Universities have been raked over the coals in recent years with multiple media exposés of preponderance of sexual assault on campus. The issue is gaining momentum and with the increased attention, schools are responding with more concentrated efforts to prevent and respond to on-campus sexual assault.
As both a student and a sexual assault nurse, I have a very particular lens through which I analyze my own campus’ response to sexual assault. Full disclosure – I have not been sexually assaulted as a student, so I cannot speak to the process as an actual survivor, only as a student who understands the process of reporting a sexual assault and ideal evidence collection procedures.
The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has a specific page for Sexual Misconduct including the university’s sexual misconduct policy, crime definitions, and links to report incidents of sexual assault. When I clicked the link to report an incident, I was surprised to see the first section listed was to contact the UIC Title IX coordinator. As a sexual assault nurse, I know time is of the essence with sexual assault. Certain date rape drugs are metabolized within hours and obtaining a urine sample ASAP is extremely important for detection. Evidence on the survivor’s body also can degrade, be washed off, or lost as time passes. Not to mention injuries sustained as a result of the attack should be evaluated as quickly as possible and if a survivor needs a “morning after pill”, the sooner she takes it, the less likely she is to become pregnant. My first recommendation to a survivor of sexual assault would be to contact the actual police department and not campus police, or go straight to an emergency room. Under the Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act (SASETA), every ER in the state of Illinois must either provide treatment and evidence collection for survivors of sexual assault or transfer the victim to a location that will — and that visit is covered by the State if you do not have health insurance.
The campus sexual assault systems are connected to how justice is handled on campus and not in a court of law. The university’s responsibility is to enact disciplinary procedures to perpetrators of sexual assault, and to provide protection to, and accommodation for, survivors of sexual assault. While I applaud universities for creating systems for reporting sexual assault to campus authorities, I stand by my position that anyone who has been sexually assaulted should call 911, contact the local police department, or go to the nearest ER as the first step post-sexual assault. There is time after the police and hospital nurses and physicians are done taking care of a survivor for her/him to report to campus authorities.
In addition to the importance of timing in evidence collection from and medical treatment of a survivor, there has been a track record amongst some universities who have impeded the process of justice for victims either intentionally or by misunderstanding how to handle the situation. Patients and friends always ask what I would do in a given situation, and that is impossible to know until you are actually in that situation. I imagine if I were personally sexually assaulted on campus, the first thing I would do is call someone I trusted, the second thing would be to go to an ER where I knew a sexual assault nurse would be working, and from there call an organization like Rape Victim Advocates. After the dust had settled, I would contact campus authorities as directed on my university’s website, which fortunately, appears to be a very clear pathway to filing a campus report. There is no black and white, right or wrong for reporting, and each survivor needs to do what makes her/himself feel most comforted and safe in the wake of being attacked. Know that whatever you do, whatever path you take after being assaulted, you are not alone and there are people waiting to help you. Even if it takes a little while to find the good ones.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, Certified Nurse Midwife, Ph.D. Student, Fearless Feminist