May 7, 2011 9:30 AM   Subscribe

My university has a habit of referring to sexual assault as "forcible touching," and after this morning's email report of an attempted rape as, again, "forcible touching," I've reached my outrage limit. Am I right to be upset about this or is it a legal definition that I'm just not understanding?

If I'm justified, what type of University administrator should I contact with my complaint? The campus police, dean of students...?

I drafted the following email, but I'd appreciate feedback on the topic before I decide whether to send it.

Over my years at this school, I've woken up various mornings to reports of crimes on campus. While I'm glad that the administration notifies the student body of ongoing investigations, I've always been appalled by the use of the phrase "forcible touching," which reads as a euphemism for "sexual assault." The victims of such an assault have a private choice to make in who they want to tell and how they want to frame the event in their own minds, but the University has a responsibility to communicate clearly and honestly with its students. The school must be willing to strongly condemn these acts in language that makes it clear to future victims that their reports will be treated seriously, and to potential assailants that they will be fully persecuted for sexual assault.

From the description we received, the latest incident early this morning was clearly attempted rape, and it should be expressed to the student body as such. When the school minimizes such a dangerous event, it sends a message that it does not take student safety seriously. This is a serious offense and should be treated by the community as such. "Forcible touching" does not carry the same weight to most students' minds as sexual assault or attempted rape, and this is the sort of event that we should not be glossing over.

I fully believe that the campus police force is doing its very best to increase the safety of the community, but their efforts should not be stymied by the University's desire to keep their reported crime statistics down.
posted by you're a kitty! to Law & Government (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This email feels like a letter to the editor of the student and local paper.
posted by dflemingecon at 9:31 AM on May 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Are you in New York? I googled "forcible touching" and all the first results were for NY state.

Even if you're not, I'd bet that it is some sort of legal category and that the U spent a long time figuring out how to frame it/phrase it.
posted by k8t at 9:37 AM on May 7, 2011

Yep, upstate NY. I thought that might be the case.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2011

Your letter reads very well.

Send it to all of the above.

And then, when nothing changes, memail me if you want advice on creating a campaign to get it changed. You have some options --too many to list here.

I like your letter very much.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:39 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

The university is using a legal term that describes the crime for which the suspect is being charged. New York is the only place where this is the case; see Penal Law 130.52.
posted by fireoyster at 9:39 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

NY statute:
ยง 130.52 Forcible touching.
A person is guilty of forcible touching when such person
intentionally, and for no legitimate purpose, forcibly touches the
sexual or other intimate parts of another person for the purpose of
degrading or abusing such person; or for the purpose of gratifying the
actor's sexual desire.
For the purposes of this section, forcible touching includes
squeezing, grabbing or pinching.
Forcible touching is a class A misdemeanor.
Still, I don't think you're wrong to be upset. I don't see this as a campus police issue, but certainly contact the dean of students. I also agree with the idea that this could be a letter to the editor.

(Also, do you mean "prosecute" rather than "persecute"?)
posted by J. Wilson at 9:42 AM on May 7, 2011

Do you mean "prosecute" rather than "persecute"?

I do, thanks for catching that!

Thanks to you all for the information. It seems that the university is correct according to state law, and the state law is what's questionable...
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:46 AM on May 7, 2011

If you live in the US you should educate yourself on the Clery Act, which is the law which requires and regulates the reporting of crimes by universities. Universities do not report crimes because they are kind or concerned for your safety; it's the law. Forcible touching (actually forcible fondling) IS a category of crimes explicitly mentioned by the Clery Act guidelines (pdf). It is one of four types of forcible sex offenses, including rape ("carnal knowledge"), sodomy (oral or anal), assault with an object (penetration) or fondling ("the touching of the private body parts of another person for sexual gratification").

I am not sure exactly what you mean by attempted rape. The Clery Act doesn't distinguish between attempted and completed crimes for reporting purposes, but I think some "attempted rapes" would be legally classified as forcibly touching if they were stopped before things escalated beyond a certain point.

If after studying these definitions the university is still in the wrong, then you should certainly name-drop the Clery Act, which has been in the news recently due to the Office of Civil Rights Title IX investigation against Yale. First I would write to the sender of the original email to give him/her an opportunity to clarify the situation. If unsatisfactory then write to the dean of students, the provost, the general counsel, the campus women's group, and the official Title IX coordinator.
posted by acidic at 9:49 AM on May 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

You might also call or visit the news editor of the campus paper to talk about this issue. I think she or he would probably be very interested in researching and publishing a story about this.
posted by brina at 9:52 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I wouldn't make this out to be a problem with the university. They probably have to be very careful about how they word things.

Is there's a women's center on campus? I suspect you might find some like-minded folks there who'd be willing to approach this at a larger, state level.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:54 AM on May 7, 2011

New York state has pretty detailed Sexual Offense penal laws, as detailed here. The fact that Forcible Touching is a misdemeanor is ridiculous, IMO, but the security alert will be based on whatever the police report says. (The university where I work does the same thing.)

Now, I don't know what the police response to sexual assault is like at your school; who knows, maybe some officers are reporting every sexual assault as forcible touching (at one point my school had to designate a specific officer to respond to sexual assault complaints because some of the others were making the situations worse).

As has been said upthread, your campus women's center would be the place to get more information. Also, and you probably know this already, unless your school is exceptional about reporting, there are LOTS more sexual assaults happening than you're hearing about, anyway. Campus alerts are great for raising awareness, but having spent many years in campus sexual assault prevention, they mostly leads people to believe that stranger rape is the only kind that exists.
posted by camyram at 10:32 AM on May 7, 2011

This email feels like a letter to the editor of the student and local paper.

This is a good point. Letters to administrators should be much much shorter (they have big inboxes) and you should have shorter, more actionable sentences. Cut out the compliments ("I fully believe that the campus police force is doing its very best") and anything that is not actionable. Excise irrelevant bits ("The victims of such an assault have a private choice to make in who they want to tell and how they want to frame the event in their own minds"... duh).

Your letter needs less of your opinion, more "you are ILLEGAL so fix this now" with a healthy dose of implicit "...OR ELSE". In my experience, school administrators respond much better under pressure. It's also better to give personal examples rather than general statements about "most students". For example, "My bff was raped, but she doesn't want to report it because she assumes the school won't take it seriously."

For what it's worth, your argument did not really convince me, because in my experience most people focus on the details of a crime rather than its legal definition when they're scanning those police report emails.
posted by acidic at 10:46 AM on May 7, 2011

you're a kitty, I just wanted to say that I know the university in question, and I was also surprised that what seemed to clearly be a case of attempted rape was called forcible touching by the university. This is especially in light of previous crimes being called that, which were more in the nature of purse snatching rather than anything quite as serious as this morning's incident. I figured it was some sort of legal thing though, but I just wanted to say that I completely sympathize.
posted by peacheater at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2011

What exactly is it you want them to do differently in the future? You should clearly state that in your letter.
posted by Exchequer at 12:12 PM on May 7, 2011

I don't know the incident in question, but from my read, the statute quoted by J Wilson would seem to describe groping. If what was alleged was attempted rape, the university's use of this term most certainly appears to be an attempt to minimize it. Were I writing your complaint letter (and good for you for taking it up!), I would confront the university for weaseling and demand more truthful reporting in future.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 12:50 PM on May 7, 2011

It does not sound like attempted rape fits into the definition of forcible touching as per 130.52.
The uni is still glossing things over if they categorize an attempted rape as forcible touching, which does seem to be a lesser crime
posted by SLC Mom at 12:55 PM on May 7, 2011

What exactly is it you want them to do differently in the future? You should clearly state that in your letter.

This is important. If you are campaigning for change, you should be specific about what the administration should do differently. One of two things will happen. Either the administration will look at your suggestion and adopt some form of it, or, when you are campaigning in the future, can point to how you asked for (reasonable request) and they have not taken action.

A more vague ''we don`t agree with this'' is less likely to prompt action.
posted by Nightman at 1:33 PM on May 7, 2011

You're right to be offended. The legal term for what happened is inapplicable until the offender is charged and convicted. This is like saying "a first degree manslaughter occurred last night."
posted by moammargaret at 2:57 PM on May 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is like saying "a first degree manslaughter occurred last night."

Kind of depends on where is being reported. In a "police blotter" section, it is typical to describe crimes with the terms used in the official reports and charging documents.
posted by Bokononist at 6:37 PM on May 7, 2011

You're right to be offended. The legal term for what happened is inapplicable until the offender is charged and convicted.

The legal terms are usually employed in incident reports and arrest records too, not least to ensure that cases don't fall apart at trial due to needless ambiguity.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:16 PM on May 7, 2011

Do NOT assume that the University is acting properly just because Section 52 of the Penal Code uses that term. It is only one of several sections which provide for different penalties for different sex offenses. Forcible touching is only one of them. Others are "criminal sexual acts" of different degrees, and "sexual abuse" of different degrees.

By using the terminology of the least weighty of the recognized offenses, I think they are minimzing their seriousness.
posted by megatherium at 4:55 AM on May 8, 2011

I have the same email in my inbox.

I think it's worth an email to the head of campus police to ask why they chose that term over "attempted rape"; aside from the legal definition posted above, I'm not finding a corresponding definition of "attempted rape" in the NYS penal code, so that's probably not what the person was charged with. The police's answer would give you something useful to work with, I expect.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:34 PM on May 8, 2011

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