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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Editors note: This is part four of an ongoing series on sexual assault survivors. See Friday’s paper for a look into the recovery process of survivors.

Emma Leech bears the weight of the stories she hears.

The University Police detective is one of the first law enforcement officers to respond to a report of a sexual assault, one of the first to speak with the survivor and hear what happened.

Yet after two years and a handful of investigations, Leech still struggles with the raw emotion and frustration of the stories.

But for the survivor, Leech’s presence marks the beginning of a potential path to justice — either through the university or local law enforcement. No case or legal work is the same: They rely on the choice of the survivor and assailant’s status as a student to pave the way.

“It definitely weighs on you by the end of an interview with someone,” Leech said. “It definitely drains you.”

•   •   •

If the assailant is also a UF student, survivors can pursue a student-conduct investigation through the director of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution, Chris Loschiavo, at the Dean of Students Office.

“There’s no way to make reporting about a sexual incident easy, but we try to make it as easy as we can,” he said. “We try to make it judgment-free in terms of coming forward.”

When an on-campus sexual assault occurs, Leech puts on her uniform.

She’s usually accompanied by one of UF’s victim advocates when she arrives at the location of the survivor.

But the survivor is usually alone, the attacker gone. The crimes still linger, though, manifested in both physical and mental

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As the survivor is initially treated for injury, the investigation begins with a conversation.

“We’ll try to get as much initial information as possible,” Leech said, “but if they’re just not in the state of mind where they can deal with an intense interview at that point, I’ll wait a day or two until they have time to process it.”  

The excruciating details, the unanswered questions, the missing pieces — they all take a toll on her as the investigations lead either to arrests or dead ends.

“If you don’t end up finding answers, that’s probably the most stressful, frustrating part of it,” she said.

But the hope for justice is unflinching, as is Leech’s belief in the survivor.

“If someone comes here, and they’re telling me that they were involved in a sexual battery, I’m taking whatever they say as the truth to me,” she said. “I’m not doubting anything they say.”

In addition to a statement, if the survivor wishes to have forensic evidence recorded in a rape kit, a designated nurse will perform the examination.

The survivors will choose whether they want to report assaults to police. If they choose not to report, their test kits stay at UPD in case they wish to report at a later time.

While UPD has received eight reported calls for sexual battery this academic year, it’s unknown how many of those survivors wanted rape kits.

For survivors who do report, police send the kits to a lab in Jacksonville, Florida, where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement analyzes them before sending the results back to UPD.

Currently, eight untested kits sit at UPD, belonging to survivors who chose not to formally report their assaults, said Lt. Mitchal Welsh, who manages the Criminal Investigations Division at the department.

UPD is handling one active case to date, a sexual battery that occurred Sept. 7, Welsh said.

FDLE recently sent UPD the results of that kit, so the department is not waiting on any other kits, a relief considering the extreme backlog many Floridian police departments often face.

“It’s all about power,” Welsh said, “and that power’s been taken from the victim, and we really want to get them some power back.”

•   •   •

The length it takes to complete an investigation can vary.

Sometimes leads dry up, in which case an investigation will be suspended until more evidence can be found, Leech said.

“You just do as much as you can,” she said.

Even if an arrest cannot be made due to an unknown suspect or a lack of evidence, police departments can file a sworn complaint against the suspect and send it to the Office of the State Attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit.

One of about 30 lawyers there reviews the case, takes testimony and makes a decision whether to issue a warrant for the suspect’s arrest, said Bill Cervone, the state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit.

For some survivors, like 21-year-old Brianna DuPree, this process is as cumbersome as it is frustrating.

After the UF public relations junior was sexually assaulted in late February, she went to the Gainesville Police Department with the hopes of seeing her attacker serve jail time.

But almost two months have passed, and DuPree’s attacker is still walking free.

She had a testimony scheduled Friday with an attorney, but it’s been pushed back about two weeks due to backlog at the attorney’s office, she said.

“It makes me kind of feel like maybe I shouldn’t have gone to police,” she said.

Even if an arrest is not made, DuPree said she wants her attacker banned from campus — he violated her privacy, but his record is unsullied.

“He’s not paying for what he did,” she said, “but I feel like I am.”

•   •   •


If DuPree’s attacker had been a student, she could have filed a Title IX report.

When survivors at UF choose to report on a fellow student, they often report to Chris Loschiavo at his office in Peabody Hall.

He is the associate dean of students, the director of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution and the deputy Title IX coordinator for students — titles that represent his work with survivors, students and Title IX.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity.

In past years, the Dean of Students Office has received about 10 to 15 Title IX reports per academic year, which include sexual harassment, stalking and sexual assault.

But in the last couple of years, the number has risen to about 80 to 90 cases per year, Loschiavo said.

So far this academic year, Loschiavo said, 36 sexual assaults have been reported to the Dean of Students Office, all from female students.

Twenty-six of those cases occurred off-campus, he said.

If the student wishes to pursue an investigation into an assault, Loschiavo assigns an investigator to his or her case. The investigator then interviews the survivor, the accused student and all other witnesses.

Loschiavo will eventually receive and review a summary before deciding if the accused student violated the UF Student Conduct Code against sexual assault.

“I think that’s important to keep in mind: The only thing the University of Florida can determine is whether or not someone violated our rules,” he said.  “We can’t determine whether someone committed a crime.”

If he feels a violation did occur, then Loschiavo will send the case to a Title IX hearing.

At the hearing, which occurs at Peabody Hall, the survivor and the accused meet with either a five- to seven-person panel of students and faculty members or with a single administrator from Loschiavo’s office.

Every undergraduate committee member has been trained in about 60 hours of Title IX protocol, a weekly course taught for a semester by Loschiavo and his staff. Students apply to the committee before receiving the training, an opportunity often criticized for allowing students power over their peers.

Loschiavo said some campuses have done away with this student-hearing method, but others still employ it.

He said students can better empathize with other students far better than administrators can.

“It works really well for us, but it wouldn’t work on every campus,” he said. “Not every campus has the support to do the kind of training that we do.”

At the hearing, the panel or the administrator reviews the investigative summary and speaks with the survivor, the accused and any witnesses. A decision is then made on a simple-majority basis.

Unlike the criminal justice system, which functions on the basis of probable cause, Title IX cases deal in what’s called a preponderance of the evidence, which Loschiavo compared to a set of scales — if the evidence tips one scale in one direction, even very slightly, that is enough for a violation of the conduct code.

After the hearing, the panel or administrator recommends a punishment to Jen Day Shaw, the dean of students, who can confirm or appeal any ruling.

If a victim so desires, the Dean of Students Office can require the accused student write an apology letter to the victim, but this is rare. The minimum punishment for sexual assault charges is a suspension, and the maximum is an expulsion.

Suspensions can range from a semester to several years or for as long as the victim attends the university, Loschiavo said.

He said about 10 to 15 students are suspended each academic year for Title IX violations.

Currently, about 10 students have been suspended this academic year.

Even though awareness for sexual assault has brought in more survivors to his office, Loschiavo said there’s still room for improvement. Moving forward, he said his priorities are teaching students how to not only intervene in potentially dangerous situations, but also how to respond to a survivor’s story.

“But then at all costs, if someone reports to you that they believe they were sexually assaulted, believe them,” he said. 



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