Reporting sexual assault at U.Va.

The process of reporting an assault, changes in the aftermath of Rolling Stone

Almost 13 percent of University students reported experiencing sexual assault or misconduct by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation since enrolling, according to results from the 2015 campus climate survey. Of female undergraduates, 23.8 percent said they had experienced sexual assault or misconduct since entering the University.

There are many different avenues through which a student can report sexual assault via the University, and many support services for those who wish not to report an incident of sexual violence or misconduct.

Reporting sexual assault to the University

If a sexual assault occurs on Grounds, the University must comply with several different entities in processing a report on that assault. Not only must it abide by Virginia state law, but the University must also adhere to several federally mandated programs, including Title IX, the Violence Against Women’s Act and the Clery Act.

An assault can be reported to the University by contacting the Title IX coordinator or through the University’s online reporting system, Just Report It. When an assault is reported, both the complainants and respondents are assigned an Office of the Dean of Students support dean, as well as given information on advisors they can contact, University Title IX coordinator Catherine Spear said.

The first step after a report of assault or misconduct committed by a student is an initial assessment by the Title IX coordinator, which addresses any immediate health or safety concerns. Then information about the reported incident is forwarded to an Evaluation Panel, which conducts a health and safety threat assessment. After this assessment, the panel will decide to resolve the report by a formal resolution or an alternative resolution.

In a formal resolution, the University’s Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights conducts an investigation of the incident, which culminates in a review panel hearing. If the hearing finds the respondent responsible for the incident, possible sanctions include expulsion and suspension. An alternative resolution encompasses a variety of informal options, including facilitated meeting between the two parties, educational programming and training and University housing modifications.

Students can seek out counseling in addition to making a University report or without making a report. Spear said the University also offers resources through different support centers. Outside the University, several groups in the larger Charlottesville community work with students who have reported an incident of sexual assault.

At the University itself, resources include Counseling and Psychological Services, the University Ombuds, the Maxine Platzer’s Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center and the Multicultural Center. Community resources for victims include the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, Shelter for Help in Emergency and the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

Reporting sexual assault to University police

Survivors of sexual assault may choose to make a report to the police in addition to or instead of a report to the University. In these instances, the University Police Department or Charlottesville Police Department are often the primary contacts. The UPD and CPD will jointly work on a case if the incident occurred in both University and City jurisdictions.

“If a crime occurs on University Grounds, UPD is the primary police agency to investigate the incident,” UPD Crime Prevention Coordinator Benjamin Rexrode said in an email statement. “Similarly, if a crime occurs in the Charlottesville City jurisdiction, CPD is the primary investigating agency.”

After receiving a sexual assault report, the police department will began a criminal investigation.

“The first priority that the University Police Department has when we receive a report of sexual assault is the survivor’s safety and well-being,” Rexrode said. “Our next step is to begin to investigate the crime that occurred.”

Once a report is filed, UPD collects evidence that is presented to the Commonwealth’s attorney. At this point, the presiding attorney for the case decides if criminal charges will be filed.

However, if a student reports an assault to an administrator who has a reporting obligation to Title IX rather than the police, the process will look different.

In that case, “there is then a process in place within the University where that information would be seen and evaluated by a panel that includes a member from our police department,” Rexrode said. “That officer and the panel would then assess the incident and depending on the case, possibly investigate it or refer the case to the respective police agency where the crime occurred.”

Support for survivors

With more than one in 10 University students responding in the campus climate survey that they have experienced sexual assault or misconduct, medical resources at the University are an important tool in helping survivors cope with the physical, mental and emotional troubles that may follow an assault.

The Women’s Center’s counseling team sees clients for a range of issues, from academic concerns to anxiety and depression, Women’s Center Director Abby Palko said.

“Two members of the team are trauma counselors who each have a full-time caseload of about 22 clients at a time throughout the academic year,” Palko said in an email statement. “The trauma counselors’ caseloads include clients who have experienced sexual assault, harassment or interpersonal violence.”

The Women’s Center is just one resource on Grounds that provides confidential advocacy, support groups and a safe space for survivors of sexual assault if they need it. Counselors at the center are part of the University’s network of confidential advocates who are available to listen to victims, but will not bring their cases to University authorities or the police.

“Claire Kaplan, who leads our Gender Violence and Social Change team in providing education and outreach around Grounds, is a confidential advocate,” Palko said. “With this status, she can talk with anyone who needs to discuss a sexual assault and she is not mandated to report that information just as the counselors are not.”

Confidential employees include University employees who are licensed medical, clinical or mental-health professionals, as well as any employee who provides administrative, operational or related support for such health care providers, according to the University’s Reporting Policy. All other employees — with a few exceptions — are considered “responsible employees” and are required to report all details disclosed to them to the Title IX coordinator.

Palko said the center provides a Survivor Support Network training for any University staff, faculty or students who want to learn about dealing with trauma, existing University policies and resources and ways they can help support a survivor.

Rolling Stone’s impact

Despite the amount of resources available to students, victims may not want to report a sexual assault they have experienced. There are many reasons why students may not want to report an assault, including fear of retaliation and a potential lack of support.

The top reason why students do not report their sexual assault is to protect themselves from future attacks by the offender, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

“[Reasons for not reporting include] harassment from the perpetrator or his/her friends, pressure to withdraw the report, lack of support or losing friends who know the accused person,” Palko said. “If parents know, and aren’t supportive, this can cause serious issues as well.”

The University has seen an increased number of sexual assault reports recently, which could be an outcome of the Rolling Stone’s debunked article “A Rape on Campus” and former Assoc. Dean Nicole Eramo’s subsequent defamation trial, Palko said.

“U.Va. has experienced an uptick in the number of reports since the [Rolling Stone] article,” Palko said. “So it’s possible that survivors recognized that their experiences fell into the definition of sexual assault and that there are resources available on and off Grounds.”

However, Palko also noted that the article could have a negative effect on victims who are thinking of reporting their assault.

“On the other hand, the retraction exacerbated the problem of victim-blaming and the stubborn notion that women lie about rape in greater numbers than the data show,” Palko said.

Less than a month after the conclusion of Eramo’s trial, it remains unclear how the article and its aftermath will affect sexual assault reports in the long run. However, some students believe the University should continue working to make Grounds a safer environment for survivors.

Schools across the country need to work on their response to sexual violence, and the University is no exception, fourth-year College student Nick Favaloro, One in Four public relations chair, said.

“In particular, we hope universities begin to see sexual assault as a substantive issue in and of itself, rather than viewing it as a PR problem,” Favaloro said. “We also hope the University can help us student groups foster a culture of support for survivors.”

related stories