You’ve heard the numbers: Nationally, about 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape during her undergraduate years in college, 1 in addition to undoubtedly high numbers of male and transgender survivors. Yet, rape and sexual assault continue to be vastly underreported, with school administrators, counselors, health care professionals and advocates receiving relatively few reports of sexual violence. As an advocate for student survivors, I find myself often wondering how I can better reach students and provide them with the services that they may want or need. One way that colleges have been attempting to improve their systems is by gaining a better understanding of what barriers students encounter when thinking about reporting, and addressing those barriers directly with policies and programs.
In a national study of sexual assault reporting on college campuses, researchers found that there were a number of barriers to seeking services: alcohol or other drug use, not believing that the incident was “serious” enough to report, fear of reprisal by the assailant or others, fear of other impacts and disbelief that the system will help them.1, 2 In addition, systems for reporting are often confusing processes, causing students to be unsure of what the outcome might be or what the process might look like. These fears are valid considering the social climate that students live in, where media reports of the ramifications of reporting are in abundance. However, there are a number of ways that Vassar College addresses these barriers directly that students may not know about.
First, Vassar has a Good Samaritan Policy stating that no charges related to any involvement of drugs or alcohol will be pursued against the alleged victim of any reported sexual assault” right in the Student Handbook (p. 133). Alcohol is a factor in the vast majority of sexual assaults on college campuses, and students should never worry about getting in trouble for alcohol use when they are also coping with a traumatic incident. It is never a student’s fault for using alcohol or other drugs and having a crime committed against them, and no blame is placed on the victim.
Second, Vassar takes as much of a victim-centered approach as legally possible when providing services to victims, meaning that victims are given control over decisions regarding reporting and services. As long as the student or community is not in immediate danger and there is no direct threat of harm, victims can choose whether or not they want to report, when to report, how to report and if they ever want to pull out of reporting. Students who are wrestling with whether or not to report an incident should not feel pushed to do something that they are not ready to do.
Additionally, Vassar has the ability to institute a no-contact order between the victim and perpetrator; this means that the victim and perpetrator will not be allowed to contact the other face-to-face or through Facebook, phone, email or their friends. Any violations of no-contact orders are taken very seriously and are seen as violations of Vassar’s policies. Often, conduct hearings and sanctions result from violations. Students could also have a Do Not Contact Order instituted by the Town of Poughkeepsie Police, which is similar to a Restraining Order, which is also another option.
Being sexually assaulted is often traumatizing and confusing; trying to conceptualize what it would look like to report a sexual assault while also coping with it is often overwhelming. Students can always speak to, or sit down with, the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) advocate, who are faculty/staff/administrators trained with sexual assault that can give you your options, provide support, and answer questions, or CARES—peer support for students affected by personal violation—to ask questions about the process by calling 845-437-7333. In addition, as the Coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) Program, I often sit down with students and go through the various options for support, academic accommodations and reporting, as well as offer to accompany anyone through the process of reporting a personal violation.
Students can report a sexual assault through an advocate or directly to various campus officials, including Safety and Security or Title IX investigators (see infographic).. Once a student decides to report, they would first set up a time to sit down with two Title IX Investigators Kelly Grab, Rich Horowitz, or Kim Squillace and their support person or advocate of their choosing to talk through the incident. During the meeting, one investigator asks questions while the other takes notes, and survivors can take breaks or stop the conversation at any time. After talking through the incident, the investigators work with the survivor to see what order in which to do the next interviews to keep the survivor the safest, including interviews with any witnesses to the incident or people that the survivor may have talked to after the incident, as well as the alleged perpetrator. Before the perpetrator is asked to come in to talk with the investigators, a no-contact order is put in place that forbids the perpetrator from contacting the survivor in any way.
After all of the interviews are done, the investigators compile a report and the victim is given the opportunity to review it to confirm its accuracy. Then, a panel consisting of three people is convened: the default is two faculty/administrators and one student, but if either the victim or alleged perpetrator would like all faculty/administrators, they have the right to make that choice. Typically, the victim and perpetrator are both present for a hearing, but there is a large wall dividing the room so they cannot see each other. However, if a victim chooses not to be in attendance, there could be other options for participation, including giving a written statement or Skyping/calling in to the panel hearing.
Victims can have an advocate or support person present at all points of the process including the interview with investigators, speak with various systems on campus, during the actual pane hearing and any meetings with town officials if they choose to report to the police. They also have the option to say that they want to discontinue their participation in the process at any time, even if the college decides to move forward with the charges.
At the end of a panel hearing, the panel decides if the perpetrator is “responsible” or “not responsible” for violating one or more of Vassar’s policies (see “Sexual Misconduct” in the student handbook for more information). If the student is found responsible for sexual assault, sanctions can span from suspension to expulsion. These sanctions are decided on by the panel and explained to all parties within 48 hours of a “responsible” finding.
There are still many reasons that students may choose not to report sexual violence to the college or the police, and those reasons are valid. There is absolutely no time limit for reporting to Vassar, which means that a student can even report a sexual assault a few years after it occurred and can take the time that they need to make a decision to report or not. In addition, students are always given the opportunity to report to the police before, during or after reporting to Vassar if they choose to do so, and the Vassar administration will work with police to make the process as seamless as possible.
I hope that the system we have in place indicates clear consequences for actions that violate Vassar’s code of conduct, a clear process for reporting to that system and a multitude of support systems that students can access if they need assistance while reporting. I am always happy to sit down and discuss any issues that students perceive, and to provide support and information to students, whether or not they choose to report.
Those in need of assistance can contact Elizabeth Schrock at firstname.lastname@example.org and 845-437-7863.