Q&A with Don Challis & Michelle Johnson

Don Challis is the Assistant Vice President of Safety & Security of South Dakota State University.

Q Are there more sexual assaults occurring on campus this semester?

A I don’t think there are more sexual assaults. There is more reporting. We expected that. We have done a lot of training and a lot of awareness. We want to make sure our process is victim-centered and resource-driven and take care of our victims and hold our suspect accountable. So when we do that, we would be disappointed to spend all this time and money and have no increase in reports, so as we know sexual assault is the most under-reported crime there is. When we see an increase, especially a large increase, we don’t think there has been an increase in activity or sexual assault, but a real increase in reporting and that has been our goal.

Q What would you tell the students who are worried about an increase of danger on campus?

A Fear is a good thing and worry is a good thing. This makes us evaluate our situation and what we’re doing to be safer. I don’t think we are anymore less safe than we have been. We are more aware of the problem and that’s a good thing. 

Q What would you respond to those who have less faith in the system, such as the ‘Letters from Ava’ printed in The Collegian a few weeks ago?

A We are in a much different place now than we were a year-and-a-half ago. We have a whole position now in Title IX that is nothing but training and investigation. One of the feelings that the system was unfair is you didn’t get the outcome you wanted. Doesn’t mean it was a fair process…We have to separate was the process fair’ or ‘was the outcome something less than what I hoped for.’ Not knowing more about the situation that we know, we know it’s a different place now. If this person still feels unprotected or still feels a threat, I would encourage them to go to the Title IX office and make sure they get the resources they may want.

Q How can students be safer or avoid being assaulted on campus?

A I think watch out for each other. That is the whole background behind bystander intervention. We see events that may lead up to sexual assault. It’s up to us to step in and say no this is not going to happen, even when our friend’s are at fault. That’s the hard part saying, ‘No we’re not going to do this.’ I think that there is safety in numbers and we are responsible for each other… As a culture we have to accept the responsibility of doing the right thing and supporting each other. 

Q What are the statuses of the five sexual assaults that were reported and sent out to students as timely warning?

A They are all being investigated. We are required to investigate these at a Title IX level, which is separate from a law enforcement investigation and a student affairs investigation. Michelle Johnson and her staff are required to do an investigation to the extent that they can. Some of these are anonymous and some of these don’t want any investigation. But we have to try anyway because the safety of the campus may be at risk so they are going to do what they can. Sometimes we are limited in what we can do and those cases we make sure the victim has access to all the resources and support he or she may need. Others just want judicial student conduct investigation and others may want law enforcement investigation.

Q But all of these are required to go through the Title IX office?

A Yes… Some may start in Title IX and end up in judicial affairs or faculty or somebody may forward a concern to Title IX. They start in police department and then it goes to Title IX. Everything goes through Title IX. It may not start there, but everything goes through there because we are required to do some investigation.

Q These are rumors going around and fear that this is one person committing these assaults, seeing as several have been located in Jackrabbit Village. Can you respond to that rumor?

A It is not one person. I think we can correlate this to really good trianing. The people in Jackrabbit Village take this very seriously. They brought these things forward. If this were one person, we would be in a different place right now with that one person.

Would that change the fact if students were notified via a timely warning or an emergency notification?

A It may come out as an emergency notification.

Q Many people still believe that timely warnings are not that timely. What would you tell the student body about why they are sent out when they are?

A We don’t always know about it when it happens. Sometimes it happened on a Monday and the person doesn’t want to do any investigations.They just want to let us know it happened. Quite often by Monday or Tuesday we will put [a timely warning] out. Others may not report for two or three weeks and then they want an investigation, so we have to leverage the risk of the community to the harm of the investigations. We are not going to sit on this for very long. Typically, law enforcement has a few days to get their part done before we put out the warning. Yes, I get some feedback saying ‘this is not timely, it happened five days ago,’ but we didn’t know about it until a day ago. We want to make sure we don’t hurt the investigation.

Q Do you have any updates on the sexual assaults as far as investigations go?

A No, I don’t. Some of these are in criminal proceedings while others are in judicial proceedings.

Q Do you believe that Brookings is still America’s safest college town?

A It’s a pretty safe town. I get away from things like “safest,” but it’s a pretty safe town and a pretty safe campus.

Michelle Johnson is the Title IX/EEO Coordinator  at South Dakota State University.

Q What is your job as the Title IX coordinator?

A My job as the Title IX coordinator is to ensure there is gender equity on campus. That’s basically the heart of the Title IX law. Title IX is part of the Civil Rights Act that was amended in 1972 to include Title IX. Gender equity includes harassment and discrimination based on gender, which also encompasses sexual assault and now with the passing of the Violence against Women’s Act it also includes domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. My job is to ensure if there are any other concerns that we address them in a timely and impartial manner and that we monitor the climate. We check patterns of any behaviors.

Q A majority of the timely warnings have taken place in Jackrabbit Village. Is that one of the patterns you look into?

A Part of the reasons the timely warnings is I believe that we are having more education on campus and people understand better who to report to. The timely warnings have been mentioning Jackrabbit Village so one of the things we are doing is looking at if they are occurring more in Jackrabbit Village or do those individuals have more education and know where to report, or do they need more information? We are going to do some specific trainings and conversations with Jackrabbit Village to help ensure that if it is the fact that they don’t have the knowledge and engaging in higher risk behaviors, and then they have the education.

Q What do you mean by higher risk behaviors?

A We do know that higher amounts of alcohol usage can put somebody sometimes a target of sexual assault. That’s not always. Most of the reports of sexual assault we receive deal with alcohol in one manner or another.

Q How does Title IX work with UPD and other campus resources?

A We work together very closely. We have very frequent contact with UPD. If they have a situation reported, they must report it to me and vice versa if it could be a felony.

Q Do all incidents go through the Title IX office?

A Yes, they have to because UPD are agents of South Dakota State University. They are employees of South Dakota State University. They have to report to me allegations of sexual abuse to me just like any other employee has to. The only employees that are exempt to that are the counselors who are working at the Counseling Center. That is an exemption that is provided by law..

Q Has there always been a Title IX coordinator position at SDSU?

A Prior to March of 2014, it was a position that was linked to another position. There was an employee relations specialist and Title IX was an added on duty until it became it’s own position. It’s been growing. We now have a full-time investigator and we have deputies that are full-time employees in other areas but assist with Title IX investigations. 

Q How does the reporting process work?

 A Individuals can report in various ways. They can report directly to my office by calling or emailing. They can report to a third party person who would forward it on. They can talk to any SDSU employee which would include CA’s or even part time employees. All SDSU employees are required this year to receive Title IX training. It’s an online training program similar to the one sent out to students so they know what their duties and responsibilities are and that they have training can help immensely with just helping employees… We do have an anonymous report on the web for individuals. There is also a number [880-0004] that individuals can call if they don’t want to do a web report.

What are some resources on campus that are available for students?

A The dean of student’s office. His name is Sam Jennings and a very great resource for students. The counseling center. In addition to the counseling center there is student health… We also look at if there are any diversity issues. They can go talk to the multicultural issue. There is the veterans affairs office if they are a veteran. There is the International Office. Outside of campus we refer to the Brookings Area Domestic Abuse Shelter and we refer to the Brookings Avera Medical Center. And of course on campus we have UPD.

Q What tips could you provide for students to be safer on campus?

A The only way to ever prevent rape is to stop raping… Males are at a risk too, this is not just a female crime. Some tips that we communicate to students to stay safe is to limit your consumption of alcohol if you’re going to drink at all, and monitor your drinks. Unfortunately date rape drugs are used. I would say that 90 to 95 percent of sexual assaults that are reported to me involve alcohol in one manner or another.  If you’re going to go out and consume alcohol, use the buddy system. Never leave the friend. Always stay with that person that you can know and trust. There is always the blue call boxes on campus. There is the escort service by UPD.

Q Can you define sexual assault?

A Sexual assault is a very broad term. It is unwanted sexual contact and it can be of any nature. It can be somebody walking down the hall and another person swatting them on the butt. It can be touching private areas that individuals didn’t want or welcome it. It can be intercourse.

Q Can you explain consent?

A One of the things that’s important to remember with consent is that no individual that is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol can consent to sexual activity.