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Forum covers drinking, date rape

Megan O'Neil | Monday, January 30, 2006

Security investigator Patty Rolens stood on stage in O’Laughlin Auditorium Sunday night and asked her audience members – all of whom were given a drink spike detector when they entered the evening’s event – how many had highlighter marks on their devices. Roughly one-fourth of the audience rose to its feet.

“Twenty-five percent of college women have been the victim of rape,” Rolens said. “That is one in every four of you that will be a victim someday.”

Rolens’ effort to make an abstract statistic a visual reality was just the beginning of “Wasted and Wounded: Sex, Alcohol and You,” an event that brought sexual assault experts from the St. Joseph County Family Violence and Special Victims Unit, the South Bend Police Department and Sex Offense Services among others to Saint Mary’s to discuss rape and how to avoid becoming a victim.

Brent Hemmerlein, commander of the St. Joseph County Family Violence and Special Victims Unit, said he had 44 cases of sexual assault last year, and estimated 15 of those cases involved students at Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, IUSB and Bethel.

A perpetrator of sexual assault is rarely a stranger, Hemmerlein said. In fact, he estimated that 85-90 percent of the cases he has worked can be traced back to an acquaintance or friend of the victim.

“It may be someone you least expect,” Hemmerlein said. “It may be someone you would never believe would physically attack you.”

Alcohol consumption can play a role in increasing the risk of becoming a victim of sexual assault, Hemmerlein said. Women who have had several drinks can lose their inhibitions and also their judgment.

The level of intoxication can also be detrimental to piecing together the facts of an incident and subsequently building a case, Hemmerlein said. If a victim is so drunk she cannot remember the name of the person she was with or where the assault took place it can be difficult for prosecutors to pursue her attacker.

“It is not a pleasant situation to sit with a victim and family and to tell them there is little that we can do when the real desire is to go after someone like that and lock them up for a long time,” Hemmerlein said.

St. Joseph County chief deputy prosecutor Kenneth Cotter reemphasized Hemmerlein’s warning that a sexual assailant is not the stereotypical creepy man in a trench coat and dark glasses.

“What’s a rapist look like? Anybody?” Cotter asked the audience. “It can look like me, it can look like Brent, it can look like your father, it can look like your brother, it can look like your boyfriend.”

Cotter offered the audience statistics stating that 67 percent of victims are raped by someone they know. Further, only three percent involve a gun and six percent involve a knife, he said.

“Rapes don’t occur when someone flashes a gun,” Cotter said. “Rapes occur when someone decides they want control.”

A woman who has been the victim of a sexual assault needs to be examined at a hospital so that physical evidence, such as DNA, can be collected and used to prosecute the assailant, Cotter said.

“If you are assaulted … you go to the hospital,” Cotter said. “Don’t wait until two days later. You can decide later on if you want to cooperate, you can decide later on if you want to pursue it. We need that evidence now.”

Rape victims are often embarrassed to discuss incidents in detail, Cotter said, especially if they feel they might somehow be at fault. Women sometimes hesitate to say whether they went home with their assailant or whether they permitted him to kiss them prior to the rape.

It is crucial that a victim tell investigators exactly what happened leading up to the assault, Cotter said, so they know the whole story and the victim can keep her credibility in the eyes of the jurists.

Sgt. Bill Kraus of the South Bend Police Department warned the audience about the dangers of drinking and driving and showed images of two vehicles that had been involved in alcohol-related incidents. One was that of a Saint Mary’s student who struck and killed a man during a Notre Dame football game weekend. The other was a vehicle that burst into flames after rolling over – killing its 18- and 19-year-old female occupants.

“One of the hardest things is to knock on that door and tell somebody you’re not coming home,” Kraus said. “I don’t want to do it, I have done it too many times. I know I am going to have to do it again before the year is over.”

At the end of the event Rolens, who said she herself was a victim of sexual assault at 14, encouraged students to turn to the resources available on campus in case of a sexual assault. She explained why it is important for victims to notify campus security and local officials.

“It is something other people need to know,” Rolens said. “If it was a date rape type of situation, if it [was] someone from here in town, there is going to be someone else who is going to be a victim.”