FLORENCE — When Emma Beth Lavender is on the University of North Alabama campus, she does her best to avoid the university’s parking garage.
That’s because the UNA senior said the dimly lit parking deck is almost inviting attacks like the one reported one week ago. A female student reported to university police Sept. 26 that she was attacked and raped in the campus parking deck at approximately 12:30 a.m. that day.
Students on campus have said they are upset that university officials did not immediately send alerts about the attack until days later.
“It’s creepy in there,” Lavender, a culinary arts major, said of the parking deck.
Lavender is five months pregnant.
“I’m especially careful now,” she said while eating lunch in the Guillot University Center. “I have parked there occasionally, mostly when I was going to the (Student Recreation Center). Now, I try to be off campus before it gets dark altogether.”
University officials said there are some leads in the case, but said details about the reported attack are minimal.
That is the reason a Lion Alert, a campus-wide emergency notification system, and a media alert about the report were not sent until more than two days later, UNA Police Chief Bob Pastula said.
University spokesman Josh Woods said there was not enough information in the initial report to send a campus alert.
The attack was reported to police at 2:55 p.m. that afternoon, about 14 hours after it happened, and even then, Pastula said, the student “was not able to complete the report.”
“The shock and trauma of the event isn’t allowing her to complete the report and come back to talk to us,” Pastula said. “She doesn’t want to relive it. She couldn’t even” describe her attacker.
That type of reaction is common among victims of violent sexual crimes, said Cathy Connolly, executive director of Rape Response in the Shoals.
Rape Response has educational programs at the university and also offers its counseling, hotline and support services to the university community.
“There is a fear of not being believed and also, sadly, there is a shame or embarrassment that is not attached to other crimes,” Connolly said. “It is such a huge trauma, people are trying to process what happened to them, and they are so upset, they aren’t sure what to do.”
Still, students are upset about the delay in receiving the message as well as its content. The Clery Act, a federal law requiring universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses, dictates a “timely warning” be issued when a crime or event represents a threat to the safety of students or employees. What constitutes a “timely warning” is not exactly defined by the law. But according to the university’s Annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Reports, “every attempt will be made to distribute a (university Police Department) advisory within 12 hours of the time the incident is reported.”
Catherine Stutts, a UNA student from Florence, said the Lion Alert text message she received directed her to read “important information” on the university Police Department’s website.
That is in contrast to the detailed alerts she is accustom to getting.
“I didn’t really know much about it until I read about it in the newspaper,” she said.
And by not knowing, thousands of UNA students parked in the parking deck or walked through it on their way across campus unaware of the potential for danger, she said.
Ola Marks, a UNA student from Florence, said the campus community should have been alerted sooner so they could take necessary precautions.
“I’m wary of walking on campus alone at night and always try to walk with a friend,” she said. “But people should have known so they could have been on the look out.”
This is the third violent or sexual-related crime reported in the parking deck in the past six months.
On March 21, a student reported an armed robbery that originated in the parking deck. According to reports from that event, the still unidentified suspect forced a student at gunpoint to drive from the parking deck to the ATM in the Pine Street parking lot. The student withdrew money from the ATM, gave it to the robber and was forced to drive back to the parking deck. Students said after that incident, an alert was sent immediately.
Pastula said there is no new information in that case.
Two days before the rape was reported, on Sept. 24, James Cameron Crouch was arrested for public lewdness in the parking deck. A student reported Crouch exposed himself in a stairwell of the parking deck. According to police reports, Crouch said he was urinating in the stairwell, but no evidence of that was found.
Woods said immediately after the reported rape last week, university police stepped up patrol around the parking deck. He said that will continue indefinitely.
Students are asking for more, however.
Video surveillance cameras are needed, Marks said.
A more permanent police presence in the parking deck also is needed, added UNA senior Hailey Alexander.
Currently, there is no attendant stationed at the parking deck, which is open 24 hours a day.
“It seems like there should be someone there all the time, especially after dark,” Alexander said.
Stutts said the university should add more emergency phone stations, which are blue poles that provide direct communication to university police. Stutts said phone stations should be added in the parking deck as well as additional ones around campus.
Woods said there is a multi-phase security and safety plan beginning to be implemented across campus. Real-time video surveillance cameras on campus are part of that plan, but other infrastructure must be in place before the cameras can be installed, Woods said.
The infrastructure primarily includes a campus police dispatch center. Earlier reports indicated the plan for the dispatch center had been shelved, but Pastula said he anticipates having that center up and running by December.
Next, he said, would be the installation of the cameras, which could begin in early 2013, but funding for the cameras has not been allocated. He said he expects the camera system to cost approximately $75,000-$80,000.
Meanwhile, Woods implored students to be aware of their surroundings and take advantage of security services offered by the university. UNA police funds a program called SNAP — student nighttime assisted patrol — that escorts students to and from buildings and cars after dark.
“It’s vital students take advantage of the campus safety options already in place,” Woods said. “It is still vital that people be aware and call 911 or the university help line anytime they witness any type of suspicious activity.”
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@Times Daily.com.