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Summit to prevent campus sexual assault kicks off in St. Paul

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When a sexual assault happens on a college campus, the victim's report can trigger simultaneous investigations: One by the institution and another by police. 

Federal law requires schools to investigate, but gives little guidance beyond that. And college administrators have trouble working the highly emotional process in with their regular duties, leaving some victims frustrated.  

On Thursday, the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault kicks off a two-day summit at Metro State University in St. Paul — the first of its kind in the state — to help schools understand new and existing laws, update policies and improve prevention efforts. 

Madeline Wilson said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at St. Olaf College a year ago last spring. In September, she went into the dean's office to file a complaint against him. Officials at the college in Northfield opened an investigation.

"When I left I just felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my chest," she said. "I was like 'alright, now I can carry on.' And I really trusted them to do it well."

Soon, though, that weight returned. She said the investigation and the school administrators overseeing it failed in many ways.

Through a complicated process that spanned months and included two investigations, Wilson said there was finally closure after the school looked into the other student hiring a private investigator during the process.

Through it all, Wilson said she felt the administrators who help with sexual assault issues didn't seem to understand the school's policies and the situation.

"I think one major issue is that the people who are deciding these cases need more training."

Wilson protested those policies and the lack of training along with several fellow students. She started a blog and hired an attorney. 

The school responded to the protests by starting a working group to examine how St. Olaf handles sexual assaults. 

The college would not directly discuss Wilson's case.

One of the members of the working group is Carl Crosby Lehmann, who is now the school's general counsel. He spoke about how students reacted.

"There was an obvious concern about trust with the process and there was an interest in doing what could be done to improve the process while assuring people that came forward that their matters would be handled with transparency, accountability, dignity — all the things you would expect of a good process," Lehmann said. 

St. Olaf is one of many schools trying to re-evaluate its response when rape is reported.

Federal laws have consistently changed, and the rates of reporting sexual assault have  gone up. According to federal government data, in 2014 there were 162 reported sex offenses on college campuses in Minnesota, up from 141 in 2012.

Under federal law, when a sexual assault is reported on campus, a school has to respond. Schools should inform students of their right to pursue criminal investigations, as well as on-campus investigations. Providing counseling and support for victims, and the accused, are also a key components.

It is a complicated web of federal laws, state laws and school policy. Sometimes, especially at smaller schools, those responsibilities fall to administrators who juggle other roles on campus. 

"If you think about it, they're tasked with this enormous obligation, responsibility around sexual violence on campus," said Leah Lutz with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "So I found that most people actually really care and want to do the right thing by the campus, by the student."

Lutz said empathy and experience are helpful in these positions, as well as good policies.

"If we think that we're going to train our way out of this, we're just wrong. Training has to be a part of it, but accountability has to be a part of it."

Even at the University of Minnesota, which has staff investigators and a sexual assault resource center, administrators are constantly re-evaluating how the U deals with rape on campus.

Kim Hewitt, the U's Title IX coordinator, said that while the federal civil rights statutes gives some guidance, "there doesn't seem to be a particular process that has been sanctioned as the one that would guarantee you're not going to get in trouble, which is kind of challenge for universities."