexual assault.

The federal government gives states grants to put together programs to help prevent violence against women; the individual states choose how to use that money. The state of Minnesota delegates money to each county to decide how to respond to adolescent or adult sex crimes within that county. Each county has different demographics, making a uniform state policy on sexual assault and sex crimes impractical.

The Sexual Violence Justice Institute (SVJI) is a state-wide group dedicated to changing the way victims approach the criminal justice system. According to the SVJI, only 16 to 20 percent of victims turn to the criminal justice system after they have been sexually assaulted. This organization hopes to change that.

St. Olaf is also becoming part of a countywide resource network that will help victims of sexual assault.

In Rice County, the Sexual Assault Multidisciplinary Action Response Team (SMART) has started a two to three year process of studying current resouces and response policy and evaluating what needs to change. Over the next eight to nine months, McDowell and the SVJI will be reviewing all the county resources available and the current community responses to determine what is missing.

Then, the group will follow up with victims and prepare procedures to accommodate what things the group learns.

"We want to create a much more victim-centered response," McDowell said. "We want to give them options, not make decisions for them."

The group consists of representatives from Carleton College, McDowell representing St. Olaf, and other local high schools and colleges in the county, the prosecutors office, two area hospitals, the police, parole officers, and local advocate groups, among which the Hope Center of Faribault is the biggest.

"All these people can access resources all over the county, and everybody will be on the same page," McDowell said.

St. Olaf has its own policy spelled out in The Book. Students were also provided with the St. Olaf policy on sexual assault and harassment and crime statistics from the last few years in the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, also know as the Clery Act, by email on Sept. 22. The policy states that victims do not have to report sexual crimes to the college or to the police.

However, reports given to Public Safety on campus are not confidential.

"We are bound to investigate," Fred Behr, director of Public Safety, said.

Students accused of sexual assault will be investigated by the school to determine whether the student should be allowed to remain in the residence hall or on campus, or suspended and removed from campus completely. If the case is serious enough, the situation may be reported to the police.

St. Olaf has its own advocate group, the Sexual Assault Resource Network (SARN). SARN has advocates, trained by the Hope Center, on call from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week. SARN promises confidentiality for all victims that come forward.

"Our basic job is to give them the options and make sure they know we are here to help them through every step of the way," said April Carlson 05, co-coordinator of SARN.

McDowell recalls the attacks by Jennings as a wake up call for St. Olaf students. The manhunt following the final attack on May 11, 2000 was a traumatic incident for all students who witnessed it. McDowell said that students were suddenly aware that there are people in the community who mean others harm; students began looking out for each other. "It was a really good awareness thing," McDowell said.

Behr and the college were informed of Jennings release through connections with the police department. Public Safety and the faculty and staff of St. Olaf will also be informed and given a description.

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