Michelle Issadore, from School and College Organization for Prevention Educators (SCOPE), answers Noodle’s questions about reporting options for victims of campus sexual assault.
First and foremost, after an assault, victims are encouraged to go to a safe place, receive medical attention if they so choose, and consider counseling. It is also beneficial for victims’ recovery to hear that they are believed and that the sexual assault was not their fault.
It is always up to victims to determine what makes the most sense for them, as a means of restoring some control over their bodies and their lives. Victims may request assistance in choosing the right reporting option. That is why it is beneficial for all of us, from first responders to friends and family, to learn more about next steps.
There are two overarching systems for reporting campus sexual assault. These can be utilized separately or together: local law enforcement and the school administration.
Support services for victims can include any or all of the following: victim advocate (may be based in a police department, women’s center, courthouse, community organization, or other setting); counselor; medical professional; academic support; or others, depending upon the institution. These support services may aid the victim with the reporting process, in the aftermath of an assault, or when seeking remedies to ensure access to equitable educational opportunities.
Victims are encouraged to seek medical attention within as narrow a timeframe as possible (typically 24–72 hours), in order to preserve evidence and ensure that preventive treatments are most likely to be effective.
If a hospital has a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, the nurse on call will be notified of the need for a Physical Evidence Recovery Kit (PERK), or rape kit. Police will be notified that the victim of a crime is seeking medical attention. However, victims do not have to cooperate with the police investigation if they choose not to. Many jurisdictions, or even campuses, will also offer the option for a victim advocate to accompany victims through the process. Please note that these exams can take several hours, and various restrictions, such as not changing clothes, bathing, or using the restroom, may be placed on victims in order to preserve evidence.
Victims can also seek medical attention without pursuing a PERK, to check for internal or external injuries, as well as to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. This can also be done in settings other than a hospital, such as at a community clinic or campus health center.
A rape kit is a Physical Evidence Recovery Kit (PERK), which allows a medical professional to examine a victim for injuries consistent with the crimes of rape and sexual assault, as well as to retrieve specimens (hair, skin cells, bodily fluids, etc.) to identify the victim and perpetrator. Since this experience can be difficult following a sexual assault, and is a process for legal evidence collection, the examiner will not leave the victim once the exam has begun. The kit is handed over directly to law enforcement as part of a pending investigation of the crime.
Rape kits are used in criminal prosecutions, but not necessarily in university hearings. Because the central issue in most (though not all) campus sexual assaults is consent, such exams may not be necessary. However, collecting evidence with a rape kit may permit victims to pursue multiple options in the future.
SAFE/SANE hospital programs employ specially trained nurses who understand both the physical and emotional aspects of examining a recent victim of sexual assault, as well as how to best collect and preserve physical evidence. Unfortunately, they are not available at every hospital. In situations where a SAFE/SANE program does not exist, typically the OB/GYN resident on call will perform the exam in the emergency room.
Victims can determine who accompanies them to the hospital. Typically, they will be asked if they would like one person to stay with them during the exam, though this may vary from location to location. The support person should do his or her best not to interfere with the exam, but rather remain a support for the victim.
Victims can request an advocate, a male or female examiner, emergency contraception, sexually transmitted infection prophylaxis, and/or a toxicology report. The toxicology report is not a standard element of a PERK, but should be requested if a victim believes he or she was drugged in order to facilitate the rape or sexual assault. Victims can also opt out of any step of the exam with which they are not comfortable, with the understanding that potentially less physical evidence will be recovered.
Victims may seek medical attention at a community clinic or campus health center, though typically a PERK will not be available at such locations. Additionally, states and institutions may offer compensation for travel to seek medical attention.
Typically, victims would speak to the force whose jurisdiction covers the location of the assault. A student can call or go to the police to file a report, a process that includes providing a statement of facts from the student’s perspective. Students can review their statements in writing, and then sign them to confirm the accuracy of their contents.
Research on the neurobiology of trauma, specifically that of Dr. Rebecca Campbell, has taught us that victims process and report information pertaining to sexual assault differently than we previously assumed. Well-trained investigators are familiar with victim accounts shifting after a sexual assault, and perform follow-up interviews as necessary.
Police will investigate the reported crime(s), often by interviewing involved parties and witnesses, as well as collecting any physical evidence from the scene or medical reports. Unfortunately, there is no standard timeframe or range for how long the process may take, though police will work to gather information and interview relevant witnesses in a timely manner.
Sexual assault is a crime, and police are better trained than ever before on how to treat victims with respect and understand the complicated nature of this offense. Many areas offer the services of trained victim advocates to help victims navigate the process and protect their rights.
Some students do not feel comfortable reporting to the police for a multitude of reasons: They may not define what occurred as a crime; they may fear not being believed or being blamed; they may have negative feelings toward police or the legal system; they may not want to see their perpetrator face jail time; they may believe there isn’t sufficient evidence for an investigation or determination of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ideally, your school will have detailed information available online. You should also have received training about sexual assault awareness and prevention when you started school as part of new student orientation. Schools are being tasked with creating guides on sexual assault reporting options and resources.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights guides schools to respond to reports in a prompt and timely manner, typically investigating and holding any hearing within 60 days (outside of appeals, accounting for any breaks in the academic calendar, and following the victim’s wishes if possible). Procedures may vary from campus to campus, but typically the victim will give a statement to a Title IX Coordinator or Deputy Coordinator. The individual school may have staff or external investigators review statements, medical records, and interview witnesses prior to writing an investigation report and/or conducting a hearing. Appeals may be heard by another hearing panel or an institutional leader.
Victims may choose to pursue an institutional response for a variety of reasons. The police and district attorney may not feel there is enough evidence to move forward in the criminal justice system, which uses the “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of evidence (as opposed to the most widely applied campus standard of
“preponderance of the evidence”) and has historically been challenging for victims to navigate. The victim may also prefer the outcome of the perpetrator’s expulsion or suspension to that of potential jail time.
This issue has received a great deal of attention from the federal and state governments in recent years, so schools have been changing their policies and procedures to comply with best practices. While this is a positive step, the additional reporting option may cause confusion among students about how and where to report sexual assault.
Most institutions will have a police, campus safety, or security office that will take reports in much the same way as a local police department. Every school should have an appointed Title IX Coordinator.
Some students may choose to report directly to a Title IX Coordinator or Deputy Coordinator. Others may report to the Student Conduct office, as sexual misconduct is a violation of the school’s code or policy. Campuses may have an office dedicated to sexual assault prevention and response, and students may seek out staff, peer educators, or advocates working there. Some victims may utilize the services of the campus health center or counseling center. Schools may also offer anonymous reporting options, usually online or via a hotline.
There is a difference in the level of confidentiality that certain offices can offer. Typically, clergy and licensed counselors who hear reports in the context of their protected duties are permitted to maintain confidentiality. Medical health providers and sexual assault advocates may be able to offer limited confidentiality, but check with your school if you have questions.
Most other faculty and staff, including student staff, are required to share details of any reports they receive with the administration. It is helpful for victims to be aware of these confidentiality issues as early as possible in the process, so they can decide what to share and with whom. The school is likely to take the victim’s wishes regarding moving forward into account when receiving a report, but may have to proceed with an investigation in certain circumstances if the community’s safety is at risk.
Schools should have information clearly and readily available online. You should also have received information on the subject of sexual violence and reporting options as part of new student orientation. Related offices may have written materials for you to review when considering your options. There may also be a hotline, chat, or peer educator group to which you can reach out for additional information.
Schools receiving federal funds are required to handle claims of sexual violence in a prompt and equitable manner under Title IX. Individual policies and procedures may vary, especially according to unique missions and histories (such as religiously affiliated or single-sex institutions).
Some schools, especially smaller ones, may utilize a collaborative approach among multiple offices in responding to sexual assaults. Almost every college has had a report of sexual violence previously and should be actively working to bring their efforts in line with current best practices. Therefore, administrators should be familiar with how to assist victims or know where to access resources to improve their skill sets.
Appeals processes may vary from school to school, but the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights explains some basics on page 37 of their April 2014 Q&A document.