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Victims of sexual assault confront challenges of reporting

This article, the second in a four-part series, tells stories of students who have been sexually assaulted and examines the avenues available to victims

Warning: This article contains graphic material regarding sexual assault.


On her fifth night at Brown and “desperate for friendship,” Anna, whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, met up with a sophomore male.

Anna remembers struggling to navigate both the University’s social scene and campus, she said. The male student guided her from Keeney Quadrangle to Pembroke, marking her first time on the latter part of campus and her first college hook-up. Anna felt “lost in every way possible,” she said.

As they kissed, he scooped her up, carried her to the bed and, without saying anything, retrieved a condom. Anna told him she was a virgin and did not want to have sex, but he kept pushing forward.

“He wrapped each of his legs around each of mine and basically forcibly opened my legs and started trying to do it,” Anna said.

Upon Anna’s refusal, he grew angry, scaring her and pressuring her to perform oral sex, pushing her head down until she gagged, she said. Anna rolled into a ball so he couldn’t touch her. He then walked her back to Keeney, as she did not know the way.

It took a year for Anna to recognize that she had been assaulted.


Untold stories

“I didn’t want to have to tell people about it, I didn’t want to have to tell my parents, I didn’t want to have to tell my friends,” Anna said. “Still very few people know about it.”

Because she never reported the incident, no official University statistics included Anna’s experience, including the annual report federally mandated by the Clery Act, which requires a summary of on-campus crimes be made available for public access.

According to the Clery report, there were nine reported forcible sex offenses on campus in 2010 — the year Anna said she was assaulted. In 2011, there were seven reported cases.

These numbers are not representative of how many assaults actually occur, said Bita Shooshani, the University’s coordinator of sexual assault prevention and advocacy. Many cases at Brown go undocumented in the Clery report, she said, in part because the report does not include crimes that occur off University property.

The number of students sexually assaulted at Brown who report the incidents to adminstrators is likely “similar to or exactly the national statistics, which is about 5 percent of college students a year,” Shooshani said.

“It’s definitely higher than seven (people),” she added.

The Alpert Medical School conducted the most recent study, published in 2005, documenting sexual assault on campus. The study surveyed female students about their knowledge and experiences of sexual victimization in the 1999-2000 school year and found that 6 percent of female students experienced a completed rape and 4 percent experienced an attempted rape during that year.

Nationally, over 1,300 cases of sexual assault were reported each year between 2007 and 2009 at private four-year and above nonprofit universities, according to summary national crime statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education.

Most cases at the University occur between students who know each other, Shooshani said.

Sarah, a recent alum whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, was raped by a close friend during her senior year. Sarah and her friend had kissed one night and gone to sleep after she said she did not want to go further. She woke up to the man having sex with her. “I knew this guy,” she said. “I couldn’t reconcile that he had done that.”

Chris Rotella, a detective with the Providence Police Special Victims Unit, said in his five years working with the SVU, he cannot recall ever reviewing a case on a college campus in which a student was assaulted by an unknown perpetrator.

“It was never like in television where someone jumped out of the bushes and sexually assaulted another person,” he said.

Students who have experienced sexual assault at the University may choose several paths in reporting their incidents. They can present their allegations to the administration, file reports or pursue criminal charges through DPS, visit Psychological Services or any combination of the above. But sexual assault at Brown is still underreported.

Psychological barriers tied to sexual assault contribute to underreporting, but problems underlying the systems of reporting add to the discrepancy, students said. Psych Services can guide victims through an emotional recovery but does not offer the disciplinary recourse available through University conduct processes, which are often taxing. And police action can provide no-contact orders and formal investigations, but it is least used by student victims, who are often intimidated by the length and intrusive nature of the procedures.


Crisis counseling

When a student calls Psych Services’ Sexual Assault Response Line seeking support, his or her call is directly routed to the on-call physician, who is the victim’s first contact at the office, said Belinda Johnson, director of Psych Services.

Psych Services first provides students the opportunity to talk confidentially about their experiences without having to formally report the incidents to the University, Johnson said. Psych Services sends a report to the Office of Student Life after the initial confidential consultation, but this report indicates only the date and time of a sexual assault, she added.

Students who initially report an incident of sexual assault to a different on-campus office — such as Health Services or DPS — are referred to Psych Services for this crisis response procedure, Johnson said.

But some students have criticized Psych Services for not doing more to encourage victims to pursue further action.

When Emily, whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, told the male student she had been casually hooking up with that she was a virgin, “his switch flipped,” Emily said. “He had been so sweet and nice, and then he got mean. Very mean, very fast.”

One night, Emily visited his room, and he told her they were going to have sex. She repeated that she did not want to, but he held her down and raped her. After about 30 seconds, Emily fought back and stopped him.

Emily told her best friend what had happened and visited Psych Services, where she spoke with a counselor about postponing her exams, she said.

“There was no push for me to go to see the police,” she said. “There was no push for me to go to (a) medical health center from that psychologist ... No push for me to report him, nothing.”

In the 2005 Med School study, 90 percent of respondents who indicated having experienced sexual assault reported awareness of Psych Services as a resource. But only 8 percent of respondents who had been sexually assaulted reported contacting Psych Services. This was three times the number of students who reported their cases to DPS, according to the same study.

Anna visited Psych Services a year after her assault. She said she thought about reporting the incident to the University. “But I never really considered taking action largely because at the time, when I was dealing with it, a big part of me thought it was my fault,” she said.


Hearing hesitation 

Victims can choose to go beyond Psych Services and file charges against their perpetrators through University channels, but the decision to do so can be challenging.

The Student Conduct Board — a body of 14 students, eight deans and four faculty members who adjudicate University disciplinary hearings — exists for such procedures. Three members of the board — one student, one dean and one faculty member, review each case, according to the OSL website.

Students “don’t normally go directly to Student Conduct,” said Maria Suarez, associate dean and director of student support services. Most “don’t want to talk about what is going on” immediately after the incident but might return to the disciplinary process later, she added.

Anna said she avoided the University’s disciplinary process in part because she had trouble defining her experience.

“I also couldn’t handle the idea of me coming forward and saying that this had happened and having it be questioned,” Anna said. “That would have just killed me.”

On the sixth night of his first year at Brown, Jacob, whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, was propositioned and subsequently assaulted by a sophomore male he did not know in a Keeney bathroom. Jacob said he neither expressed consent nor reciprocated “in any enthusiastic way,” but the sophomore proceeded to grab his genitals and kiss him for around 10 minutes before leaving.

In February of that academic year, after months of feeling anxious and threatened whenever he saw his assaulter, Jacob had an anxiety attack in the shower. “I was shaking,” he said. “If you had asked me in that moment where I was, what I was doing, I couldn’t have told you anything.”

Jacob visited Health Services, which referred him to Psych Services. He received weekly therapy for a month and was then referred to Shooshani. Though Jacob was initially hesitant about filing an official complaint, his conversations with Shooshani changed his decision, he said.

“I realized that for my own growth and healing I really needed to hear it from an official source — that what happened to (me) was wrong,” Jacob said.

But Shooshani warned him that the disciplinary process was meant to provide an official judgment, not to be a therapeutic procedure, he added.


Trial dynamics 

The disciplinary review process begins with a victim filing a written complaint, after which all parties involved are notified and a hearing date is scheduled, said Yolanda Castillo-Appollonio, associate dean of the OSL. On the hearing day, the complainant and respondent give statements and written testimonies from witnesses — including staff members or students with information about the alleged incident or behavior of the parties, she added.

Students can receive help from non-attorney advisers to understand the procedures for hearings and collecting evidence.

“They have to do all kinds of things that I think are hard for people to do by themselves,” said Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, who has served as an advocate for victims in the hearing process. “It’s useful to have somebody who knows where people can find particular kinds of help if they need it.”

Shooshani said she often attends hearings to support victims through the “very harrowing” disciplinary process. Prior to his hearing, Jacob said he was given the opportunity to choose whether his assaulter would be present.

Jacob filed his official complaint in early May, which the OSL could not address until September 1, when the next academic year began. The University rescheduled Jacob’s hearing twice before finally moving forward at the end of November, he said, adding that the delay frustrated him.

Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Allen Ward said the University aims to schedule hearings within 60 days of when the complaint is initially filed, adding that sometimes breaks in the academic calendar make this impossible.

When Jacob’s hearing finally took place, “it was three hours of stress and anxiety,” he said. “I never want to have to go through that again.”

The SCB sends all parties its final decision — made by a majority vote and ranging from a not-guilty finding to a reprimand to expulsion — within five days after a hearing, according to the OSL website.

If either student is unsatisfied with the outcome, he or she may appeal the decision through a written statement to Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services, who can amend  sanctions only if the appeal identifies “relevant new evidence” or “substantial procedural error by the University or hearing body,” according to the website.

The board reviewed four cases of sexual misconduct, which includes “non-consensual physical contact of a sexual nature,” and four cases of sexual harassment between July 2011 and June 2012, according to the Student Conduct Proceedings Report issued by the OSL. Three harassment cases and two misconduct cases resulted in decisions to suspend the perpetrators. The board heard one case of sexual misconduct between 2010 and 2011 and one case of “comments of sexually harassing nature towards others” between 2009 and 2010.

The board voted to expel Jacob’s assaulter. The perpetrator filed an appeal, which Klawunn rejected.

Jacob said the board’s decision was a “huge relief.” He said he had “forgotten what life without anxiety felt like for a long time.”

Sarah also filed a complaint with the OSL after she was raped by her friend. She said she felt the process took too long, adding that it was particularly complicated because her assaulter’s character witnesses were also friends of hers.

“It really made me upset that Brown couldn’t speed up the process because it was extremely painful,” Sarah said. “If I almost couldn’t do it, I seriously think that other people will never do it at all.”

The SCB suspended her perpetrator for half a semester, which Sarah said was an “inadequate” punishment.

“I think the main problem with the system is that they don’t treat it like criminal cases, which they are,” said Emily, who spoke with a dean in the OSL after visiting Psych Services but did not pursue an SCB hearing. “They were very nice to me, but I think they need to take these charges way more seriously.”


Infrequent investigations

While students can file reports directly to DPS, they may also be referred to the department by Psych Services or the OSL. In any case reported to DPS, the incident is included in the annual Clery statistics. The Clery report should incorporate figures collected from “campus security authorities” — a group the Department of Education describes as including deans, athletic coaches and university health care professionals in its Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting.

But it is “very rare” that victims report directly to DPS, said Michelle Nuey, manager of the community relations and outreach bureau for DPS.

Through DPS, a victim has the options of pressing criminal charges and filing for a no-contact order against his or her perpetrator. Requesting no-contact orders — commands to refrain from in-person, phone or Internet contact — is the most common action students take with DPS, and the orders can also be granted through the OSL.

“I actually haven’t worked with anyone here who has reported a sexual assault ... to DPS or Providence Police,” said Shooshani, who has worked at the University since fall of 2011.

But the few victims who choose to file charges do so because “there’s a level of fear and they find that the University is not meeting their need or ... they want an extra layer of protection,” said Paul Shanley, deputy chief of police of DPS.

If a victim reports directly to DPS, an officer will respond and ascertain the time of the assault, the identity of the perpetrator, if known, and whether the victim requires medical attention, Shanley said. Out of consideration for the victim, the initial responder tries to minimize the student’s contact with police.

An investigation becomes much more difficult if a victim is hesitant, Shanley said. “We do, in a nice way, try to emphasize that right then and there we have a window of opportunity to gather evidence from a police standpoint,” he said.

While officers try not to push a victim into an unwanted investigation, filing charges prevents a perpetrator from harming others in the future, Nuey said.

“We tend to remind a victim, ... ‘Okay, we understand that you’ve been traumatized and it’s not easy to think that far ahead right now, but keep in mind that should you ever decide that you want to pursue criminal charges, let’s think about the potential evidence that could be gathered for that process,’” Nuey said.


An act of Providence

If a student decides to press charges, an investigation is launched with the help of the Providence Police Department. Compared to DPS, Providence Police has “much better resources” specifically pertaining to sexual assault, such as the SVU, Shanley said.

DPS liaises between the student and Providence Police and accompanies the student in court, Shanley said. In the court process, the suspect is present at all hearings at which the victim testifies except for when the victim is in grand jury, Rotella said.

Some students also report directly to Providence Police. The department regularly receives cases from local universities, including Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson and Wales University, Rotella said.

City police received a few cases from Brown last academic year and over the summer, Rotella said, but he said he did not know if it had received any cases in 2013.

Most of these cases involve a female victim, and many concern students under the influence of drugs used in conjunction with alcohol, Rotella said. He added that his department does not pursue charges against victims for drug use or underage drinking.

Students often change their minds after filing initial reports, Rotella said. Many mistakenly believe they will be required to follow through with an investigation if they file an initial report, Shanley said. But “they can opt out at any time,” he added.

And students can return to charges later if they change their minds, because there is no statute of limitations for filing sexual assault charges in Rhode Island, Nuey said.

But if a victim decides partway through the process to drop the charges, the case will be dismissed, Rotella said. “The victim is pretty much involved in every step of the way,” he said. “Without the victim we can’t do anything.”

On the other side of a sexual assault case is the alleged perpetrator, who must also confront personal consequences and a challenging judicial system. The next story in this series will examine the trial process for accused students, as well as the social and academic ramifications they face.


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