Trigger Warning: This article deals with an account of sexual assault that may be triggering to some readers.
Jose Lopez, a former cook in Harris dining hall, is on trial this month for the sexual assaults of a former Connecticut College senior as well as the daughter of a Harris co-worker. Over spring break in 2012, the former student was doing work in Harris when Lopez allegedly shoved her into the booth she was sitting in and trapped one of her legs between his own. As reported by The New London Day, Lopez aggressively touched the student through her leggings, despite her numerous protests.
Shortly after this interaction, the student reported the assault to campus authorities and the New London Police Department. In the course of the investigation, New London police found a second complaint of sexual misconduct against Lopez. According to The Day, the second young woman was visiting her mother, another employee in dining services, when Lopez slid his hand into her yoga pants and groped her.
Following an internal investigation by the Colleges Human Resources Department, Lopez was put on administrative leave and his employment was officially terminated shortly thereafter.
At the time the assault of the student occurred, little information was available to the larger student body. However, many current juniors and seniors still vividly recall Lopez’s abrupt absence from Harris. Several upperclassmen recalled the napkin note board in Harris – where students are able to leave comments or concerns about food items – filled with notes that read, “Where is Jose?” and “Bring back Jose.” Speculations behind his “disappearance” included whisperings of sexual harassment or assault, but at the time, these notions went largely unconfirmed.
This heightened confidentiality around sensitive cases, such as the one against Lopez, is necessary to respect the rights of the victims and the accused. Sarah Cardwell, the Associate Dean of Student Life, explained how incidents of this nature are treated with the utmost privacy. “We have to be incredibly mindful of the victims in these situations,” she said last Thursday. “We are a very small community, which can be a barrier to reporting in and of itself.”
Compared to larger universities where one’s identity can be shielded by the sheer size of the student population, Connecticut College’s small size allows for a gossip grapevine that can act as a deterrent when deciding whether to report a criminal act. Pressure to protect friends, fear of identification or other potential repercussions may act as barriers to reporting sensitive crimes.
However, the intimacy of Conn’s campus can also be positive. Deb MacDonnell, Director of Public Relations, attributed students’ comfort in reporting incidents of assault to the close relationships and visibility of college staff. “In this kind of community, where people know each other, individuals are more apt to report something like this [sexual assault] because you are reporting to someone you know,” MacDonnell stated in an interview Friday. She continued, “You aren’t calling a flat out stranger on the phone and saying, ‘Something happened to me,’ you are calling someone you know or your friends know.” The visibility of key individuals, such as Director of Sexual Violence Prevention and Advocacy Darcie Folsom, has helped to make students feel more comfortable reporting their experiences in the past several years.
The increasing trend in reporting sexual assaults is evident in the Annual Security Report and Crime Statistics compiled and published each year by Campus Safety. In 2012, the year the charges were filed against Jose Lopez, there were 12 reported instances of forced sexual assault, up from four the year before. “These increased numbers do not mean that more sexual assaults are happening,” stressed Darcie Folsom. “Through increased education, I think we have made students more aware of things that they should be reporting and how to go about [the reporting process].” The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that as many as 60% of sexual assaults go unreported, so while increased figures may indicate that sexual assaults are becoming more frequent, it is likely they simply serve as a more accurate representation of assaults taking place each year.
Last Friday, the defense rested its case in the Lopez trial. Both the defense and prosecution will deliver closing arguments Monday. The jury is expected to arrive at a decision sometime later this week.
On Tuesday Nov. 19th Jose Lopez was acquitted of all charges. According to the The Day, the jury found Lopez not guilty of third degree sexual assault, fourth degree sexual assault, and unlawful restraint.
For more information see The New London Day.