Becker appointed to develop toolkit for campus sexual assault survivors

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– LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker has recently been appointed to the Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup, which will develop materials to assist assault survivors in navigating the systems that can help them.


By Cynthia Price

Legal News

Though the stated goal of the initiative to which Michigan First Lady Sue Snyder is dedicated is to “End Campus Sexual Assault,” that does not limit her or others involved from devoting time and effort to helping those who continue to suffer such assaults.

“Ensuring that all assault survivors have access to resources that will help in their journey toward healing is essential in our work to address campus sexual assault in Michigan,” Snyder said in a statement.

She therefore asked the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board to create and convene a group to come up with a resource toolkit that will help sexual assault survivors navigate the system.

In fact, as Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker, one of the workgroup’s appointed members, points out, there is more than just one system that assault victims may have to negotiate.

“Our guide will tell the survivors how to navigate the judicial system as well as the Title IX system and the campus reporting system. It’s kind of interesting how each system works separately. We also intend to include something about how to get counseling, that type of social services system,” Becker says.

“I had very little familiarity with Title IX, but I’m learning a lot,” he adds.

Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 reads (simplified): “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” It has come to be the basis for a wide-ranging web of administrative and court-decided rules that cover such disparate actions as sexual violence on campus and school sports, with an expected outcome that discriminatory barriers to both genders deriving full benefits from their education will be eliminated.

Title IX was augmented by the Violence Against Women Re-authorization ACT/Campus SaVE Act of 2014, which added the sexual misconduct categories of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

Title IX Coordinators from several colleges and universities make up a good segment of the workgroup, and include Kimberly DeVries, Title IX Coordinator for Grand Rapids Community College.

Brandon DeHaan, Police Captain and Assistant Director of the Grand Valley State University Police Department rounds out the trio of West Michiganders serving on the group.

Becker, who is often praised for his work preventing and prosecuting elder abuse, says that the administration reached out to him for participation in the workgroup. “I have a pretty good background in criminal sexual assault. A lot of my career in the prosecutor’s office was spent on the Special Victims Unit,” he explains. “I’ve also been active in the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, so I guess that was a factor in them appointing me.

“I think there are some similarities with the elder abuse work in terms of vulnerable victims.”

Elected Kent County Prosecutor in Nov. 2016, Becker received his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University in international relations, and his law degree from Valparaiso University School of Law.

Raised in the Grand Rapids area, he says he had no idea when he was in law school that he would pursue being a prosecutor. “I quite frankly was just looking for a job,” he says. “I talked to people who tell me they’ve had a dream of being a prosecutor since there were in elementary school, but that wasn’t me. I like the courtroom – I loved mock trial in law school – and I like working with people, and prosecution was a good fit.”

Former Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth hired him and mentored him and, when it came time for his retirement, recommended him for the position. In a competitive race, Becker won the election last fall.

He combines a no-nonsense efficiency with compassion for the victims his office works on behalf of, and that is also evident in his workgroup partici-
pation.

“I think the vast majority of sexual assault survivors have never been through anything like this before,” he says. “It’s a very traumatic time, and so we want to give them an overview of  – here’s’ what we’re talking about if you go through the criminal system, here’s what it’s like  going through Title IX.

“I know a lot of them see the high profile cases and think, I don’t want to go through that. But the vast majority don’t get that kind of publicity, so I think it’s nice to have some light shed on that fact.”

Becker says that he has been very pleased with the progress of the workgroup, which has met twice.

“I’ve been very encouraged by the dialogue, it’s been very open and very fruitful in terms of exchange of ideas,” he says.

He adds that the workgroup’s concept is now to have information online as well as in a handbook to be distributed in a variety of ways. “I still think there will be a hard copy component, but we’re also looking at putting it online. With most of the people we’re trying to reach, they’re on their phones, so that seems to be where it’s going.

“I think it’s going to give you an overview of the process, and then links to dig deeper in specific areas.”

The workgroup is tasked with moving quickly, since the expected rollout of the resource toolkit will be at the Sept. 25 End Campus Sexual Assault conference to be held at Eastern Michigan University.

This conference, the third annual, reaches out to “encourage collaboration and bipartisan efforts to identify best practices in the fight against sexual assault,” one of the initiative’s four major goals. End Campus Sexual Abuse’s co-chairs are two Republicans, Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker and Rep. Laura Cox, and two Democrats, Sen. Rebekah Warren and Rep. Kristy Pagan.

The conference also focuses attention on some of the campus programs which the initiative’s grants have funded.

It is difficult to underestimate the role of those grants. One of the other workgroup members, Sarah Prout Rennie of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, told Legal News reporter Kurt Anthony Krug, “Before [Snyder’s] commitment to ending sexual assault in Michigan, together with the grants that began three years ago, there was no mechanism for smaller colleges to leverage resources and receive technical assistance on campus sexual assault matters. The grants that have been awarded changed the landscape of Michigan, making us a leader in the country by creating a statewide effort to end campus sexual assault.”

Rennie added that the initiative has been a “game-changer.”

Indeed, it is Sue Snyder’s hope that the work, which is not just theoretical but detailed and practical, will result in Michigan becoming “a leader in ending sexual assault among the college aged population,” another of its goals.

“I believe that here in Michigan, we are on the forefront of a sweeping movement that will change the culture surrounding assault across the nation,” she says on the website, www.endcampussexualassault.com.

The goals of the resource workgroup may be slightly less ambitious, but Becker comments, “I think everybody’s on the same page: producing something that’s going to be very beneficial to the citizens of Michigan.”

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