By Jessica Gervais and Sophia Turgeon, Contributing writers
Most students that attend UMF are not aware that it is one of three schools in the UMaine system that have actual police departments as a part of their campus safety force. According to a 2019 survey released by the Association of American Universities (AAU), there is a 13% rate of nonconsensual sexual contact at colleges. This percentage is alarming.
Haley Sewell, sophomore at UMF, was at the Halloween dance hosted by the ACE club on 22 October with a large group when she witnessed an incident involving sexual misconduct. According to Sewell, she had been dancing with her group of friends in a circle when she noticed an individual had joined her group and began dancing inappropriately, touching other friends in the group. “Everything was fine at first, but then the student started getting out of hand,” Sewell said.
This incident went on for some time, even when Sewell was in smaller groups. The harasser would leave, but always return to make the girls uncomfortable. Moreover, they had made it obvious that no one was interested in the individual, but still, after all of this, the harassment persisted.
“We thought that he’d finally gotten the hint that he was making us uncomfortable, but he came back a little while later,” Sewell stated. “This time he was more aggressive in his approach. He continued to dance towards one of my friends, and this time reached out to grab her hips.”
Once this was happening, Sewell began looking out for her group of friends to make sure they were comfortable, even at times pulling girls away from him. “At one point we stopped for a water and bathroom break, where we heard from at least six other girls that the same student was humping, grinding, and groping girls. One girl even told us that her guy friend had to get between her and the individual and tell him to back off,” Sewell said.
After hearing this, Sewell and her friends decided to tell a chaperone, who was also an officer, exactly what had been happening during the dance. However, once the student was pointed out to the officer, he tried to weave through groups of students as an attempt to get away. Instead of being chased down though, the campus officer informed Sewell and her friends that he was going to back off and not engage. This decision angered the group. Why would one of our own campus officers simply back off and not stop this harassment immediately, they wondered.
After returning to her group of friends, Sewell said the harasser continued to follow her group around throughout the night, even at times targeting her directly. As the night progressed, the group lost contact with each other at times but finally joined back together to leave.
“After we left, we didn’t hear anything about what happened for about a month,” Sewell said.
According to Sergeant Wayne Drake, the department handled the situation correctly. In discussion, Drake said that he had followed the harasser and it was simply “poor bedside manner on the police department’s end.
In an interview with Brock Caton, the Director of Public Safety at UMF and the Police Chief for Farmington, Caton explained that in order for someone to be charged with anything, including sexual assault, there has to be “probable cause”.
“Probable cause” usually includes all elements of the crime in question. If there is “probable cause” present, then there are different ways that various crimes concerning sexual assualt are handled. This matter can sometimes include issuing a criminal summons forcing the person to appear in court and/or be arrested. Upon arrest, they’re transported to the Franklin County Jail to be booked. Once the booking process goes through, the case moves onto bail conditions along with other court proceedings later on. If the case goes as far as trial, the involved parties may be called to court to testify. Although most people bring along someone for support, the system prefers that interviews be done alone. The case being if they bring someone, especially another student along, the other person becomes a witness automatically in the investigation. This means they may be asked to testify in court. However, if the individual doesn’t feel comfortable being interviewed alone, the system will try to arrange the involvement of a Victim Advocate to be present and serve as support.
“… they (a Victim Advocate) will guide the complainant through the criminal justice process, to include assisting them with receiving resources and obtaining a Protection Order, if need be”, said Caton.
Thus, it can be extremely beneficial to have someone from Victim Advocate present for support if desired. If the complainant doesn’t wish for a person from Victim Advocate to be present, there is also the option of an informational brochure that is optionally provided. The brochure additionally provides information for the Victim Advocates just in case. All other witnesses will be interviewed alone in order to get the accurate and independent story version of what occurred in the incident.
For more information about the University of Maine Farmington’s safety department/Campus Police, go to https://www.umf.maine.edu/campus-life/campus-safety/