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What to do when you are a victim of sexual assault on campus

What to do when you are a victim of sexual assault on campus

Sexual assault on college campuses has become an increasing problem. The numbers of students reporting victimization is shocking. Prevention of and appropriate response to these incidents is of paramount importance to the student body, the institution, prospective students and parents, and the federal government.


Do

Do understand that campus sexual assault is a crime

The statistics on campus sexual assault are shocking. 1 in 5 college students reports being a victim of sexual assault while only 12% actually report the incident. Those who commit this type of crime are often repeat offenders. We talk about “campus sexual assault” as if it is a “different type of rape” that has its own definition in a state’s criminal code. In fact, campus sexual assault is rape just as if it were a rape committed by a stranger on a street and it is important to understand that fact. Calling it something else makes it seem as if the offense is less serious, the perpetrator less responsible and the punishment less important. Lets call campus sexual assault what it actually is -- rape.

Do reach out and speak up - you are not alone

As statistics show you are unfortunately not alone if you are the victim of a sexual assault on a college campus. Like any other victim of this type of crime you feel many conflicting and complex emotions. The most important emotion not to feel and to get immediately beyond is embarrassment. Too many sexual assault victims say that they are too embarrassed to report as they don’t want to discuss what occurred. Call your most trusted friend immediately so that they can support you through the next few hours and days. Report immediately to the campus response team or campus security. Immediately take back the control that you feel you have lost . Call the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. Your report may save others from being similarly assaulted.

Do know your college’s sexual assault response policies

The Clery Act (enacted by Congress in response to the tragic homicide of Jeanne Clery) requires every college and university to annually report all sexual assaults on campus. These reports are available to the public. Title IX additionally requires all universities to provide a campus environment free of sexual harassment and discrimination. Your campus should have a response protocol in place for a victim of sexual assault. Counselors, medical professionals, faculty and security should all be trained on these protocols.

Your campus is responsible for having in place appropriate procedures for reliable and impartial investigation of complaints. There must be prompt adjudication of the complaint and a fair hearing process at which you will have the opportunity to present evidence. You should be able to easily access these prevention and response protocols immediately upon your arrival on campus. If you have not been offered this information it should be on the campus website.

Do undertake medical treatment immediately

First and foremost you must seek medical attention. Your health professionals will ascertain with you what types of tests, antibiotics and treatment you need. This is important to protect yourself from any health related repercussions as a result of the assault. It is secondarily important as a way to preserve physical evidence which may become important to you at a later time. Seeing a medical professional will document proof of injuries, sexual contact, immediate outcry and treatment, which are all admissible in university hearings or the criminal justice system.

Ask for mental health counseling as well. You may feel depression, anxiety or experience trauma as a result of being assaulted and it is important to have an experienced counselor you can trust. Remember that your conversations with medical professionals and sexual assault counselors are completely private.

Do discuss options with a trained professional

It is your decision as to how to proceed. Discussion about reporting the incident to the college administration, campus security or local law enforcement will take place. Listen to the discussion and then take some time to think about your options. Your school should allow you to discuss reducing your immediate workload responsibilities if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Your future contact with the perpetrator should be immediately addressed if you are feeling traumatized and fearful. Most schools will investigate and hold a “hearing” to determine guilt. If the perpetrator is found guilty a school related sanction will be imposed. That can mean anything from a warning placed in a student file, through permanent expulsion. Going to local law enforcement may result in the arrest of the perpetrator. A school may not attempt to dissuade you from doing so. The local district attorney will then be responsible for the investigation and prosecution of that case. Criminal sanctions will also depend on the seriousness of the offense and the available evidence. Sentencing in the criminal system can range from probation to jail terms.


Don't

Do not believe intoxication is a defense

A perpetrator’s level of intoxication does not limit his responsibility for the crime of rape. Nor does the fact that a victim may have had a few drinks. It is unfortunate that some see a victim who has been drinking as an “opportunity”, but the fact is that many people make mistakes when they are inebriated. People accidentally leave credit cards on bars, leave dorm rooms open, car doors unlocked and handbags unwatched on the back of a chair or on the floor of a bar. All of these present “opportunities” too and yet most intoxicated college students never steal the bag, the card or the car because to do so would be committing a crime.

Committing a sexual assault while intoxicated is also a crime. The costs to participating in this type of behavior are real and far reaching. The perpetrator can be arrested and convicted of a crime, sued in a civil court, sanctioned and expelled by their college, lose potential admission to graduate school or be declined employment as a result of committing a sexual assault.

Do not believe consent is complicated

There is a myth being perpetrated on college campuses today that the concept of “consent“ is complicated. This is not true. For many years sex crimes advocates and prosecutors have battled this issue. Years ago the word of a victim of sexual assault was not enough to convict a defendant, additional corroboration of her testimony was needed even when that was not the case for any other type of felony.

We have come a long way, but we have not come far enough. A culture change is necessary on the college campus. A victim who is semi conscious is not consenting to intimate relations, a victim who is being physically pressured through bodily force is not consenting, a victim who has not said yes is not consenting.

Do not be intimidated by a lack of response

It is important to recognize that most institutions are not perfect and you will need some trusted assistance to navigate your recovery from this sexual assault. You may feel that campus security, counselors , medical professionals or local law enforcement are not responsive to your needs. Don’t allow this to discourage you from going forward.

There are numerous advocacy organizations available to assist with the process. For victims on a college campus there is a website “Know Your IX” which enables you to talk to others who have gone through this experience. Every community in this country has sexual assault hotlines and advocacy groups with whom you can connect.

Do not fail to intervene if you are a bystander

It is estimated that almost 58% of incapacitated rapes and 28% of campus rapes take place at a campus party. The prevention of sexual misconduct is a community responsibility and everyone on campus should become an active and engaged bystander. If you are a friend of a potential victim, intervene and end the potential for sexual violence. Do not be afraid to pretend you need to speak to the victim about something important, pretend that someone is looking for the victim, pretend another friend is really sick -- anything to intervene and get the victim out of harms way.

If you are a friend of a potential perpetrator remember that you may be blamed at the moment for interfering but you will be thanked later. There is no question that many accused of sexual assault later wish a friend had intervened and deescalated the situation. Don’t wait for someone else to be the engaged bystander-- divert, de-escalate and intervene.

Do not blame yourself

You are the victim. In 9 out of 10 college sexual assaults the victim knows the perpetrator. The assailant is a classmate, a friend, an acquaintance, a dorm member, a fraternity party host. This fact is much of the cause for failure to report and self blame. There is no profile for a perpetrator. He can be the most or least popular person on campus.

Everyone’s reaction after being the victim of a crime is different and many victims freeze and do not immediately respond. This is understood by those trained to work with sexual assault survivors and is called frozen fright or disassociation. It is the result of shock, trying to protect oneself and trauma. Your reaction is your reaction. Do not second guess yourself or allow that to dissuade you from reporting the assault.


Summary
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If you are the victim of a campus sexual assault you may feel alone and confused. Years ago there was no one to whom you could turn. Today, every campus is mandated by the federal government to have prevention and response measures in place. You have the right to expect that your institution has lived up to this obligation.

Report immediately and get the medical and counseling assistance you need. Let someone help you sort out your options and be there as you navigate through the system and recover from the assault. This will help you regain your feeling of control and you will protect both yourself and others by insuring that the perpetrator be held accountable. You have the strength to make this happen.


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Lisa C. SmithProfessor

Professor Lisa C. Smith is a graduate of Franklin and Marshall College and Brooklyn Law School. At Brooklyn Law School, she is Director of Externship Programs and has taught the Prosecutors Clinic, the Family Law Violence Project and Innovations...

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