As the details of the Alec Cook case unfold, the school is already under federal scrutiny for its handling of four other cases of sexual violence
The University of Wisconsins flagship campus is reeling from news that a student was charged with crimes against five women, including sexual assault and false imprisonment, during his two years at the school.
The 20-year-old student, Alec Cook, has been arrested and appeared in court on Thursday, charged with 15 crimes against five women, including sexual assault, strangulation and false imprisonment. His modus operandi, according to police and prosecutors, was to befriend fellow students and eventually entrap and viciously attack them, while keeping notebooks detailing his alleged targets.
Cook was arrested almost two weeks ago, after one woman went to the authorities. Since then, four others came forward to say they had been sexually assaulted. Then, Madison police said, dozens of females [came] forward wanting to speak about unknown acts related to Cook.
This story is horrifying. Its certainly spurred conversation on campus, Jason Klein of the student body, Associated Students of Madison, told the Guardian. My friends and I are talking about it. Im hearing other people talk about it. Usually around Halloween, people are getting ready to enjoy the holiday, but right now this is an issue that has certainly marred our campus climate.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison was already under federal scrutiny, for its handling of four other cases of sexual violence, as Cooks case unfolded. Those four cases are among 283 currently being investigated by the Department of Educations office of civil rights, under Title IX sex discrimination laws, across 215 US colleges, ranging from the Ivy League to small public universities. The wide-ranging inquiry began as a debate about rape on campuses around the country intensified in recent years.
Some of the cases have been pending since 2013, and Cornell University currently has the most, with five. Columbia, Stanford, Kansas State, Saint Marys College of Maryland and UW-Madison each have four, according to the department.
The investigations have taken so long because of the sheer amount of work and a lack of resources, a spokesman for the office of civil rights said. We are really overloaded right now, the spokesman said. We have about 4,000 discrimination cases under way, including race, disability, age and sex discrimination. Theres a lot of work that goes into these.
The office declined to discuss details of individual cases. UW-Madison has said it suspended Cook following his arrest. Considering the circumstances, that seems like a reasonable decision, Klein said.
Cook said nothing in county court on Thursday, but his lawyers deny he committed any crimes, which allegedly date back to March 2015. His attorneys insist the sex was consensual.
Madison police have said it was only after a student first contacted them that others came forward. The first woman alleges that four days before she spoke with police, Cook turned violent toward her and held her captive for several hours at his apartment off campus.
Without the first victim Im not sure we would have known about the others, said Joel DeSpain, a spokesman for Madison police department. After Cooks arrest, local news reported that the student had been questioned by campus police in February in relation to his allegedly stalking a woman. According to that report, the campus police, which operate separately from city officers, said that a student told them of a man at the college library staring at her for a period of months.
She said she asked him to leave her alone, but he followed her out of the library. She contacted our department and said she felt unsafe, UW police spokesman Mark Lovicott said.
Officers identified the man as Alec Cook. The police told him his actions were inappropriate and he was ordered to have no further contact with the woman. There was no arrest.
Lovicott said the woman did the right thing and if Cook had not stopped his behavior, we would have investigated further.
He didnt do anything threatening, Lovicott said, adding that Cook had no criminal record and because his behavior at the time did not technically constitute stalking.
Thats when he upped his game a bit, said Erin Thornley-Parisi, executive director of Dane County Rape Crisis Center in Madison.
I would not be surprised if its found out later through psychological testing that he was thinking, essentially, Wow, Im getting away with this, lets see what else I can do, she said.
Thornley-Parisi said she applauded UW-Madison for suspending Cook quickly after his arrest. Thats not something every university would do. Im proud of them for that.
In 2014, Barack Obama created a taskforce to protect students from sexual assault and strengthen federal enforcement efforts of Title IX laws requiring colleges to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence.
Thornley-Parisi said that after years of sweeping the problem under the rug, more colleges were now acknowledging and addressing the problem after being called out by the government, the media and victims speaking out.
Im sending a child off to college next fall and Im not going for ones that say no sexual assault happens here, she said, praising UW-Madisons recent efforts. Im looking for those that will tell me what they do about it.
The university has instituted a mandatory prevention program for all new students, and Thornley-Parisi said local police departments had improved their handling of sexual assault crimes, in both investigations and how they treat victims.
There are individual law enforcement officers who are extremely enlightened. We help train officers, she said. But there were still hurdles in the tough tasks of preventing rape and investigating sexual violence, she warned.
Alcohol can be a huge factor. UW-Madison, with 45,000 students, is one of the top academic institutions in the world, ranked 29th out of 1,000 research universities in the latest US News & World report. The school was also ranked the nations top party college in another recent survey.
Thornley-Parisi also accused Wisconsin governor Scott Walker of underfunding the Dane County district attorneys office, the agency which is prosecuting Cook. Budget problems have lead to staffing and turnover issues, she said, adding that the governor had underfunded the states rape crisis centers to an insulting degree.
Madison police have expressed full confidence in the women speaking out, and DeSpain said: Our detectives believe the victims to be credible. But women and men who have been threatened still find it difficult to confide in the authorities.
Its an incredibly courageous thing that these women have done, said Klein, the student representative. We want to create a climate on campus where people are less afraid to report any sexual assault.
In August, however, local WKOW news reported that women remained reluctant to speak out, even after charges were leveled against an ex-student of groping students in a central part of Madison. According to the criminal complaint, women told police these things happen to women and we just get used to it.