February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

U-M official: Students in assault investigations have right to privacy

The director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan has applauded the university’s decision not to provide information or confirm sexual misconduct allegations involving former football player Brendan Gibbons, or any other student misconduct matter.

“The unintended chilling consequence of publicly sharing student information may mean fewer reports and less safety for everyone,” Holly Rider-Milkovich, SAPAC director, wrote in a letter to The Detroit News that was published online Tuesday.

“Students involved in a sexual misconduct investigation may choose to share information with whomever they choose. They have the right to decide whether and if they share the information of an investigation outcome with anyone. We will not usurp our students’ ability to make decisions about sharing their experience by providing that information to the public — even when it would silence some critics who believe they have a right to know information that does not belong to them.”

Rider-Milkovich’s letter arrived Monday evening, the same day The News published a story linked to Gibbons, who was expelled in December for a violation of the university’s sexual misconduct policy, stemming from an alleged incident in 2009.

According to police reports, the alleged victim said she was raped by Gibbons, a freshman kicker on the U-M football team, during a fraternity party. Gibbons told police the sex was consensual. He was not charged and continued to play football for four years.

Gibbons’ expulsion has led to scores of local and national media reports, including some who have questioned why he wasn’t disciplined until four years after the alleged incident.

Rider-Milkovich noted that reports of sexual misconduct have increased dramatically at U-M but she is concerned others don’t feel comfortable reporting incidents, for fear of their privacy being invaded.

“I have been troubled by a recent trend of survivors who tell me they are reluctant to pursue either institutional or law enforcement redress for the harms they experienced because they did not want the painful, emotionally devastating details of their victimization shared on a public website for anyone to read and speculate upon,” Rider-Milkovich wrote. “They did not want to be the person who is talked about in class, or their residence halls, or coffee shops. And who would blame them? It’s hard enough to gather the courage to share your story with anyone. For us to make it any harder is unconscionable.”

The News’ story Monday examined Douglas Smith, a former U-M pathologist turned whistle-blower who was among the loudest voices demanding transparency from the university and justice for the alleged victim in the 2009 incident. The profile of Smith, whose contract was not renewed at U-M, was accompanied by a story highlighting the details of the alleged incident. The News also published a redacted police report on its website.

The story garnered more than 150 online comments.

“This is a new low for U-M,” wrote Dave Kirkpatrick of Northvillle. “U-M has proven on this specific case that they lack an element of fundamental character and integrity as an institution ... A crime occurred, and it was covered up and buried to protect the football program.”

But Rick Hawkins of Chelsea wrote: “The bottom line is there is no conspiracy. There is no cover up. This is a case that was handled by the proper authorities long ago and we need to let it go.”

Rider-Milkovich said universities must be publicly accountable for how they deal with sexual misconduct matters, but it must not be undermined by transparency that opens up individual experiences to public judgment.

“We need to demonstrate to students, faculty and staff, parents and alumni and to our greater community that our policies are being consistently and fairly applied in every instance and that those who commit sexual misconduct are subject to sanctions that are effective and appropriate to their behavior,” Rider-Milkovich wrote.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com
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