Three timely warning notices were sent to the inboxes of NMSU faculty, staff and students in the past month. The emails were sent to notify the campus community of three separate incidents of sexual assault reported to the NMSU police department. According to the notices, the alleged incidents occurred in various housing complexes on campus, however, the specific locations were not released.
In response to the reports, a safety forum led by NMSU Dean of Students Michael Jasek was held in the Aggie Lounge at Corbett Center last Wednesday. During the hour-long forum, administrators involved in the process of addressing such incidents responded to questions from concerned students regarding campus safety.
“The fact that we had three reports in fairly close succession I think caught people’s attention more than anything else,” said NMSU Police Chief Stephen Lopez. “We don’t necessarily consider those three to be abnormal because what it does indicate, not necessarily that there’s a problem, but that reporting is working, and that’s what we want. We want the reporting.”
Lopez explained that the NMSU police department’s role in addressing sexual assault reports includes ensuring the mental and physical safety of the alleged victim before moving forward with a possible criminal investigation.
“Not all victims do want to pursue charges, and that’s okay. We respect that and allow them to have control over that decision,” Lopez said. “Because they’re a victim of sexual assault, they’ve had control taken from them, and the last thing we want to do is try to force some other decision on them that they’re not comfortable with or are not ready for.”
The process of handling sexual assault incidents on the NMSU campus begins with the initial report of criminal activity. According to the warning notices, each of the three recent incidents occurred in a campus housing complex, meaning that NMSU Housing and Residential Life was immediately involved.
“If an incident occurs in one of the residential areas on campus and someone reports to either a desk attendant at one of the operations desks in housing or to their resident assistant or resident director, that is how housing and residential life get involved so immediately,” said Ophelia Watkins, Interim Executive Director for Housing and Residential Life. “Then they would contact police and ask for their assistance and go from there.”
Watkins emphasized the importance of security in residence halls and mentioned that the new dormitory building currently under construction will include an adequate video surveillance system.
“The design of the new residence hall includes cameras, so as the new building goes up, the cameras will also be a part of that,” Watkins said. “In the other residence halls and other parts of campus there are some exterior cameras already in certain places, but we’ll be working specifically with the police department and ICT to review the other residence halls and come up with a plan to install cameras where there are not any and where it makes sense for them to be.”
Other factors that NMSU currently takes into consideration when ensuring campus safety include outdoor lighting and landscaping and properly training resident assistants so they know how to respond to sexual assault incidents. There are also plans to introduce a bystander intervention program to provide students training in identifying dangerous situations.
“I’ve never felt entirely unsafe on this campus, but once I read the emails about the sexual assault reports I started questioning how safe I actually am,” said NMSU student Carina Mendoza. “It’s nice to know that the school is taking action in trying to prevent these situations and not brushing off something so serious.”
NMSU Victim Services employee Amanda Bowen explained that students play a vital role in preventing potentially dangerous situations because, unlike administrators, they are consistently exposed to an environment in which criminal activity can take place.
“Students are able to see and prevent things as they are happening, which is why we’re so excited about the bystander intervention program we’re bringing,” Bowen said. “It teaches our students how to really get involved in a situation that they see going in a bad direction. Students don’t have to be the vigilante out there — they don’t have to be trained ninjas going and solving things — but students do have a responsibility to each other’s safety and helping one another.”