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As protests unfold at UMass, DA offers explainer on sexual assault cases

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AMHERST  – University of Massachusetts Amherst students since last weekend have been protesting in connection with allegations of a sexual assault at a fraternity, and county prosecutors on Wednesday outlined the different ways that criminal investigations into alleged sexual assaults are initiated.

“It is the practice of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office to neither confirm nor deny investigations into alleged criminal matters,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said in a statement Wednesday morning. “However, it cannot be overstated how seriously the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office takes allegations of sexual assault, and how vigorously it investigates and prosecutes such cases.”

The DA’s office explained evidence-gathering processes and how investigations are “most commonly initiated by local or campus police departments” but that victim-survivors may also report their cases directly to the district attorney’s office if they do not feel comfortable reporting directly to police.

“The last thing in the world we want is for victims of sexual assault to feel they have no place safe to go for recourse,” Sullivan said. “Prosecutors and victim witness advocates in our office have extensive training to help us all better understand the unique needs of, and therefore better respond to, survivors of sexual assault. We are deeply committed to employing a trauma-informed approach and ensuring victims are heard throughout the process.”

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Suhl said, “our office has a proven history of successfully investigating and prosecuting cases of campus sexual assault.”

“We know that sometimes an important step in healing from the trauma of a sexual assault is to see the alleged perpetrator called to account. We also understand that some victim-survivors are suspicious of authorities because they fear they will not be believed or their cases will not be handled properly,” Suhl said. “We want to assure survivors of sexual assault that we are here to support them if they choose to come forward.”

In a statement on Monday, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy encouraged anyone “with direct knowledge of or information related to the alleged Theta Chi incident, or any incident of sexual assault or misconduct, to contact university authorities immediately.”

Sullivan’s office included its phone number – 413-586-9225 – at the end of its press release Wednesday, extending it to anyone who wishes to “reach out.”