FALSE REPORT OF SEXUAL ASSAULT: Rumor mill turns on campus about gang activity in the 518

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By Gabriella Levine

This past Sunday, Oct. 6, Director of Campus Safety Christopher Hayen released a campus-wide alert describing the sexual assault of a student. The alert contained minimal details, noting that the assault occurred at 1 a.m. on Sunday in an area off Foster Avenue and that, according to the victim, there were three male suspects, one possibly around 16 years of age. It was later confirmed with Campus Safety that the alleged victim was a female.

Foster Avenue is directly across the street from campus.

In an unexpected turn of events on Tuesday morning, Campus Safety released a second crime alert, explaining that an investigation into the alleged sexual assault of the student yielded that the report was false.

In Hayen’s tenure as Director of Campus Safety, this incident, though proven to be false, is the first time a sexual assault of this magnitude has been reported. “The type of sexual assault that was reported, although the information was minimal, was still different from what we see,” he said. Some on campus inferred that it was a potential gang assault. “Usually, we don’t have stranger sexual assaults. Usually, it’s student on student,” Hayen elaborated.

The chain of events prior to and after the report of the alleged assault suggests an ongoing speculation on campus of gang-related incidents. The speculation surrounds a gang referred to as “the 518,” but both the Schenectady Police Department and Campus Safety have denied the threat of such a gang.

According to Hayen, rumors surrounding the 518 are false. “We started off with the 518 rumor that was going around. Exhaustive efforts were made with my talking to local police, looking at police logs and records, our logs and records and their logs and records, and talking to the task force of gangs in the community, and it had no merit,” Hayen explained.

Last week, tales of the 518 ran rampant, and Hayen received calls and complaints from parents and students questioning gang activity on and around campus. One such complaint included a call from a parent regarding an unconfirmed incident in which students on the women’s volleyball team reportedly encountered a group of suspcious men late one night last week after leaving the Alumni Gym. Hayen claims that Campus Safety was not made aware of the situation by any of the students in question.

As Hayen was investigating the buzz about the 518, the alleged victim contacted Campus Safety on Sunday with the purported claim of sexual assault.

Hayen believes that the circulation of rumors and the student’s report of the alleged assault were possibly connected. “I do think one played into another,” he stated.

Suhasini Padhi ‘14 maintains her belief that the 518 exists. “I heard from an ADL sister who has relatives in the Schenectady police, that a local gang, the 518, was released from prison, and that the complaints of violence went up disproportionately over the weekend — around Union Street and Union Avenue. I investigated on my own, with friends that work in Mohawk Ambulance, and found out that it was true. I made my friends aware of this, and Campus Safety reached out to me trying to reassure me that it was not on campus and that students are not in danger,” Padhi claimed.

Lieutenant Mark McCracken of the Schenectady Police Department denied incidents related to the 518 gang in the Schenectady area. “As far as this 518 gang and stuff like that, there’s been no reported incidents to the police. The only 518 group that I’m aware of is a sports club, it’s a motorcycle group,” McCracken instructed.

President of Safe Space Tori Bailey ‘14 stated, “As a club that serves as not only a resource, but also an advocate for students who have been sexually assaulted or have been the victim of sexual violence, we are deeply saddened by the possibility of this occurring to a Union student. We hope that the updated incident report from Campus Safety was in fact true in that the incident did not occur.”

Bailey further argued that the incident raises questions about the security and safety of all Union students. ‘Last week, there were alleged reports of gang violence in the Union area, sending multiple young women, all non-Union students, to the hospital. It is appalling that Union students were unofficially aware of these crimes that occurred right outside the gates of our campus until a victim was possibly one of our own,’ she said.

About two weeks ago, McCracken noted that a gang assault occurred on Hamilton Hill with three city youths attacking a male. But McCracken maintains that he is “not aware of any gang assaults in or around the campus area.”

Other than this most recent incident, the Schenectady Police Department has not been aware of any reported sexual assaults from the campus. This week’s Crime and Fire Log details a reported sexual assault from Sept. 30. However, Campus Safety has confirmed that the report has since been dismissed and no crime took place.

As of Monday, Hayen noted that Campus Safety was still actively investigating the claim of sexual assault. The Concordiensis was informed by student sources that the alleged assault was supposedly a product of gang initiation, and that the three men possibly involved were aiming to get initiated into the gang by raping the student victim.

Hayen had not heard a similar account from the victim, who was reportedly reluctant to answer questions from Schenectady Police and Campus Safety.

“This victim is not really in a place, I guess, that they want to talk with us. So we don’t push it, we don’t really want to push it. We are investigating it though, we are following through with what we do have. There are some cameras over there,” Hayen explained on Monday.

By Tuesday, campus footage of the reported area where the assault allegedly occurred did not substantiate the victim’s claims. Campus Safety also conducted interviews with witnesses and the victim to determine that the claims were false.

It was unclear, as of press time, why the student falsely reported that she was the victim of a sexual assault. “Everybody is different. Everybody who goes through things in life have different reactions,” Hayen explained.

Bailey fears the student “could have been bullied into retracting her allegations.”

But according to McCracken, local police commonly witness situations in which a woman makes a claim of sexual assault that later proves to be false.

In the aftermath of Sunday’s report of sexual assault, several students expressed shock and fear upon receiving the news. But according to Hayen, the distress caused by the release of the report is precisely why “rumors are so damaging.”

“People need to verify information, especially when it’s information along these lines. If you take the 518 piece out of it and somebody had verified that with me, I would’ve been able to tell them that through my contacts and research and investigation, that this just isn’t true,” Hayen stated.  “As far as this here,” he continued in reference to the sexual assault, “it would’ve been standing on it’s own. If it were standing on its own without complications of the other information floating around, it would have just been a false report and would have been different,” Hayen concluded.

But, for some students, the campus-wide alert detailing a false report of sexual assault perpetuated the tendency to spread information throughout the campus community without first verifying its accuracy. Ava Carnevale ‘14 expressed her concern and frustration: “As a female at Union that lives off-campus, I find it extremely frustrating that an institution that I consider my home, has given out false information to the student body. As adults, we should know what is going on in our neighboring community so we can better prepare ourselves for situations that could happen and have happened.”

Carnevale pointed out that it is critical for students to be “properly informed about what is going on so we, as individuals, adults, students and residents in a Schenectady home, can be as safe as possible commuting and walking to campus, from campus and on campus.”

Under the Clery Act, Campus Safety is required to disclose crime statistics for incidents that occur on campus or immediately adjacent to campus, including sexual assaults. However, Hayen noted that there is leeway with when he is required to notify the campus community. In a situation with a continued immediate threat, Hayen is required to put out an alert as soon as possible.

Professor Andrew Feffer of the History Department, former chair and active member of Union’s Standing Committee on Sexual Assault and Harassment, explained that Clery “mandates that statistics be kept on campus crime according to guidelines provided by the federal government, be reported to the college community and be made available to the public.”

Regardless of the requirements of Clery, Hayen remained firm in his belief that the campus community deserved to be aware of the existence of the alleged assault on Sunday. “It’s a violent felony that occurred right outside our campus, that’s all I knew at the time I wrote that,” he stated. “I truly believe that is something people need to be aware of. I wouldn’t have wanted any female students walking around that area. I wanted to protect who I could protect to stay away from that area,” he continued.

In previous years, the Committee on Sexual Assault and Harassment has compiled surveys on the problem of sexual assault and harassment that occurs on campus. “We started doing surveys after a series of incidents around 1999-2001 led students and faculty to demand the problem of sexual assault be addressed effectively by the college administration,” Feffer explained.

The results of the 2012 survey are not yet available. The final report from the Committee on the 2009 survey displayed “some improvement in the reported incidence of sexual harassment over previous surveys.” However, the report outlined that sexual assault and harassment “persist at unacceptably high levels. “This year’s results confirm what most members of the college community know by personal experience, word of mouth and rumor: that sexual assault continues to be a problem at Union College,” the 2009 report read. Feffer noted that his educated and estimated guess, after briefly skimming the 2012 report, is that “not much has changed” since the 2009 report. However, Feffer instructs that the exact numbers from 2012 still must be determined to produce the most accurate results.

McCracken advised that the main takeaway from this incident for Union’s community should be that students “pay attention to what’s going on around them and be aware of their surroundings.” McCracken detailed that it is common for Schenectady Police to witness “young ladies walking by themselves at two or three in the morning, their heads buried in their smart phone, not paying attention to what’s going on around them, typically under the influence of alcohol or something else, and there is zero situational awareness from them.” To combat this problem, McCracken advises that Union’s students walk in groups rather than alone at night.

Some students are weary of the effect that the inaccurate sexual assault alert will have on future incidents. Elsabeth Graebner ‘14 voiced these concerns: “I understand that [the alert] was sent out so students could be aware and stay safe, however I feel like, because it’s false, the next message like this that gets sent out won’t be taken as seriously.”

Moving forward, Hayen assured that all future reports of sexual assault will be taken seriously and believed to be true until proven false. “Although this happened, we take all of these claims seriously and we will always investigate into them. Until we learn something different, we take it for what it is reported as to us and we believe everybody. If they’re telling us that this happened, that’s the avenue we’re taking and we’re going to find out what happened.”

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