This semester has seen students receiving multiple emails from the Virginia Tech Police Department on reported sexual assaults that occurred on campus. Many students have raised concerns on social media about the language of the police alerts.
One example of language that received criticism is the term “forcible fondling,” which was used in two emails sent out Sept. 5 and Sept. 11, based on reports made by students. The term, however, has a specific definition in the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act which VTPD follows when it releases crime alerts.
The information is released to students and their families in accordance with the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to report crimes or potential threats on or near campuses in a timely manner. This ensures transparency and timely warnings for the safety and well-being of students.
“The Clery Act, when you look at it, has four defined sex offenses that fall under it, and those are rape, fondling, incest and statuatory rape,” said Virginia Tech Deputy Chief of Police and Assistant Director of Security Tony Haga. “What we do is look at the facts of the case as it was reported to us and determine which of those it falls under.”
Despite this, the wording of alerts may be altered if VTPD receives a suggestion to modify them, according to Haga.
“We’re following federal guidance, but we can change the terminology, and we have, over the years,” Haga said. “We have edited and modified our crime alerts over the years based on conversations that we’ve had with advocacy groups and individuals that may respond to our alerts, and sometimes they offer some really good suggestions, and we try to accommodate those when we can.”
A recent example of this can be seen from content warnings being added to the subject line of the emails from VTPD, warning students of the sensitive nature of the alerts. This was a suggestion proposed by the United Feminist Movement at Virginia Tech.
“UFM asked for (a content warning to be added) because we believe there is a level of downplaying the overall seriousness of what has taken place associated with referring to it as ‘forcible fondling’ rather than what it is, which is sexual assault,” said President of the United Feminist Movement at Virginia Tech Linsi Goodin. “While we understand that using this wording is required by the Title IX guidelines, referring to the event that has taken place can and should be referred to as both. Also, by adding a content warning, it assists in preventing others from experiencing potential triggers as these emails can be startling.”
The emails themselves contained information about the facts of the incident, as well as background on the Clery Act and hotlines that are available to students if they wish to report a crime.
“I think it’s great that they added information about who we can contact on the emails, and I think Virginia Tech handled it well,” said freshman public health health major Kayla Mbanzendore. “It’s good that they never said who it happened to but did tell us what dormitory it was in, and that’s a good thing so you know what’s happening around you. It also leads you to check on your friends. I think it’s more of the prevention and awareness that needs to be improved.”
Even while the alerts are meant to be timely, reports can still be made to VTPD much later, with some limitations.
“It is never too late to report something, but there is a caveat to that,” Haga said. “If it is a misdemeanor offense, there is a statute of limitations that applies, but under felony offenses, there is none. So no, it is never too late to report an incident.”