Approximately one in five female college undergraduates are sexually assaulted during their tenure at a university, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice. Though these reprehensible and criminal occurrences happen at institutions across the nation, administrative response protocols vary among campuses.
The Sam Houston State University Crime Victims’ Institute , in conjunction with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, sponsored a sexual assault response training seminar Aug. 2 at the University of Texas at Austin to educate university professionals on the most effective ways to respond to sexual assault cases and assist victims in the recovery process.
The event was organized by CVI Research Associate Nicole Wilkes who said representatives from 37 different institutions attended the summit. Wilkes said Title IX legislation, which deals broadly with gender issues in higher education, includes protocols for reporting sexual assaults but is unclear on how universities should respond to reported incidents.
“In Title IX there’s direction on how to respond to sexual assaults, but it’s not black and white,” Wilkes said. “It’s nebulous, and doesn’t go into detail about which procedures are and aren’t appropriate for dealing with both victims and offenders.”
In an April 2011 letter issued by the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees Title IX compliance, inadequate institutional response to on-campus sexual violence would constitute an environment of sexual hostility and a violation of protocol. Universities who fail to comply with Title IX are subject to sanctions and fines.
A separate piece of federal legislation known as the Clery Act requires higher education institutions who participate in federal financial aid programs to release annual crime statistics to the public.
Amy Hamilton, a clinical psychology doctoral student, attended the training seminar. She participated in the event to get a better understanding of how institutions respond to violent criminal acts.
“I had no idea that there wasn’t a clearly defined set of rules that universities have to follow (in response to sexual assaults),” Hamilton said. “A lot of universities just sort of develop procedures on a case by case basis. There’s no uniform protocol.”
No formal complaints have been filed against SHSU in regards to compliance with Title IX or the Clery Act. According to the University Police Department’s official crime statistics, there have been three reported incidents of sexual assault on the SHSU campus in 2013, all confined to residence halls.
Executive Director of Residence Life Joellen Tipton said that staff in the department, including resident advisors, are trained in how to respond to sexual assaults. If an incident is reported to residence life staffàUPD and the Counseling Center are immediately notified, and a member of each agency is dispatched to assist the victim.
“We try to make the process as comfortable as possible for the victim,” UPD Chief Kevin Morris said. “In most cases we deal with female victims, so if they are more comfortable speaking with a female officer, then we send a female officer to meet with them.”
After consulting with a UPD officer, the victim then has the option of whether or not to pursue criminal charges against the assailant. In Texas victims can press criminal charges, while also remaining anonymous, through the use of a pseudonym. The state will not engage in a criminal case against the perpetrator without the consent of the victim, even if a police report is filed.
“We go the extra mile to present the options to the victim so they know where they can go to get support,” Morris said. “One of our priorities is to get someone from the counseling center to talk to them to start the healing process.”
Dr. Drew Miller, executive director of Counseling and Health Services, works to repair the mental trauma inflicted by sexual assault among college students.
“One of the biggest challenges in a college environment is that there are a lot of elements in that lifestyle that can cause sometime to feel more vulnerable,” Miller said. “There’s a degree of fear in the open environment of a college campus. For example if a sexual assault occurs in a dorm, we have to work closely with Residence Life to make sure the student is prepared to return to on campus living.”
Codifying appropriate response protocol to sexual assaults on campus remains a work in progress at SHSU. There are procedures in place at the university, whereby victims can seek justice against their perpetrators without pressing criminal charges. According to Dean of Students John Yarabeck, in these situations reports are taken and adjudicated internally on a case by case basis.
“SHSU seems to be making substantial effort to be as sensitive as possible to the victims,” Hamilton said. “Administrators at the university have made it a priority so that going forward, the university will have an organized, thoughtful and well-considered response to sexual response victims.”
Improvements on the horizon include equipping and staffing the Student Health Center with certified personnel trained in treating sexual assault and utilizing rape kits to gather evidence should the victim decide to file a criminal complaint against the assailant.
Currently victims of sexual assault can be prescribed Plan B, aka the “morning after pill,” at the Student Health Center to prevent pregnancy from the rape, but they must travel to one of the hospitals in The Woodlands to collect DNA evidence for a potential criminal case.
“Given the magnitude of college sexual assault, it is imperative that all colleges and universities take a proactive approach in preventing this crime, as well as effectively responding after an assault occurs,” Wilkes said. “The impact of sexual assault greatly effects students’ lives and can lead to dropping out of college, mental health issues, substance abuse and a multitude of other health and social problems.”
For more information on the Crime Victims’ Institute, visit crimevictimsinstitute.org. To report a prior sexual assault to UPD, call 936-294-1794.
For information regarding SHSU’s counseling services for victims of sexual assault or to schedule an appointment, call 936-294-1720. Federal patient information protection laws ensure any correspondence with or treatment from the licensed medical professionals at the Counseling Center will remain private, except in cases of an imminent threat or ongoing abuse.