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Berkshire Community College Examines Sexual Assault

A map of Berkshire Community College's main campus in Pittsfield.
Jim Levulis

Berkshire Community College held a forum about sexual assault on college campuses this week. It featured a panel of speakers involved in the issue regionally.Roughly 50 people attended the forum, which featured a screening of the documentary The Hunting Ground about sexual assault on college campuses. BCC Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Kelly Kemp, a former chief district court prosecutor with the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, was one of the panelists. Kemp says supportive networks for sexual assault victims have grown over her 25 years in criminal justice.

“Having victim advocates work with the prosecutors as well,” Kemp said. “I think it’s attitudinal more than anything. Previously before the law was changed several years ago, a victim’s prior sexual history could actually be used to impeach her when she testified at trial. Now that is not the case. That cannot be used against a victim when they’re being cross examined about their allegation.”

Kemp says bringing up sexual history could have a chilling effect on a person’s willingness to come forward about a potential assault. The Hunting Ground cited statistics claiming that more than 16 percent of college women are sexually assaulted, but only 12 percent report the attack. Some of the documentary’s statistics have been challenged, but in 2014 the White House released similar estimates. The film argues that colleges and universities have financial interests in underreporting or suppressing knowledge of sexual assaults because it could hurt a school’s reputation. Kemp says in some cases, area public law enforcement is not made aware of an alleged assault.

“I think a lot of times unfortunately if survivors are not counseled in the proper way they are led to believe that somehow the police or the prosecutor’s office will know about this or a report will be made,” Kemp said. “But that’s not the state of the law. That’s not what usually happens. They are two independent systems.” 

BCC’s director of security and safety David Lesure outlined the college’s protocol when a student reports an assault.

“We go through the Title IX process,” Lesure said. “We always encourage people to follow it up with law enforcement. However there are two separate entities. The college has the duty and the right to protect the students here on a campus. But a student may not want that to go any further than what happens in their educational environment.”

Passed in 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational activities, which can include sexual assault. In October 2015, Massachusetts designated Berkshire Medical Center as the 28th sexual abuse response facility in the state. When a person who claims to be a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault comes to BMC, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, also known as a SANE nurse, will respond. Mary Walz-Watson is the regional coordinator of Western Massachusetts for SANE nurses. She says a SANE exam is a free 17-step process that can take four hours.

“They don’t have to care for anybody else at the hospital,” Walz-Watson said. “I walk into a site. I put my blinders on. I have one patient to care for. We get them through that whole process knowing what to do for medications, follow-up, contacting rape crisis and making sure they come out with us. We collect anything from clothing to history. We do a quick physical on the person, document any injuries that may be there and collect the history of what they tell us.”

That evidence and report can be used in the legal process. The region’s SANE nurses also work with Pittsfield’s Elizabeth Freeman Center to assist victims. In 2014, the Center served more than 3,000 survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Berkshire County. Jean Clarke Mitchell is the group’s director of clinical services.

“There are effects of sexual assault and usually people can benefit from as soon as you can provide an intervention to reduce the sense of shame, victimization and fear – all the stuff that goes along with being sexually assaulted,” Clarke Mitchell said. “We’re there to support them through. There is no limit to our service. We will work with someone as long as they feel the need and we will work with their families as well.”

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