A woman is raped every 2½ minutes in this country
On the day prosecutors in Florida announced that they would not pursue sexual-assault charges against a star quarterback, Jennifer Pencek stood among journalists at the Centre Daily Times and offered sobering reminders of the need for vigilance in education to reduce the risks of rape and other sex crimes.
Pencek, programming coordinator of Penn State’s Center for Women Students, visited with CDT reporters and editors along with guests from the Centre County Gazette.
The discussion was somber and professional, full of shocking statistics and experiences, and stories of ethical integrity and fair reporting from the journalists present.
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The tone was serious. Appropriate.
Then there’s Tallahassee, Fla., where a press conference dealing with the subject of sexual assault in a college town made you wonder if we’re making any progress in dealing with this epidemic of violence.
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Willie Meggs, a state attorney in Florida, has taken heat for the levity that accompanied his announcement that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would not be charged in connection with allegations from a late 2012 incident.
Winston is a Heisman Trophy favorite, and the Seminoles entered their game Saturday as the No. 1-ranked college football team in the country.
During the press conference, Meggs was at times serious, occasionally flippant and sarcastic, and a few times sparked laughter from others in the room, perhaps even some reporters.
It was an unfortunate display, especially given the general feeling that big-time athletes get a pass when it comes to the law and especially crimes against women, and strong evidence that we aren’t doing enough to protect young women on and near our campuses.
Meggs said Winston was not granted special consideration because of his status.
“We try to treat everyone the same,” Meggs said.
He added: “We’ve dealt with athletes on prior occasions and made decisions at some times to prosecute them.”
That was a weak response. But things went downhill from there.
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Asked if his office agonized over the decision not to file charges, Meggs said: “I think y’all were agonizing more than I was.”
Asked if the presence of multiple samples of DNA evidence on the clothing of the accuser suggested she had engaged in sex with more than one man, which is an irrelevant point, the state attorney said: “That would be a logical conclusion,” which prompted chuckles from state Sen. Al Lawson Jr., who was standing behind Meggs.
When discussing whether the Tallahassee Police Department and the state attorney’s office worked the case early enough and hard enough, Meggs said: “There may be something else we need to do, I don’t know. Don’t think so.”
And asked if he was pressured to make a decision before the Dec. 9 deadline for voting for the Heisman Trophy, Meggs said: “When are they doing that?” — to laughs all around.
Lawson seemed to be amused by much of what went on. Writers close to the case said the senator’s Twitter account shows he’s a Seminoles fan.
The Tallahassee police have been criticized by members of the accuser’s family, who said investigators moved too slowly and did not take the case seriously early on, when memories and evidence were fresh.
Meggs said the local police did not drop the ball on the case, but probably should have reached out for help when the allegations were first brought forward a year ago.
As it was, the case gained momentum even as Winston and the Seminoles were getting on a roll on the football field.
“Obviously it would be better if it had been handled a little earlier,” Meggs said, “but hindsight is 20/20.”
95 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported
If the state of Florida lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute Winston, then the right legal outcome has occurred. But there were enough questions raised to make you wonder.
Meggs said: “This was not a case we could bring forward.”
The Florida state attorney said a witness who entered the room where Winston was alone with the woman indicated they were engaged in consensual sex.
Meggs said the alleged victim’s “lack of memory” about the night in question hindered his ability to build a case.
Alcohol was reportedly a factor in the Winston case. The quarterback’s accuser said they met after she had been drinking at a bar.
Her blood-alcohol level was .04 percent, about half the legal limit for driving, later that night when she was examined at a hospital.
Pencek would not have been surprised to learn that rape accusations arose from a night of partying in a college community.
“For college women, their normal social environment — a party where alcohol is used — involves more of a risk for sexual victimization than does walking alone down a dark street,” she said in a report provided to the group at the CDT.
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Any big-time college quarterback would understand the need for execution in the “red zone.” In football lingo, that’s the area of the field closest to the opponent’s goal line.
For Pencek and others combating the scourge of sex crimes in college towns, “red zone” means something else entirely.
At the Center for Women Students, the first six weeks of a fall semester is known as the “red zone” for its high-risk, high-incidence reputation.
That time period, Pencek said, is when rape numbers often soar in university towns such as State College and Tallahassee. If you read this newspaper or website regularly, you know that police reports reinforce that contention.
Pencek said freshmen women are especially vulnerable to sexual assault during this time because they’re meeting new people, trying to fit in and adjusting to new communities.
Freshmen experience increased independence and reduced parental supervision.
And they’re trying certain activities for the first time, including for some using drugs and alcohol.
Looking into Pencek’s eyes, you know her mission to reduce the epidemic of sex crimes is serious business, and a topic that needs more discussion and illumination in our college towns.
And you wish that same level of seriousness had been more evident in Tallahassee, regardless of whether evidence was sufficient to convict a star quarterback of a serious crime.