When a student reported that she had been abducted from the Goshen College campus in the early hours of Jan. 18 and sexually assaulted, administrators, students and police acted immediately. They had no choice -- based on everything they knew, students faced a savage and unexpected threat.
Police increased patrols around campus and started an aggressive investigation.
The college added a security officer and began locking residence hall floors during the daytime. Students met to discuss ways to keep one another safe and the Goshen Student Women's Association organized a march intended to take back the night.
As it turns out, police now believe the assault never happened.
Detectives began to notice troubling inconsistencies in the student's story early this month, learning she was with a friend in another county at the same time she claimed that a man approached her on campus and kidnapped her at knifepoint. Goshen police confronted her and she admitted that she'd lied.
County Attorney Curtis Hill announced Monday that he planned to charge Jessica De La Varga, 19, of Elkhart, with obstruction of justice, a Class D felony. If convicted, she could face three years in prison.
Students on campus expressed concern for De La Varga, who is no longer enrolled at Goshen College. Some worried that she'll now face a public backlash for what one student described as "a cry for help."
What might have motivated De La Varga to make up a story about an attack isn't yet clear. Hill said he wouldn't release details of the investigation until De La Varga's trial.
But if she indeed lied, De La Varga needs to answer for her actions. Her story frightened the Goshen College campus and surrounding communities. Police spent around 200 hours investigating the case over the course of nearly two months -- 200 hours that diverted police from other tasks where they were needed.
A community can forgive a young person who makes a mistake or struggles with issues beyond her control, but at the same time it has a right to demand accountability.
Still, a demand for accountability does not justify scorn for the accused. Nor should it lead the community to dismiss the stories of other women who report sexual assaults.
That would be a mistake; according to Crime in the United States, an annual report compiled by the U.S. Justice Department, Elkhart recorded 22 forcible rapes in 2009, Goshen another 13. Altogether, the Elkhart-Goshen Metropolitan Statistical Area reported 27.3 rapes for every 100,000 residents two years ago, the most recent data available.
The community demonstrated an ability to come together after the reported January attack. Goshen College improved campus security, students began to show greater concern for one another and police did everything within their power to find an attacker who, in the end, did not exist.
No matter how the De La Varga case plays out in court, we cannot give up those painful gains in public safety. Nor can we begin to turn our backs on women who report sexual assaults.
That would only make the community more vulnerable.