UMBC starting 'Retriever Courage' initiative to track commitments made in wake of lawsuit alleging sexual assault cover-ups

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UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III listens to student demands after they marched on the administration building in September 2018. The students were protesting about a lawsuit that claims the university and Baltimore County covered up complaints of sexual assault.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County started an initiative this week called “Retriever Courage,” described as the school’s plan for sexual violence and misconduct prevention and response.

UMBC launched a website Friday to “document our community’s progress in this work and serve as a platform for ongoing communication,” according to a campus-wide email.


Under the initiative, the school will select an outside consultant to work with the university on how it handles cases of sexual violence; implement mandatory training for faculty, students and staff; and do some of the “nuts and bolts” work, like improving lighting on campus and including emergency information on campus ID cards, said university spokeswoman Dinah Winnick.

The initiative is in the wake of a lawsuit filed Sept. 10 by two former UMBC students that names UMBC administrators and some officials in Baltimore County as defendants. The lawsuit alleges that the university and county perpetuated a culture that covered up sexual violence complaints.


The fallout and controversy from the lawsuit has caused some students to say they’re paying more attention to crime alerts they receive about incidents on campus and to how the university handles the crime reporting process.

A report from the Maryland Higher Education Commission released in late October showed that 97 percent of students at UMBC who took a survey about campus climate said they either “agree” or “strongly agree” that they feel safe on campus.

However, Collin Sullivan, 21, president of UMBC’s student government association, said he has heard students say that given the publicity around the lawsuit, they don’t feel as safe as in the past. “At least, people are feeling like they’re seeing more [incidents],” Sullivan said. “I think it could be a heightened perception because of the allegations and people are paying attention more to stuff. People are starting to tune in.”

Georgia Ryle, 18, a first-year student at UMBC, said she always thought the campus was safe, but feels less certain today. It’s not, she said, because she’s ever personally felt threatened, but because she now is more aware of criminal incidents when they occur.

In fact, the school’s latest annual security report doesn’t indicate a rise in crimes on campus; the report’s findings are consistent with those of the two prior years, showing 34 criminal incidents were reported to police or other security authorities in 2017, including 11 burglary incidents, six rape incidents, six of dating violence and five of stalking. In 2016, 32 incidents were reported, and in 2015 there were 40 incidents.

Olivia Cottrill, 22, a second-year student who commutes from Annapolis, said she doesn’t feel unsafe on campus but tries to schedule her classes before it gets dark.

Given the national conversation around sexual assault and the UMBC-involved lawsuit, Cottrill said she “would worry about not being believed” if she experienced and reported a crime on campus.


University action

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III told The Baltimore Sun editorial board recently that all students, faculty and staff on campus will have to participate in mandatory training on trauma, prevention and what happens after an incident is reported.

In an earlier emailed statement, Winnick referenced the campus climate survey, which was administered last spring, showing the large percentage of UMBC students indicating they felt safe on campus.

“At the same time,” she wrote, “[W]e know that feelings about safety may change over time, particularly in response to both campus and national conversations about sexual assault. Everyone deserves to feel safe.”

Universities in the United States that receive federal funding are required each year to publish a security report, typically referred to as a Clery Report. The reported crime statistics at UMBC are slightly lower than those at Towson University, though UMBC has a smaller enrollment: about 14,000 students compared with 22,000 at Towson.

In all of Baltimore County’s 1st Precinct, which includes UMBC and stretches from Baltimore Highlands to Interstate 70, there were 3,326 Part I crimes reported in 2017, according to data provided by the Baltimore County Police Department.

Part I crimes, as defined by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, include criminal homicide, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, forcible rape, arson, motor vehicle theft and larceny-theft.


Abigail Boyer, interim executive director of the Clery Center, a nonprofit that works to help college campuses implement the policies required under the act, said it’s difficult to say broadly whether colleges are “safer” than surrounding areas.

“Every institution is different and every community is different,” she said.

She said institutions need to always balance ensuring students and other communities have access to information they need — like timely warnings about crime — with making sure those community members are given adequate support to navigate the aftermaths of crime.

A 2017 audit from the University System of Maryland showed UMBC was meeting its obligations under the Clery Act in 10 of 11 measurable areas.

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