Profile: Debra Martinez

Profile: Debra Martinez helps builds community partnerships to combat gender-based violence

As former chief of the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Special Victim Unit, attorney Debra Martinez saw firsthand how much support students need following a sexual assault.

Now a senior investigator in the MSU Office of Institutional Equity, Martinez is committed to enhancing collaboration among agencies and offices throughout the region to ensure that students and other MSU community members receive this support.

“Too often different local agencies are gears operating independently and not together,” Martinez said. “We need to make a community-wide response that addresses all needs of those who have experienced sexual assault. This includes coordinating appropriate responses based on sensitivity, truth, and knowledge of all available resources. My goal was to have MSU be a leader in bringing everyone to the table.”

As a first step, Martinez organized a May 15 training that drew approximately 50 attendees representing eight area police departments, numerous advocacy groups, domestic violence shelters, sexual assault nurse examiners and court staff. Among the presenters were Ingham County’s elected prosecutor and several district court judges.

Martinez first approached the Director of MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Ande Durojaiye, about the idea. After he endorsed it, she approached MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap for financial support. Dunlap agreed to provide funding so that the training could be free of cost for all community agencies that work with sexual assault.

The day-long training focused on improving understanding of the different roles and resources that various disciplines and agencies offer, as well as on developing a more cohesive process for sexual assault complaints, investigation, resolution and support for those affected during the process.

“Our response should be designed to ensure that further victimization does not occur because of lack of coordination or communication within an already difficult process,” said Martinez, who earned her law degree at MSU.

That means ensuring students are excused from class for court appearances, have transportation to and from court, and receive the support they may need to keep up academically as the university or criminal justice process moves forward – no matter which jurisdiction or agency receives an initial report or conducts an investigation.

Leading authorities on campus sexual assault recommend just such a community-wide approach to making schools and universities free from sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

For example, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women in February issued a report, “Addressing Gender-Based Violence on College Campuses: Guide to a Comprehensive Model.”

“Research and practice confirm that the engagement of multiple entities on and off campus is required to make the kind of broad cultural shift necessary to sensitively meet the needs of victims, hold offenders accountable and reduce future incidents of violence,” it states. “Even broad scale efforts are not successful if they lack coordination or operate in silos.”

Martinez has received enthusiastic feedback about the initial training on May 15.

For example, a Lansing police detective learned that when a victim in his investigation is connected to MSU as a student, staff or faculty member and is unwilling or unready to move forward with a possibly intimidating criminal complaint, the MSU Office of Institutional Equity can be an alternative.

That’s because the Office of Institutional Equity investigates on a Title IX basis, which requires less of the participants and can be appropriate based on their comfort level. For example, the university process never requires parties to be in the same room with each other.

Shortly after the workshop, the detective called Martinez about just such a case.

“We can offer to meet with the person, talk about supportive resources, and conduct an investigation if the MSU community member chooses. We discuss all of the available options so the individual can make an informed decision,” Martinez confirmed.

A university investigation seeks to determine whether campus policy has been violated, results in a written report, and can lead to university disciplinary action up to and including expulsion in the case of a student or firing in the case of an employee. The victim may still participate in the criminal process as well.

Martinez hopes to offer a second training in the near future, and to keep the conversation going.

“When people are brave enough to come forward, we owe it to do everything we can to investigate these cases thoroughly using all available resources for support,” she said. “This means working together as community agencies to ensure the smoothest process possible. MSU has the resources to make that happen.”