This is the third part in a series of four Campus Safety magazine articles covering sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. Some of the material in this article is explicit and might not be appropriate for younger readers. Our next installment will cover relationship violence. To read our first installment on stalking, click here. Our second installment on sexual violence prevention can be found here.
Let’s say your campus is doing everything right in preventing sexual assaults. You are providing sexual violence prevention education to incoming freshmen and other students, as well as fraternities, sororities and athletic teams. You have enlisted the help of bystanders, including staff, coaches, teachers, administrators and strangers, so they will intervene and hopefully avert a sexual assault from actually happening to a targeted victim. You have effective alcohol and drug prevention/intervention programs available. You have done your very best to develop a culture in your community that fosters respect and healthy relationships.
Despite all of your hard work, you know that not all assaults in your community can be prevented. When assault allegations arise, your institution’s administration — in addition to law enforcement — will be tasked with the investigation.
Don’t Delay Your Inquiry
The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) “Dear Colleague” letter sent to educational institutions last year instructs campuses to not wait for the conclusion of a criminal investigation before beginning their own Title IX investigation. The inquiry should be prompt, thorough and impartial. Additionally, OCR estimates that a typical administrative investigation should take approximately 60 days following the receipt of the complaint, depending on the complexity of the investigation and severity and extent of the incident.
Related Article: Not Complying with Title IX Could Cost You
In order for an investigation to be effective, however, campus/district administrators and police must recognize the impact of trauma and rape on victims, advises Dr. Gary Margolis, who is managing partner of Margolis, Healy & Associates.
“There is no normal victim response to trauma,” he says. “The victim might not remember the assault, or they may have a significant change in behavior. A normally outgoing person might become withdrawn (or vice versa). The survivor might suddenly become promiscuous (or vice versa). She or he might gain or lose weight. Perhaps they can’t sleep or are sleeping much more than before. She can’t recall the penetration but can tell us that there were 722 holes in the acoustic ceiling tile above the bed. (To protect herself emotionally, she disassociated by counting the holes while the assault was occurring.)”
Most, but not all, victims of sexual violence don’t physically resist. The attack may trigger a survival mechanism that allows them to subconsciously evaluate fight/flight options and they remain calm and subservient as a survival strategy. Conversely, they may be in shock or have been, either knowingly or unknowingly, incapacitated by alcohol, drugs or both.
Margolis claims most victims who experience the trauma of sexual violence have a better recollection of the details or sequence of events over time. Educated police officers, investigators, hearing officers and prosecutors understand this and conduct their investigations, hearings and prosecutions accordingly, with deference and explanations for this phenomenon. Often survivors’ accounts of what happened change, which can play into the respondent’s (defendant’s) hands if not appropriately taken into consideration. Furthermore, many victims might not even realize that they were raped for reasons that include incapacitation and loss of memory. In one study, only 27% of the women whose sexual assaults met the legal definition of rape thought of themselves as rape victims (Koss, 1988; Koss et al., 1987).
Assault Victims Often Don’t Come Forward
More than half of college women who are raped tell no one of their victimization, and the others who do tell often wait for days, weeks or months before making a report. Margolis says investigators must understand why they are reluctant to talk, especially to police or university officials.
“Most women feel they won’t be believed,” he says. “She knows someone is going to ask her why she was wearing a dress that came up above her knees. Why was she drinking? Why did she drink so much? Why did she go to the party alone? Why did she stay for the after-party? Why was her cell phone battery not charged? Why did she kiss him if she wasn’t interested in sex? Those are questions that send a very clear message to the person reporting: ‘I’m going to get blamed, and they aren’t going to believe me.’” (Note: only about 2% of all sexual assault accusations reported to police turn out to be false. This is the same rate of false reporting as other types of violent crimes.)
To overcome this reluctance, OCR recommends campuses provide educational programs that encourage students to report incidents. OCR also suggests schools develop specific sexual violence materials that include the schools’ policies, rules and resources for students, teachers, coaches and administrators. The materials should include where and to whom students should go if they have been assaulted or subjected to sexual harassment. These materials should also provide information on what to do if they learn of an incident.
“We have to make sure we are empowering victims to make the decision that is right for them while also encouraging them to report so we can investigate,” says Tom Tremblay, who formerly was Vermont’s public safety commissioner and is now a consultant with Margolis, Healy & Associates.