The University signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the City of Middletown on Wednesday, Oct. 15. University President Michael Roth, Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, and Chief State’s Attorney for Middlesex County Peter McShane signed this MoU, the first between an institution of higher learning and a city government in the state of Connecticut.
The MoU will primarily affect the Department of Public Safety (PSafe) and the Office of Equity and Inclusion, which will be working closely with the Special Victims Unit of the Middletown Police Department (MPD) on Title IX training and investigations.
According to Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Title IX Officer Antonio Farias, the Violence Against Women Act requires universities to sign an MoU with the local government. However, Farias stressed that the University began this process before it was mandatory and included the State’s Attorney on the agreement, which is not required by law.
“We jumped the gun,” Farias said. “The whole purpose in terms of Wesleyan leading the way is that we want to really lean hard forward on this. We want to be transparent…and we don’t want to sort of wait for everybody else and see where the rest of the herd goes.”
The MoU is intended to make both the reporting and investigation processes easier to navigate and less traumatic for survivors. Farias stressed that constant communication is the most important aspect of this cooperation.
“One of the big things that we’re pushing with Title IX is communication, communication, communication,” Farias said. “You can never have enough, but you have to do it also in a way that makes sense. Part of it is also breaking some perceptions. It’s breaking some perceptions with our students that Middletown Police doesn’t potentially understand them. It’s also scary. If you’ve gone through a traumatizing experience, even though they’re literally three blocks down the road, it’s a long road psychologically to leave your campus where you feel, in some ways, safe, and now potentially is unsafe; the last thing you necessarily want to do is walk into a police department.”
Since the MoU signing, McShane attended a University-hosted Title IX training, and Farias met with members of the MPD for another training session in Hartford. Farias stated that these training exercises will allow the University and the MPD to help guide students through the simultaneous investigations.
“The cotraining that we do is going to be critical because that reinforces the trust and now we can speak the same language,” Farias said. “When a student goes down there and files a police claim, [the MPD] can also speak about the Wesleyan system…. They can speak our language and we can do the same thing…. The whole framework is about becoming trauma-informed and how we lower the trauma level.”
Director of Public Safety Scott Rohde asserted that these aligned processes may mean that victims only have to provide information once for both investigations.
“What that means for that victim is that potentially that could happen simultaneously instead of having to go through two separate interviews,” Rohde said. “What we’re really saying is we’re going to try to understand each other’s processes better. Likewise, the city is saying that if they’re doing some training for their investigators related to things that may fall in this category, we will be invited to observe and participate in part of that.”
He also emphasized the necessity of understanding both University policy and criminal processes to make sure that neither interferes with the other.
“Sharing of timelines is critically important,” Rohde said. “In student affairs cases, deadlines and appeals times are all critical and what we don’t want is that we are interfering with a victim’s right to have a criminal prosecution.”
Farias elaborated on how this interference can happen, and that open lines of communication are necessary to avoid it.
“We could actually taint the process, and that’s where the level of communication has to be really transparent and fast,” Farias said. “Title IX tells us that we’re not supposed to just wait around for the police investigation to finish, but at the same time we are supposed to be in constant contact so that when they give us the green light to talk to the witnesses, we need to know when that is a go because otherwise we’re stepping on their toes and potentially ruining an investigation.”
Through a sharing of processes, training, and information, the MoU will aim to make the process of reporting and investigating sexual assault incidents less traumatic for victims and smoother for the University and MPD.
“I think the bottom line is that it makes investigations better, more thorough, more complete and hopefully relieves a layer of stress from a reporting victim,” Rohde said.
The University also hopes to sign MoUs with the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, the Women and Family Center, and the Middletown Unified School District.
Farias spoke about the necessity of involving these groups in training so that the University and its affiliates have a coordinated response to incidents.
“We’re talking about centralizing efforts and also sharing resources,” Farias said. “Nobody’s got enough resources. The fact that Wesleyan is bringing trainers here, there’s no reason for us to charge the K-12 system. It makes no sense. There’s no reason for us to charge the police department; it makes no sense. We’re a community. We’re looking at the Middletown umbrella and if we can share resources, let’s do it, so that we don’t become that isolated hill and it’s only our problem, because we know it’s not only our problem.”
Farias further emphasized that the University intends to continue making connections and confronting sexual assault as a community issue.
“What we really want to do is model Wesleyan as this place that really looks at [the prevention of] sexual violence as a community effort, and by community I’m talking about the Middletown community as opposed to just the Wesleyan community,” Farias said. “Wherever the University is, there’s a surrounding town, there are surrounding people. But everyone is so focused on the students because they’re fearful of litigation that they’re forgetting that there’s a community that needs their help.”