Sexual assault: a comprehensive look

Originally published April 25, 2013 in The Mooring Mast

Sexual Assault: a comprehensive look

By Alison Haywood, News Editor

Despite Pacific Lutheran University’s numerous programs to prevent rape and sexual assault, these crimes still happen more than anyone would like to think. It is important to examine how effective these programs are in actually educating the campus community and preventing sexual violence in the first place, empowering and supporting survivors when it does happen and holding perpetrators adequately responsible when they are found guilty.

Meet Vicki

Vicki* went to her first college party her junior year at PLU. She had never gone to a party before, because her parents had always stressed that school came first. But it was the beginning of the school year, and she’d just turned 21, so she decided to check it out.

She met a guy at the party — another student — and they talked and flirted and got to know each other. She said they had both been drinking. She wound up following him home to his dorm room on campus.

Things heated up quickly. They kissed. She said yes. Then it went further. Suddenly she realized she didn’t know what she was doing anymore.

“I don’t even know what time it is. I don’t even know where I am,” she recalled. “It’s really blurry … things kept happening that I kept saying ‘no’ to.”

Vicki said she felt a sense of obligation to do what he told her to do. She remembered feeling uncomfortable, then angry. She said he eventually let her leave, and she made her way back to her own dorm, crying, frazzled and still drunk. The next day, she made an appointment with victim advocate Jennifer Warwick at the Women’s Center and reported the assault.

Sexual assault cases like these are not rare, and they do not always happen the way people think.

Amy* met her best friend at PLU. They had the same major, many of the same classes and dozens of friends in common. Their friendship eventually developed into an intimate relationship.

Then the harassment began.

“He would harass me at social settings, at parties, say really awful things, and he even took it to Facebook once,” Amy said.

Verbal harassment escalated into physical harassment, and culminated in him raping her in her house while she was drunk.

“There were lots of physical encounters that probably shouldn’t have happened, but the one that really kind of was the ending point … I’m 100 percent sure that we had sex,” Amy said.

Amy recalled blaming herself for the assault — a trait common among survivors — and didn’t report it immediately, because she didn’t want anything bad to happen to him.

She said what injured her the most was that her attacker was someone she knew. “It’s not ‘PY’ waiting for you on your walk back from [a party]. It’s not some old man, drunk, in the bushes, watching you walk home … It is your best friend that sits in class with you every day. It’s the person that you trust, and it’s the person that you love.”

Melissa* met a guy at a party at her house off-campus. They talked and flirted, and she made it clear from the beginning that she did not want to have sex with him. “From the beginning, I told him, you know, ‘I don’t have sex with guys … that’s not something I do. Go hit on someone else if you want that.’ And he was all like, ‘oh, I respect that. I respect that,’” Melissa said.

They went to her room and started kissing, but she kept reiterating that she didn’t want to have sex. They engaged in consensual oral sex, but then he put her on her bed and raped her.

“For the first two full seconds, I just remember being in shock,” Melissa said. “I said no, probably, like, five or six times … he just kept saying, ‘you’re okay, you’re okay, it’s alright,’ and I was just like, ‘no, I’m not okay, it’s not alright,’ and I just started crying.”

Education and prevention

When it comes to preventing sexual assault on college campuses, Pacific Lutheran University is ahead of the pack. Beth Kraig, chair of the Women and Gender Studies program from 2004-2009, said the past decade had seen significant progress in terms of bringing the issue of sexual assault into the public forum.

“As recently as 10 years ago at PLU, the larger social discussions around sexual assault were just beginning to emerge in an open way about things,” she said. “It’s not that it hadn’t happened, but it was something that people didn’t talk about openly.”

Victim Advocate Jennifer Warwick said myths around sexual assault were prevalent when she first started at PLU eight years ago.

Hughes said the issue of Green Dot and sexual assault being brought up at the recent ASPLU election debate was something that would have never happened 10 years ago and that PLU was pretty unusual in having a dedicated staff to promoting safety on campus.

Nevertheless, all three women agree PLU still has a ways to go in eliminating rape culture.

Hughes acknowledged rape myths still exist, and said, “as long as people are still being victim to these crimes, I think there’s room for improvement.”

Victim advocacy

While Warwick, as victim advocate, is the official resource for victims of sexual assault, the Counseling Center and Campus Ministry are confidential places where victims can disclose their assault and get counseling services. The Health Center also offers victims confidentiality, tests for pregnancy or STIs and help with post-traumatic stress responses.

Matt Freeman, director of the Health and Counseling centers, explained that information shared with anyone in a medical or counseling role is privileged information and cannot be shared with anyone else without written consent of the student. The only exceptions are if there is an imminent danger to the student or others, or the victim is a minor or a vulnerable adult.i The idea behind this is that there needs to be a safe place where people can disclose sensitive information with confidentiality.

“If a student goes to see an administrative staff member, in fact any employee of the university who could have any other leadership over students … then there’s a duty to report,” Munson said. “It’s privileged only if they’re meeting with a health care provider.”

In addition to one-on-one counseling with the victim advocate, the Women’s Center also offers group therapy in the form of Circles of Healing, a support group led by an outside therapist that meets once a week and focuses on the healing aspects of trauma.

Vicki described Circles of Healing as “a great resource,” saying it taught her how to deal with responses such as nightmares and flashbacks.

“It’s a hard process, because it’s in-depth, and you know people in there who have gone through the same thing, but it’s also really rewarding, because they’ve all gone through what you’ve gone through,” she said. “You become friends.”

Melissa also had a positive experience with Circles of Healing. “It’s a safe place to go. You have people who can relate to you … it’s a whole new type of therapy,” she said.

Circles of Healing will be ending after this year unless PLU can find an alternate means to fund it, because the grant money from the Department of Justice is ending.

Although there is no way to know the true number of sexual assaults on campus each year due to underreporting, the rates of reported sexual assaults go upwards each year.

“You look at that, and then you think, ‘oh my gosh, more people are being harmed, what’s happening?’ But the way I interpret it … is that people are more aware of what sexual assault is and how to help someone if they are assaulted,” Warwick said. “I believe people are probably being assaulted just as much as they were eight, nine years ago, there’s just more awareness and more understanding of the resources.”

Perpetrator Accountability

Anyone who goes on the Pierce County Sheriff Department’s websiteii can find an interactive map detailing the locations and names of all registered sex offenders within a two-mile radius of PLU — there are 45. It does not include, however, unregistered sex offenders living on campus.

This is because PLU’s student conduct system – and that of many universities – functions separately from local law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

“We’re pretty self-contained,” Associate Director of Student Conduct Ray Lader said. “We will cooperate [with local law enforcement and judicial institutions] when asked, because [of] the way we have to be set up for federal guidelines.”

When it comes to dealing with sexual misconduct, all educational institutions that receive federal funding are caught in a veritable policy gridlock of laws that make it difficult to determine a course of action.

The Jean Clery Act requires institutions to release annual statistics regarding crimes that occur on and near campus in an effort to encourage accurate reporting and transparency, but FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) prevents the school from releasing any information about a student to an outside source without the student’s written consent. Title IX, meant to guarantee all students’ rights to an education, can silence victims from naming an attacker, because it can affect their alleged attacker’s education. A 2011 document from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, known as the Dear Colleague letter, attempts to clarify them all.

Director of Campus Safety Greg Premo said when a sexual assault is reported to Campus Safety, PLU is required to launch its own investigation, as determined by Title IX. They are not, however, required — or even allowed — to report to the police without the written consent of the victim, as determined by FERPA. In this case, the court would have to issue a subpoena to obtain records of the investigation.

“We highly encourage reporting through the Sheriff’s Department for all assaults, but again, it’s really up to the victim if they want to go that route,” Premo said.

The school may release information to the campus community if the attacker is determined to present an “imminent threat” to the campus community, meaning they make a clear indication of reoffending. No student has been determined a threat to the community in the past eight years.

The student conduct system is much different than the criminal justice system. It moves much faster, and Lader tries to inform both parties about the process as much as possible so they can each present their best selves.

“I’ve worked hard to make sure that it’s [the student conduct system] the least traumatic for all involved,” Lader said.

A coordinated community response system allows different institutions within the university to communicate with each other so victims only have to tell their story once. “That reduces the need for the person to tell their story over and over … which we know is really traumatizing when you have to explain something and relive it,” Warwick said.

PLU’s sexual misconduct policy is also broader than the FBI definition of rapeiii and includes other forms of power-based personal violence, such as sexual harassment and stalking.

The biggest factor keeping all perpetrators from facing consequences is underreporting.

“People after an assault really just want to heal,” Warwick explained. “They want to forget about it. They want to move on with their life — go back to normal — if you will.”

Warwick said on average, three or four students report to either the criminal justice or the student conduct system per semester, and she sees about 30-35 students for advocacy services.

She acknowledges, however, that not everyone who walks through her door is a victim. Some people want to talk to her about abuse they suffered before coming to PLU, and others did not appear to have been sexually assaulted, but had just done something they later regretted.

Because PLU is an educational institution, the extent of its power lies within the educational realm. This means that no matter what policy violation students are found responsible for (PLU’s preferred term rather than “guilty”), the worst that can happen is a suspension or expulsion, which will not follow them after they leave PLU unless an employer or another school asks for their transcript — a request students can deny.

Lader said suspensions and expulsions are last resorts for PLU because “we want everyone to learn from the situation. We don’t want it to just be a punitive action” and “it [using educational sanctions] gives them a chance to grow.”

Educational sanctions can include researching a topic such as consent or unhealthy masculinity, writing a paper or attending a workshop. The severity of the sanction is determined by the severity of the violation, as recommended by the hearing officers.

After the assault, Vicki wanted nothing more than for her attacker to be expelled from PLU, so she reported to the student conduct system. Although the man was found responsible, Vicki believes he was held to a lower standard because the attack was not penetrative. His sanction with student conduct was to write a paper about consent — a lighter sanction than if he had been caught with alcohol on campus.

“The conduct system … they really let me down,” Vicki said. “That’s probably the hardest part … [crying] knowing that this person is still on this campus, that there’s a risk of this happening to someone else, or, you know, a retaliation against me — this is terrifying.”

Amy expressed a similar disappointment with the student conduct system. She did not want to make an accusation against her alleged attacker, but was forced to when a different victim of the same man named her in a statement, drawing her into the investigation. A total of four alleged victims of this man were involved in the investigation, and he was found not responsible.

“I had to go talk to all these different people. I wanted nothing to do with it,” Amy said. “And at the end, when it was all said and done, they sent me a letter saying … nothing happened, he didn’t do anything wrong.”

The letter referred to her alleged attacker as an “asset to the community.” Amy believes his on-campus clout and popularity contributed to a verdict of not responsible.

“It upsets me to know that he will leave this community and go to a different community and do the same thing,” Amy said. “They say that one attacker will do it at least four times. He already has this trend going. And I hope that he stops, not for his sake, but for his community’s sake.”

Melissa reported to both the police and student conduct. The man who raped her was found responsible in student conduct and guilty of third-degree rapeiv in court. He has been suspended from PLU until she graduates, and his sentence has yet to be determined.

“Student conduct was awesome and I trusted them. They did their job very well,” Melissa said.

After going through both the student conduct and the criminal justice system, Melissa said the student conduct system was much faster and more organized. She said it felt less like two opposite sides fighting against each other and described the hearing officers as more “in the middle.”

Melissa also talked about the burden of going through court while still a student. “It’s like having a whole new world on your shoulders,” she said. “On top of school, and college, it’s just adding another load you have to walk around with.”

Warwick said she has mixed feelings about the privacy policies surrounding sexual assault. “It’s a conundrum,” she said of burdening educators with law enforcement. “If there was like a murder on campus … they wouldn’t hesitate to refer that on to law enforcement, right? … [but] I also believe in empowering the victim, and so I would never want a process to happen that the victim doesn’t feel like they were in charge of, and has agency in.”

PLU recognized for laudable prevention programs

PLU has a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms for various programs against sexual assault, including SAPET (Sexual Assault Peer Education Team), VAV (Voices Against Violence) and MAPPE (Men as Partners Promoting Equality).

Other resources include Jennifer Warwick, a victim advocate, and Jonathan Grove, the men’s project coordinator.

PLU has received three separate grants, totaling in nearly $1 million, from the Department of Justice since the early 2000s to establish programs to educate students on and prevent sexual violence.

With the money, former director of the Women’s Center Bobbi Hughes hired Grove and Warwick and established the Voices Against Violence program.

In 1999, PLU founded SAPET. In 2009, the Green Dot program, a bystander intervention program to prevent sexual assault, came to campus.

In 2010, the U.S. Attorney General visited PLU and nine other schools to recognize their exemplary organizations against sexual violence.

Only one other school on the west coast was chosen for this honor — Stanford.

*Names have been changed to protect victims

i. Vulnerable adults can include people who are institutionalized, mentally retarded or developmentally disabled
ii. Pierce County Sheriff’s Office Offender Watch®
iii. As of Jan. 6, 2012, the FBI legal definition of rape has been “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Source: FBI.gov
iv. A person is guilty of rape in the third degree when (a) the victim did not to sexual intercourse with the perpetrator and such lack of consent was clearly expressed by the victim’s words or conduct, or (b) where there is threat of substantial unlawful harm to property rights of the victim. Source: Washington State Legislature.

This article was updated on May 7, 2013 for accuracy and formatting.

A correction to this article ran on April 26, 2012 in The Mooring Mast

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