By: Sara Forcella, See The Triumph Contributor
The time directly following a sexual assault can be an extremely overwhelming time for survivors. During this time survivors are faced with not only the physical and psychological trauma, but lots of difficult and time-sensitive decisions that need to be made. Right after an assault, survivors may need to process through the following options: to go to the hospital for a medical exam or not, to have STD testing done or not, to get evidence collected (a rape kit) or not, to report to the police or not, to tell someone or to tell no one. Some options, such as evidence collection, have an expiration date--survivors are only able to collect evidence for up to 72 hours immediately following an assault.
As an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, my role is to help students understand their reporting and support options. I am able to help students conceptualize what each of these options may look like should they chose to use them. As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I thought it may be helpful to discuss some more general options, which most four-year universities offer students. Remember, not all universities’ sexual assault protocol and resources are the same; however, most will offer the following reporting options for survivors.
University or Local Police Departments: Police departments are non-confidential resources. Utilizing these legal services may seem like the simplest option for survivors of sexual violence; however, they can also be the most emotionally taxing. Reporting to Police Departments opens a legal investigation of the alleged crime. Once a survivor reports, they have the power to decide if they want to participate in the investigation fully or not at all. They can decide to go to court hearings and be questioned by detectives who collect information. Utilizing the Police Department is the only true way to impact perpetrators legally--by reporting to the police you open up an entire legal avenue.
Possible pro’s of using the legal system can vary. One benefit of use the police is that it gives survivors a chance to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes and it may ensure that assailants are not able to become repeat offenders. By reporting an assault, it may also be easier to obtain a court-ordered protective order.
A Possible con of using the legal system is that not all police officers are taught to use “trauma-informed care”. This means simply that some officers do not understand the way that major trauma impacts survivors. Survivors are typically asked to recount the assault more than once, leading to possible re-traumatization and emotional drainage. The legal route takes a long time--some survivors will have wait for well over a year before a verdict is reached. Some cases may never even reach the court system due to a lack of evidence. Overall, this can be infuriating for survivors, and may even leave them feeling unheard or not believed.
Student Conduct: Student conduct is another non-confidential resource on college campuses. Student conduct investigations and hearings are separate from legal ones. The findings of student conduct cases have nothing to do with the findings of police investigations, though witnesses, evidence and facts may overlap. Student conduct allows survivors to hold other students accountable for their actions on campus. Because of Title IX, universities must follow certain rules and regulations for incidences of interpersonal violence on campus. All survivors are allowed access to a ‘quick’ and equitable hearing. They are mandated to learn the outcome of their case, as well as have the ability to appeal a hearing decision.
A possible pro of utilizing student conduct is that similarly to police investigations, it allows survivors to hold perpetrators accountable. A distinct difference between student conduct and legal investigations is that universities require a substantially lower burden of proof. In accordance with Title IX regulations, schools must decide if an assault occurred ‘more likely than not,’ NOT beyond reasonable doubt, like in legal courts.
Possible cons of using student conduct may vary depending on the university. Again, not all student conduct offices approach investigations using trauma informed care. Sometimes dealing with an on campus investigation can be overwhelming to survivors. It’s important to note that student conduct is only limited to supporting survivors whose assailant is another student at that university.
University Counseling Services: University counseling services are mandated confidential resources. In fact, the only time a counselor is allowed to report anything discussed with a student is when the student asserts that he or she may harm themselves, or someone else. Most university counseling service fees are included with student fees meaning that they are free of charge during the time of visits.
A possible pro of using university counseling services is that students are able to share their experiences and talk about the incident without having to be concerned about it ever being reported. Of course, there are also tons of benefits to having access to mental health care. This can especially help survivors who may also be dealing with anxiety, depression or substance abuse.
A possible con of using university counseling services is that some students may feel uncomfortable using on-campus resources. Also, mental health is still highly stigmatized by our society making it harder for many students to take the first step and make an appointment to meet with a counselor.
As you can see, reporting options can be overwhelming and at times confusing. It’s also important to note that I have only covered a few common campus resources; however, most schools will have many more. Students may look into utilizing Title IX offices, Women’s Center’s and Interpersonal Violence Centers. Also, community resources are always another option that students have to utilize. The key for any survivor, is to feel connected and supported, regardless of what office they utilize following a sexual assault.