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On campuses, sexual assault numbers don’t tell the full story

Kansas universities re-examine policies to improve investigations, assist victims

By Ashley Booker | March 17, 2015

Kansas universities are working to counter underreported rates of sexual assaults by evaluating their policies to better investigate cases and assist victims.

“Our society is experiencing sexual assault at epidemic levels,” said Rachel Gadd-Nelson, director of community engagement at GaDuGi Safe Center in Lawrence, which serves sexual violence victims in Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

National statistics estimate that for every 1,000 women attending a college or university, there are 35 incidents of rape per school year. A study, published in 2000 by the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, also found that less than 5 percent of rapes — including attempted rapes — against college women were reported to law enforcement.

“Even if you get a national average, you’re still leaving a lot of people out,” Gadd-Nelson said, citing statistics that show some ethnic groups experience higher rates of sexual assault.

“I don’t think the numbers are really the end-all, be-all of understanding the issue,” said Gadd-Nelson, who estimated that one of every four people her organization serves are college-age.

With the needs of victims being placed at the forefront, policies are being reviewed and adjusted at universities in Kansas — specifically at Washburn University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, which are among 85 higher education institutions under Title IX investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for how they handle sexual assault cases.

The universities must comply with the Clery Act, which mandates that all colleges and universities across the nation disclose crime on and around their campuses. The U.S. Department of Education enforces the act.

Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said colleges are re-examining their policies for reporting sexual assaults and how to educate students about preventing sexual assault.

Photo by Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence The Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence is a statewide network of advocacy organizations that serve victims of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

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Grover said victims are best served by confidential and private support services. Investigations of attacks should be adequate, reliable and impartial, she said. Victims need to know where they can find confidential assistance and who is required to report sexual assault incidents on campus. 

If someone who’s been sexually assaulted seeks assistance and learns their information won’t be kept private during an investigation, they are less likely to officially report the attack, Grover said.

While campuses are on the hot seat, Grover said Kansas communities also need to consider how best to respond to sexual assault reports and assist victims in their recovery.

At the Statehouse

A bill introduced this session at the Kansas Legislature would require postsecondary education boards to adopt a policy on sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

House Bill 2266 was introduced to House Appropriations, then referred to the House Education Committee last week.

Rep. Diana Dierks, a Republican from Salina, recommended tabling the bill because the committee heard that universities already are setting policies and the bill would duplicate their efforts.

Although the bill is tabled for now, college campuses remain subject to sexual assault and violence policies under a 2013 bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Keeping it confidential

Statistics show more students seek confidential resources rather than reporting sexual assaults to police or officials on their campuses.

At Baker University, a campus with more than 900 students in Baldwin City, 2013 statistics show no sexual offenses categorized as “forcible” happened on campus, in residential facilities or on pubic property. But the university’s only licensed clinical psychologist at its Health and Counseling Center said he sees more students coming in for sexual assault trauma than reported.

“I would say of the total students coming in for counseling, that 5 percent of students come in for either historical or recent sexual assault trauma,” Tim Hodges said.

Hodges, like other counselors and advocates across the state, makes sure victims are encouraged to speak with the police and hospital officials and to seek medical help, along with talking to sexual assault advocates.

He recommends victims contact GaDuGi, which offers confidential services in nearby Lawrence. Some are more comfortable going off campus for help, he said.

“Our role is to inform people of their options, to support them unconditionally, assure them it’s not their fault and help them do whatever they want to help them make the best decisions for themselves,” Gadd-Nelson of GaDuGi said.

At the University of Kansas, Sarah Jane Russell, coordinator for Campus Assistance, Resources, Education and Engagement, helps connect students dealing with sexual assault with resources they need, on or off campus.  

Russell said sexual assault policy changes in the works at KU are mainly being made due to concerns by student activists, and shouldn’t be entirely tied to the Title IX investigation.

Russell, who started her position in mid-October of last year, said she has helped 23 students so far.

As the result of discussions at the university, Russell said two nurses will receive training and conduct sexual assault exams at Watkins Health Services, the health center on campus.

“That conversation has probably gone off and on for a long time,” Russell said.

KU officials also found that when students call Watkins after hours, the answering machine tells victims to call the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, which gives them information based on the area code they are calling from.

Because all students aren’t from the area, that answering machine now sends victims to GaDuGi’s 24-hour hotline instead.

Effect on health

Grover says sexual assault can cause long-term physical and emotional trauma and affect a victim’s overall health. The effects aren’t the same for every victim.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, sexual assault victims are more likely to report frequent headaches, sleep problems and poor long-term health, Grover said.

Victims may experience physical injuries, nausea or emotional shock, denial or anxiety, among other things

Dorinda Lambert, director of the Kansas State University Counseling Services, said students usually come in dealing with more than one concern or problem — this is no different for sexual assault victims.

Of the 1,158 K-State students who received counseling services in 2014, Lambert said 1.89 percent identified concerns about a recent sexual assault. 

“It’s not a sign that it’s not a concern on campus,” Lambert said, noting that sexual assault victims may not seek assistance or recognize that what happened to them was sexual assault.

With an educational system that requires schools to report and investigate sexual assault, it can be a challenge to help victims who want confidential services, especially if they aren’t offered on campus.

After evaluating its policies, K-State now offers confidential sexual assault and sexual violence services to students through its Center for Advocacy, Response and Education (CARE).

Jenna Tripodi, coordinator, advocate and educator at CARE, said they’ve seen an uptick in students seeking their help since CARE was renamed in August. It previously was known as the Women’s Center.

Although their services are confidential, CARE submits reports as required by the Clery Act. Trapodi said because the Clery Act is based on geography, it mainly focuses on sexual offenses that occur on campus.

“In general that doesn’t capture a lot of students we see. Most sexual assaults are at areas not in those geographical limits,” Trapodi said.

According to Trapodi, from last August until March 10, seven sexual assaults were reported on campus at K-State. But outside of that area, another 16 sexual assault victims sought help from CARE.

While on-campus assistance at K-State is kept confidential, that’s not the case at KU, because Russell is required to report sexual assaults to university officials.

The university is regularly reviewing Russell’s position, and there have been talks about making her role confidential.

She will know in May, after the KU Chancellor’s Task Force on Sexual Assault is done with its review of current policies and sanctions and recommends improvements.

If her position becomes confidential, Russell says it’s likely that more victims will seek her help, much like what K-State has seen.  

People seeking help for sexual assault or other types of violence can call the Kansas Crisis Hotline at (888) 363-2287.