Resources available for victims

It took her months of processing before she could call it rape.

Before it happened, her only exposure to the idea of rape came from movies and television. After it happened, she realized that it didn’t have to be as extreme as an episode of Law & Order for it to be sexual violence.

“At the time, I didn’t know that (it was rape), since the way that sexual assault and rape are usually defined as, it’s by a stranger and it’s often physically violent,” said the young woman, who is a student at Virginia Tech. The Collegiate Times is not identifying her due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

“Only after, through processing and dealing, I learned it can be through friendships, personal relationships. So, that’s when I kind of realized that it was bigger than just getting mugged on the street.”

The offender, another Tech student, was a roommate of one of her friends, so for a year and a half after he raped her, she saw him frequently. He claimed ignorance, but contradictorily claimed responsibility for what happened.

“He was pretty vocal, which was traumatizing,” she said. “I guess a month and a half after it happened, we were at a place where all of our friends were, and he actually bragged to a person — who is now my boyfriend — that he had had sex with me and that he had done these things … I didn’t want to go and (approach him), because then I would have to say why he was wrong.”

The rape went unreported, a decision that was right for her in her healing process. She was met with support from some, but not all.

“Not all people want to report for whatever reason, and I feel like that should be respected,” she said. “I think what people don’t understand is what all the victim has to go through in reporting it.”

Now, three years later, she’s turned her painful experience into a way to help others by volunteering at the Women’s Resource Center in Radford, where she helps other survivors of sexual violence find the resources they need.

“I really wanted to get involved in some kind of volunteer work related to it, as a way to heal,” she said. “But I was willing to try anything to change how I was thinking about it. I’m actually considering jobs in that field of work.”

“I don’t think if this hadn’t happened to me I would’ve really thought it was such a big issue because none of my friends had gone through it, I had no exposure to it, I did not know what kind of impact it had, especially on a college campus.”

Unfortunately, her story is one that is all too common.

A Department of Justice study found that during a woman’s time in college, one in five will be victims of sexual violence — broadly defined as completed, attempted or threatened rape or sexual assault. One in 71 men will also be victims of sexual violence in their lifetime.

Figures provided by the DOJ study estimate that for a campus the size of Tech, with over 12,000 female students, upwards of 350 rapes could be occurring annually.

Since Aug. 20, eight student-on-student sex offenses have been reported here on Virginia Tech’s campus — an alarming figure in and of itself, but even more alarming considering it only reflects what has been actually reported and what occurs strictly on campus.

The DOJ study also demonstrates that the reports may be drastically under representative. In the national study from 1992-2000, “63 percent of completed rapes, 65 percent of attempted rapes and 74 percent of completed and attempted sexual assaults against females were not reported to the police.”

Reported on-campus sex offense figures for Virginia Tech were low over the last three years when compared to the national estimates, which are disclosed in the Annual Jeanne Clery Disclosure Reports released by VTPD annually on Oct. 1.

At Tech in 2011, 12 forcible sex offenses were reported. In 2012, eight forcible sex offenses were reported. In 2013, no forcible sex offenses were recorded. But four new categories created in 2013 as a result of changes to the Violence Against Women Act show that there were six incidents of sexual assault, one instance of domestic violence, one instance of dating violence and four instances of stalking.

In any case, the numbers are a result of a reporting system that changes often, either by the hand of the government or in decisions made at the local university level.

The system is complicated, but there are resources available to help survivors of sexual violence find their way.

The decision to report ultimately begins and ends with the victim.

A portion of a federal law on education known as Title IX, however, has changed the way universities deal with gender discrimination and sexual violence since its implementation in 1972.

Under Title IX, university employees are required by law to report on behalf of the victim if they are made aware of an act of sexual violence. Known as Campus Security Authorities, they are individuals who have "significant responsibility for student and campus activities,” according to the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting.

This broad definition includes resident advisors, campus police or security, professors, athletic coaches and coordinators of Greek activities.

“All our resident advisors this year received extensive training, as well as all our student affairs professional staff and even everyone in the Division of Student Affairs because anyone who has an institutional role at Virginia Tech has an obligation to report,” said Frank Shushok, Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Student Sexual Misconduct and Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs.

Shushok’s office responds to any instance of student-on-student sexual misconduct separately from police investigations.

“The way that works is that at any point that we become aware … of any allegation of sexual violence, we would respond to that,” Shushok said. “I have a team of five investigators that have been specifically trained. They work a process to try to understand what happened and to address that issue.”

When Shushok’s office receives a report of a sex offense, the team of Title IX investigators reach out to the victim “to try to do an investigation to understand what happened,” even when the case is not being pursued by police at the victim’s request.

Shushok said the office investigated over 20 cases last year.

“We always try to start with the victim and try to work at a pace that is comfortable to the victim. That’s why, often, our investigators will go over to the Women’s Center (to talk with a victim who has reported under Title IX),” Shushok said. “What we try to avoid is for a victim to have to tell their story over and over again. Anytime we can do it in a collaborative way that feels safe and at a pace that works for the person who has been a victim of sexual violence, we try to do that in the best manner possible.”

Once a Title IX investigation is completed, if further action is required, Shushok’s office will forward the report to the Office of Student Conduct, who then “address it based on the university’s sexual misconduct policy,” Shushok said.

“We have a very specific protocol for responding to sexual violence with the Office of Student Conduct,” Shushok said. “We always have hearing officers that are particularly and specifically trained to hear cases of sexual violence.”

The office does not use students to hear cases of sexual violence, and they always have both a male and a female hearing officer.

“It’s already vulnerable enough to come forward when you’re a victim of sexual violence,” Shushok said.

In recent years, colleges like Yale and Amherst have come under fire for their failure to respond properly to sexual violence, which creates a “sexually hostile environment,” according to a Title IX complaint filed at Yale.

Yale and Amherst are just two of the colleges that have become part of an open investigation into the handling of sexual assault cases at a total of 76 universities across the nation.

In Virginia, the University of Virginia, William & Mary, James Madison University and the University of Richmond are under investigation for Title IX investigations. Tech is not on the list.

“These are life-altering moments ... and we want to do this well,” Shushok said. “We want to hold people accountable that need to be held accountable, and we want to support students who have been victims of this. We’re very much trying to change a culture.”

The Women’s Center, located on Washington Street, is one of the local resources available to both women and men, students and university employees. When sexual violence occurs, the center provides services for victims.

“We provide support and advocacy to folks, and that can mean anything from somebody needs someone to talk to or if somebody is working with the police or going through a Title IX investigation, we provide them information and support them through that process,” said Christine Smith, co-director of services at the Women’s Center. “We can help them if they’re having trouble with classes as a result, or if they need to move rooms or whatever the case might be.”

Recently, however, the Campus Safety and Security Committee changed the status of the Women’s Center to that of confidential advocates, meaning they are no longer obligated to report cases to the Title IX Coordinator. Now they only report “trends and non-identifying information” to the police in order to comply with the Clery Act, Smith said.

Essentially, though the on-campus statistics are still recorded, identifying information about the victim no longer has to be disclosed to the Title IX coordinators.

At the Women’s Center, the change was welcomed.

“We absolutely want folks to report if that’s what they want to do,” Smith said. “But we also want folks to have a space where they can figure out what they want to do, so we’re very pleased by our ability to provide that space.”

Members of Womanspace, an on-campus student group dedicated to the empowerment and support of women, also voiced support for the new policy.

“That’s a really good sign that our university is becoming more about the survivors and much less about the institution around it,” said Claire Kelling, co-president of Womanspace and a junior statistics and economics double major.

Reports sent in by CSAs contributed to the total 32 sexual assaults reported to the Virginia Tech Police Department over the last three years.

“The vast majority of the reports we get are third-party reports,” said VTPD Chief of Police Kevin Foust. “People are not required to report crimes to the police department anywhere in the country. You can’t be forced to come in and report a crime. It’s your right to report a crime, and we hope everybody would, but the majority of the ones we get are third-party reports.”

For the past three years, VTPD has had a conviction rate of 100 percent in cases where victims agreed to pursue a criminal investigation.

“Of the 32 reports of sexual assaults made to VTPD, seven victims asked for a criminal investigation. The VTPD successfully investigated and made an arrest in all seven of those cases,” Foust said.

More often than not, however, the victim does not pursue police action.

Three of the eight reported sexual assaults at Tech since Aug. 20 required the issuance of crime alerts to the student body because they posed a “continued threat to the campus community,” Foust said. All three of the crime alerts said the victims did not pursue an investigation.

In those three cases, the victims were also acquainted with the offenders.

A national study showed that from 2005-2010, 78 percent of sexual violence involved an offender who was a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance. Knowing the offender often plays an active role in the victim’s decision to prosecute.

Even if a criminal response has been declined, however, the university is required to investigate any reports of sex offenses under Title IX.

Womanspace held a protest on Main Street on Sept. 26, just five days after the eighth sex offense was reported on campus since Aug. 20.

“We thought with all of the sexual assault survivors stepping forward and all of the reports of sexual assault that we do something that showed solidarity and support of them,” said Meg Gisonda, Reproductive Rights Chair of Womanspace and a senior biological sciences major.

The protest was an effort to discourage victim blaming, in which blame is placed on the victims rather than the offenders.

“With all of the victim blaming going on on campus lately, we're really trying to show our support of not only the survivors, but also the families of the victims,” Kelling said. “It’s a way to raise awareness of this issue on campus because a lot of people say these things without meaning to — without even realizing the effect.”

“It’s the culture that fuels sexual assault ... and we’re going to have to tackle those at the same time we’re tackling responding to the incidents,” Shushok said.

It’s an issue that the Women’s Center hopes to also educate the community about.

“There’s always room for more education. I think educating folks about the impact that victim blaming has on victims and the willingness of victims to come forward … is one of the things I’d really like to see people paying attention to so that we can provide, as a community, a supportive space for folks,” Smith said. “We as a community need to look out for one another and support folks who do come forward and support folks in whatever decision they make in their own healing.”

Multiple initiatives from Shushok’s office also aim to educate, such as a new 45-minute module on consent that all incoming students are required to complete.

Shushok said that consent could not come from an incapacitated person and that a person could consent to one act, but that didn't necessarily mean they consented to another.

“As we continue to try to educate people, it’s helping everyone — men and women — understand the definition of consent,” Shushok said. “That’s what we’re going to hold people accountable to at Virginia Tech.”

The Women’s Center, Schiffert Health Center, Cook Counseling Center, The Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley and Womanspace are a few of the options available to survivors.

All of them are available to just listen.

Ultimately, it is up to the survivor to control how they want to heal.

“You have power in your words, and if someone takes that power away from you, there are ways that you can report it and try to restore some semblance of balance in your life,” the young woman said. “This event, though it may be for some absolutely earth-shattering, it doesn’t have to end that way. There are things and people that can help you. Find what you want to be your peace.”

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