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In depth: VCU strives to assist sexual assault survivors

College-age women are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of any other age group, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Students at Virginia Commonwealth University are no exception.

Capital News Service



By Caitlin Barbieri and Katie Bashista

“All it took was for my friend to get distracted by someone for five seconds, and I was being pulled out into the hallway,” said Zoe Morgan, a sexual assault survivor.

Morgan, a junior, was at a party at an apartment off campus. “I thought I did things to protect myself,” she recalled. “I brought a friend, I didn’t drink much, I put shorts on under my dress, I had someone who was going to walk us home.”

But those precautions did not prevent her from being assaulted by a man she knew and felt she had no reason to fear.

“It was like a personality switch because he was really nice and caring, but after more shots of alcohol, he got aggressive and it was like tunnel vision,” Morgan said.

The young man led Morgan from the party and asked her to go home with him. When she declined, she said he began assaulting her in the hallway. Morgan was paralyzed with shock and was unable to protect herself.

“I would always think in that situation, I would fight them, I would punch them, but you never know,” Morgan said.

As the assault escalated, Morgan said the man took her into the stairwell and raped her. Afterward, still in shock, she left the party with her friend and met up with another friend who called VCU Police.

The rape reflects a disturbing campus statistic: College-age women are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of any other age group, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

A month after her assault, Morgan reported the incident to the VCU Title IX office and began seeking help. She chose to pursue a full investigation of the incident and is currently awaiting a final decision from a Title IX review panel. Since her attack, she said, the resources at VCU have helped her heal. However, nationally, she is in the minority of women who report their attack.

Most college students don’t report

A study by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network said about 80 percent of college-age females who are sexually assaulted don’t report it.

In the 2016-2017 school year, VCU Police received 77 reports of sexual assault on campus. That number is up from 54 reports the previous school year; however, according to VCU Police, the increase signifies that more victims are coming forward – not that more attacks are happening.

Still, many sexual assault survivors – like Wendy Matthews, a sophomore at VCU – have decided to not involve the police.

“I really just didn’t report because I was so scared of the person,” Matthews said. “I was being torn apart, in a sense.”

Matthews said she was raped by a coworker last fall while she and her attacker were intoxicated. She said she repeatedly declined his advances but wasn’t able to stop the attack.

Reporting an incident to any of VCU’s services, including Title IX and VCU Police, doesn’t always result in an investigation. Reporting a sexual assault can simply give the survivor access to support. At VCU’s Wellness Resource Center, The Well, survivors can make a report and seek counseling only.

“If a student is not interested in reporting, we’re not here to force them to do that or to do that on their behalf,” said Kaylin Tingle, LGBTQIA+ violence prevention specialist and advocate at The Well. “We like to say they are the driver of the car and we are like the GPS, so they choose where we are going, and we just help them get there.”

Morgan went to therapy at The Well and said the services she received there have significantly helped her cope with the anxiety and depression she has experienced since the attack. Matthews also used The Well to get connected to a counselor outside of VCU.

While The Well works to support survivors of sexual assault, it also works to prevent sexual assault through educational programs and events. These programs provide information about the resources available to students and about topics such as consent.

The fact that Matthews had been drinking when the incident occurred was a factor in her decision not to report to police. She feared they wouldn’t be able to prove her claim and that it would be her attacker’s word against hers.

“People who are raped when they’re drinking, it’s kind of difficult because consent there becomes the person who’s sober gets to make that choice, not you,” Matthews said.

VCU’s Sexual Misconduct/Violence and Sex/Gender Discrimination Policy includes an amnesty policy: The university will not take “disciplinary action based on disclosure of personal consumption of drugs or alcohol where such disclosures are made in connection with a good faith report of Prohibited Conduct.”

This policy is meant to encourage survivors to report their assault and seek help without worrying about repercussions for underage drinking or use of illegal substances. Many survivors are also concerned that their intoxication could impact an investigation and make a conviction less likely.

“Alcohol is the most commonly used drug to facilitate sexual assault,” Tingle said. “Trauma impacts the brain and memory in complicated ways, and many survivors have trouble remembering all the details of their experience, and VCU Police are trained to understand this.”

While Matthews didn’t report her incident to police or to the university’s Title IX office, she did use the resources provided by VCU’s Medical Center.

VCU offers rape survivors free testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Moreover, the university ensures that the individual receives treatment from the same doctor at each appointment so survivors don’t have to explain their story more than once, according to Matthews. VCU also places an emphasis on making the patient feel comfortable.

“After I opened up and told her what happened, her whole demeanor of even how she treated me medically changed,” Matthews said about her physician. “She was a lot more conscious of every time she touched me, asking me if it was OK. That was really big.”

Matthews, like many victims of sexual assault, was afraid to report her case to authorities. The process is long and stressful and statistically doesn’t end in a favorable result for the survivors. According to RAINN, of every 1,000 rape cases, only 13 will be referred to a criminal prosecutor and just seven will end in a felony conviction.

However, according to Sgt. Chelsey McCarthy of VCU Police, the process “is really giving control to a survivor as to how they make their police report and what level of engagement they want to have in a criminal investigation.”

Survivors can choose how engaged they want to be in the criminal process and if they want to launch a criminal investigation. If someone files a report but does not want to launch an investigation, VCU Police connects that survivor to The Well, the Title IX office or VCU Student Health so they can have access to resources for their mental and physical health.

McCarthy is the coordinator of the You Have Options Program, which outlines VCU Police’s response to sexual assault.

“Because it is so survivor-centered, it’s really difficult to measure success by how many cases get prosecuted,” McCarthy said.

“We measure success in: Did we provide the survivor with support through his or her decision on what’s going on? Did we collect the information that was available to us about the offender in our community? Because what we know is that most people that commit sexual assaults are repeat offenders.”

VCU Police adhere to a program called Start by Believing, which promotes reporting of sexual assaults by sending the message that the department supports survivors.

“It’s very much a community effort,” McCarthy said. “There’s been this stance of, we’re going to support one another and support the decision to come forward and talk about these types of things.”

The only circumstance in which VCU Police would send a report to the Title IX office regardless of the survivor’s preference is if there was a direct threat to the rest of the community.

“If we learned certain information, we have to report it to Title IX,” McCarthy said. “So we make sure before we get any details from survivors that they know what are our obligations are.”

VCU Title IX supports students

Emily Rivers attended a fraternity function with one of her close friends. Afterward, she went to the house of a man whom she had grown close to and was interested in. Rivers said she was drunk, but not at the point of blacking out. When she arrived at his house, he told her she could sleep in his bed while he went out with some friends.

After a few hours, Rivers was abruptly woken up by the sound of the man stumbling in and slamming the door, causing the bottles on his dresser to clank against each other. It’s a sound Rivers said she will never forget.

Rivers was a virgin before the incident, which she said made it more difficult for her to process what was happening to her.

“I kept saying no over and over and over again, and he wouldn’t stop,” she said. “I just let it happen because I didn’t know what to do. I felt limp.”

The next morning, Rivers woke up to find blood matted in her hair, dried on her legs and all over his sheets. At this point, she didn’t process that she had been raped. In fact, she didn’t come to realize it until three months later.

Rivers decided not to report because she was afraid of how her family would react. She said that while she never experienced severe anxiety before, she does now and has been dealing with it on her own. She finds support from her friends but hasn’t used any resources through VCU.

The incident impacted her education as an art student at VCU as well as her personal and social life.

“I love art, but I would be in my studio classes and I would literally be sitting on the edge of my seat because I was so anxious,” Rivers said. “I just needed to leave, and as soon as we could leave, I would run out of there. I just didn’t want to talk to anyone.”

Tammi Slovinsky is the deputy coordinator for Title IX at VCU. Aside from helping students during the investigation process, she also offers support services to students who come forward to report incidents of sexual violence.

“I send notes to professors, which don’t indicate what happened because we protect the student’s privacy, but it lets them know they’re dealing with a sensitive matter and to have some consideration,” she said.

Slovinsky can also help students in the appeals process if their academic performance is impacted by a Title IX situation.

If students want to know what their options are after reporting an incident, the Title IX office will inform them.

“Usually within a couple days, I send a note to the student outlining their options and their resources,” Slovinsky said. “They’re not required to respond to us, but we want to make sure that they know that the university cares about them and that they know what their options are.”

Laura Rugless, the director of equity and access services, says the Title IX process for dealing with sexual assault reports is an administrative process rather than a criminal one.

“It’s a finding of a violation of the university’s policy,” she said. “In some cases, the behavior the person is found responsible for may also be criminal in nature.”

Determining whether an act violated university policy often requires a deeper look into consent.

VCU’s Sexual Misconduct/Violence and Sex/Gender Discrimination Policy defines affirmative consent as: “Voluntary, informed, non-coerced agreement through words and actions freely given, which a reasonable person would interpret as a willingness to participate in mutually agreed-upon sexual acts.”

During the 2015-2016 academic year, 339 reports were made to VCU’s Title IX office. These reports included sexual assault, partner or relationship violence, sexual exploitation, stalking, other sex or gender-based discrimination and undisclosed reports.

The number of reports increased to 390 during the 2016-2017 school year. VCU officials believe that shows how their commitment to tackling campus sexual misconduct is making an impact.

The decision to report or not to report to police or to the university is something survivors of sexual assault must learn to live with. For Matthews, her decision not to report is still something she finds herself thinking about.

“I made the choice not to report, which I regret a lot, and that’s a tough thing to come to terms with,” she said. “I don’t know if it would’ve helped me recover more or if it would’ve made it worse.”

The process for reporting to VCU’s Title IX Office

The reporting process starts with someone coming forward, whether it be the survivor, a friend or a faculty member. This person is referred to as the complainant.

Laura Rugless, VCU’s director of equity and access services, says her office responds to the report as quickly as possible – typically within a few days.

After the complainant details exactly what they recall happening, the investigators determine if there was a violation of campus policy and if they can move forward with the investigation. If the investigation can move forward, a written notice of investigation is issued to all parties involved.

The written notice of investigation is a detailed letter that lets the person being accused, the respondent, know exactly what they’re being accused of.

“That’s part of due process,” Rugless said. “Universities have been found not to provide due process, and as a result, the outcome can’t withstand judicial scrutiny. We really put a lot of emphasis on that stage of the process.”

From there, investigators will collect social media screenshots, texts, emails, phone logs and video surveillance if available. Two interviews each are then conducted with both parties and any witnesses. A draft investigation report is written and given to both parties, and they have five business days to respond. Another investigation report is written based on those responses. Then the final investigation report is sent out.

If either party is not satisfied with the results, they can challenge it on certain grounds as specified in the policy.

Rugless said VCU’s Title IX staff understands that not everyone wants to report an incident of sexual assault or rape in fear of what the process looks like, but they are here to help.

“Just take it a step at a time, and we’ll walk people through it,” Rugless said. “We want to make sure we balance the rights of both parties in this process, and we want to make sure we get it right based on the information we get.”

VCU resources are available at all times to support students who have experienced sexual assault. Survivors can call:

  • The VCU Police at 804-828-1234 and request to be connected to the 24/7 on-call therapist at VCU Counseling Services.
  • The Well at 804-828-9355 during business hours.
  • The VCU Title IX office at 804-828-1347.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The names of the sexual assault survivors used in this story – Zoe Morgan, Wendy Matthews and Emily Rivers – are pseudonyms. The women asked that their real names be withheld for their protection.

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