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Options, resources, support: A look at how VCU is responding to sexual assault

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By Tom Gresham, Corey Byers and James Irwin
University Public Affairs

 

Taylor Davis, a Virginia Commonwealth University student and president of SAVES (Students Advocating Violence Education and Support), has seen reports of sexual assaults increase at VCU in recent years.

Taylor Davis.
Taylor Davis.

For Davis and other advocates, however, the numbers demonstrate not just the extent of a nationwide problem but the progress the university is making toward addressing an issue that for too long has been overlooked.

“[Sexual assault is] happening,” Davis said. “It happens on all college campuses — sexual assault is happening everywhere. But nobody necessarily wants to report it in some places. The fact VCU has seen an increased number in reporting speaks to the fact that VCU is trying to make this a survivor-friendly space for them to come forth — it shows how willing VCU is to make strides toward making a survivor as comfortable as possible … I know this is happening and it’s good to see the numbers reflect that.”

Sexual assault has historically been an underreported crime and only now is it beginning to emerge from the shadows. For years, survivors of sexual violence have not felt safe coming forward with their experiences. Nationally, numerous factors are to blame for past underreporting, including insufficient resources, support, education and prevention efforts; self-blame, embarrassment or belief that an incident is not serious enough to report; and an unwelcoming cultural atmosphere in general.

Improvements in those areas — both at VCU and at many institutions across the country — are helping reveal just how extensive this problem has always been. In the past, the problem was so well hidden that advocates and experts struggled to grasp how to measure it.

Campus resources

VCU offers care and support and encourages people to seek help as soon as possible; also, as time passes, important evidence may be lost.

The VCU community can contact the VCU Police Department (which offers the You Have Options program), VCU Health System Forensic Nurse Services (through the Emergency Department), and for students, the Wellness Resource Center (for confidential advocates), Student Health Services and University Counseling Services. Equity and Access Services serves as the Title IX office for VCU and coordinates the university's response to reports.

Students can explore, in a confidential setting, available options based on individual circumstances, by contacting the Wellness Resource Center at MyOptions@vcu.edu.

“The change is that people are actually talking about it,” said Fatima M. Smith, assistant director of sexual and intimate partner violence, stalking and advocacy at VCU’s Wellness Resource Center, also called The Well. “When I was in college there was a feeling that ‘This isn’t really an issue. We don’t have that problem here.’ And when we [set up tables at fairs] people just avoided us. There are more students who want to be part of the conversation today and there are more survivors that are coming out and telling their stories in a very public way. I love seeing that they aren’t ashamed.”

 

 

Increased awareness

At VCU, officials cannot definitively pinpoint the reasons for increased reporting of sexual assaults, but believe it can be attributed to rising awareness of the issue and expanded resources, said Laura Rugless, director and Title IX coordinator in VCU’s office of Equity and Access Services, which oversees Title IX and the related administrative investigations for the university.

She points to a range of efforts made by offices and organizations throughout the university to increase awareness, such as mandatory online training for students and employees on sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, and stalking. Education and programming among offices and VCU groups emphasize affirmative consent, healthy relationships and intervention techniques. Research on stereotypes, prejudice and bias help combat some of the root causes of sexual violence.

“We think it’s due to increased communication and education,” Rugless said of the increase in reports. “I think word has, and will continue to, spread.”

Rugless said representatives of Equity and Access Services, VCU Police and The Well often speak to groups on both campuses and in the community to explain reporting and prevention resources and answer questions on the issues that face their audience.

“There is no audience too small for us to come speak with,” Rugless said. “If you ask us to talk with your group, we’re going to do our level best to make it happen.”

Chief John Venuti
Chief John Venuti

In new student orientations, VCU Police officers tell incoming freshmen and their families that VCU prohibits all forms of violence, including sexual assault, stalking, dating violence and domestic violence.

“Sexual assault is something we want to address immediately, before classes start and students live here,” said VCU Police Chief John Venuti. “We want to be transparent that it’s not acceptable. It’s a crime and VCU Police will investigate, should a student want to move forward with a criminal investigation.”

Davis said she can see the results of the efforts.

“There are increased efforts to not only explain what sexual assault is, but what VCU is doing about it,” she said. “VCU is ahead of the game. I mean, there are still colleges that don’t even admit this is happening on their campuses.”

 

Coordinated care

Fatima Smith’s office is huge — 21 feet long, nearly 14 feet wide, with a big bay window along the back wall that overlooks tree-lined South Cathedral Place. The room is thoughtfully decorated, with degrees and art on the walls and throw pillows on a black couch in the back of the room.

Fatima Smith.
Fatima Smith.

Three corkboards are filled with cards from friends, peers, co-workers and people Smith has helped. Two plants, gifts from her mother, sit in one of the windowsills. A jar of candy rests in the middle of a small table. A poem about survival leans against a whiteboard in the front corner of the room.

Smith meets with survivors and friends of survivors. When she started at The Well, a little more than a year ago, she took one look at her big, empty office and knew it needed work.

“People are coming here to talk about some really crappy stuff,” Smith said. “I brought my chair from home. I asked [the office] to give me a couch. I brought my plants and decorated. I tried to make it look homey.”

There is no set path for a sexual assault survivor to take after an assault. A survivor may go to police, the Title IX office, the hospital, a counselor, an advocate or outside the university. With this understanding, university administrators have been more strategic and collaborative in how they address each report.

Smith, former director of community outreach and public education at the YWCA of Richmond, is a sexual assault survivor and one of six advocates at The Well. She helps people understand their options if they want to speak with someone. VCU has many options, Smith said. It can be overwhelming.

“Our role, as much as possible, is to keep the choices simple,” she said.

The Well is part of a VCU-Richmond sexual assault response team that includes the Richmond and VCU Police departments, the university’s Equity and Access Services and Counseling Services offices, VCU Health forensic nurse examiners, the YWCA and the assistant commonwealth attorney.

Laura Rugless.
Laura Rugless.

The purpose of the team is to provide coordinated care, Smith said.

Equity and Access Services and VCU Police both investigate sexual assault complaints, among others, that reach their offices. Each office has its own protocols, but they often collaborate with each other and strive to help parties understand the other’s role. Title IX investigators handle the administrative investigation under the university’s policy, while police handle a criminal investigation.

“We make sure that there is a redundancy of information,” Rugless said. “If a student goes to a police station to make a report, then they will receive information about Title IX. If they come to Title IX first, then we’ll make sure they know about the criminal process.”

For the Title IX and VCU Police offices, it is critical that they approach each report in the role of neutral fact-finders. That means demonstrating respect for both parties, treating them fairly and being impartial. It also means pointing the way to other resources and options including medical care, counseling and advocacy.

VCU Police use the You Have Options Program (YHOP) to give survivors more control over what information they share with law enforcement. Survivors can file reports online, choose how much information they give to police, request a confidential advocate and choose to remain anonymous. Officers inform survivors about what the department’s obligations are for crime alerts and Title IX reporting.

VCU Police Officer Andrew Hudgins, a victim-witness specialist, said survivors often want the chance to talk through what happened and what they can do next.

“One, they just want to be heard, and two they just want to know what their options are and what’s available to them,” Hudgins said. “Whether it be resources or different ways of reporting, for the most part it’s not what the legal system or criminal justice system do but it’s finding what resources the greater community can provide.”

VCU Sexual Violence Support

If a survivor comes forward to VCU Police, the goal is to determine what justice looks like for the survivor and to proceed accordingly. Survivors are not pressured, or forced, to give information to police.

“I know that they’ve been through a state of trauma,” Hudgins said. “But the best way for me to communicate with them is to get on their level, talk to them as a human being — not as a survivor or victim, but as a person.”

In her role as deputy Title IX coordinator for students, Tammi Slovinsky reaches out to students when someone reports an alleged incident of sexual assault or another potential Title IX violation to Equity and Access Services. Reports frequently come from sources such as resident assistants, academic advisors, VCU Police, faculty members, fellow students or from the students involved. All employees of the university who are not confidential resources are mandatory reporters. Supervisors — including department chairs, deans and other unit administrators — and management and human resources professionals have additional responsibilities under the university’s policy. The initial letter to students from Slovinsky details resources and reporting information. Often, her job involves helping students with support measures related to their classes.

“It’s very important to us that no matter how much or little information students provide or how they choose to proceed, they know we are here to help,” Slovinsky said.

When I train interns I tell them, ‘You are a GPS. You show them the routes and options. But they pick the destination.’

Matthew Meneely, senior civil rights investigator and deputy Title IX coordinator for investigations, said investigators thoroughly explain the process to the parties so they can make informed decisions about their participation. They, too, point students involved in investigations to support and resources. He said that officials understand that while not everyone is ready to start the investigation right away — or sometimes at all — some information can be lost if an investigation is not initiated sooner rather than later.

“Students who may be initially reluctant are deciding to proceed with an investigation after accessing resources and learning about the process,” Meneely said. “At the end of the day, we want a wraparound approach where people are safe and supported throughout the investigation process and beyond.”

Regardless of how a VCU student approaches the university, they are provided options, Smith said.

“I believe a person who can describe a problem has the capacity to describe a solution. They just might need time and space,” Smith said. “When I train interns I tell them, ‘You are a GPS. You show them the routes and options. But they pick the destination.’”

 

A multitiered effort to ‘a human issue’

VCU is constantly working to enhance its ability to prevent sexual assault from happening, Smith said.

“This is public health,” she said. “Unlike heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes — all public health issues — sexual violence has a cure: Just stop doing it.”

Rugless said one big reason for progress on campus is the increasing role students are taking on the issue. They are engaged and passionate about stopping sexual violence, she said.

“Students have really seized on this as a critical topic that needs a lot of attention — and they’re right,” Rugless said.

SAVES is a student group that facilitates education events on sexual assault, partner violence, stalking and harassment. Davis, the group president, is also a peer advocate intern at The Well. If the first steps to stopping sexual assault were awareness and response, the next ones center on prevention techniques, she said.

“Originally, a lot of [our efforts were] risk-reductive tactics — don’t walk alone at night, make sure you have your pepper spray,” Davis said. “Prevention is about how to address abuse early. If you think of abuse as a pyramid, rape and murder are at the top and jokes and catcalls form the base.”

The base is where prevention begins, Davis said. People need to have conversations about healthy relationships, consent and homophobic, racist and abusive language, she said. Debunking false messages on TV — that a person who says “no” is playing hard to get — is also necessary.

“You have to practice being healthy,” Smith said. “We’re not asking students to put an ‘S’ on their chest and a cape on their back and throw elbows at a party. But when you see someone making a transphobic, racist, classless joke — that builds the foundation for a culture of violence. This is about violence as a form of oppression.”

Rugless said colleges are not alone in bolstering their resources and putting new emphasis on sexual assault awareness. In particular, she has seen evidence that K-12 educators are building staff and developing education devoted to the issue.

“Prevention programming and addressing issues of consent, in particular, have to start sooner,” Rugless said.

Prevention efforts also must take place in different spaces. Calvin Hall, a 2015 VCU graduate, is the former president of Men Against Violence and SAVES. Last year, Hall was one of the few male sexual assault coordinators in Virginia. He is now enrolled in VCU’s psychology Ph.D. program, where he plans to conduct social cognition research with a focus on stereotype, prejudice and bias.

These are some of the root causes of sexual assault, he said.

“Sexual assault is a human issue,” he said. “It’s not a women’s issue, not a men’s issue. It’s everybody’s issue. We need to have research that backs what we are saying. People act on research.”

Sexual assault is a human issue. It’s not a women’s issue, not a men’s issue. It’s everybody’s issue.

Prevention is a multitiered effort, Hall said.

Another area for improvement: LGBTQIA+-specific violence prevention efforts. Those populations are especially at risk for sexual violence, Hall said.

VCU added a university-funded LGBTQIA+ violence prevention specialist and advocate position in December (previously, the only LGBTQIA+-specific position at The Well had been grant-funded). That level of specialization is important, said Carmina Galvez, a junior psychology major and the videographer for SAVES.

“It’s not always going to be a man-on-woman incident. It could be female-to-female or male-to-male,” she said. “I don’t want people to think it’s taboo, that we can’t speak our minds because we’re gay or transgender, that people can’t go [seek help] because they are scared of how people will react to who they are as a person.”

These efforts — in research, education and violence prevention — are making a difference, slowly.

“There is more visibility, more training, more concrete support for survivors, more news, more stories, than ever before,” Hall said.

“I think things are getting better.”

 

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