Sexual assault response: A challenge for universities and student victims

By Kellye Coleman

She woke up early one February morning to find herself in bed with a male student whose name she didn’t know, the sheets stained a deep red from the events of the night before and her memory of them foggy and distant.

It was the morning before her 19th birthday.

“I was panicking, and I just wanted to leave without saying anything, but I had no idea where I was,” Penelope Newbridge, an Elon freshman whose name has been changed, remembers.

She searched the room for her cell phone, lost after a night of heavy drinking with girls she didn’t know well. She quickly realized she wouldn’t be able to find her way home and would have to accept the ride offered by the student who had been lying next to her.

Penelope Newbridge, an Elon freshman

She attempted to forget, but instead spent the days that followed feeling embarrassed and overwhelmed. “I don’t want to stay here. I don’t feel comfortable or safe at all,” she thought, pieces of her memory from that night returning and revealing the tragedy of what had happened – the pain, the requests to stop, the moments before blacking out.

Just a year earlier, Elon sophomore Carla Blankson, whose name has also been changed, was asked by a male student to dance at a fraternity party. He was drunk. She was sober. After accepting a ride from the male student’s friend, she found herself being physically removed from the car at the student’s apartment.

“It’s his initiation night. You’re the girl he wanted to bring home,” she remembers the driver saying. For the next two hours Blankson fought with the male student as he clumsily took off her dress and his clothes, his roommates sitting in front of his bedroom door to ensure she wouldn’t be able to leave.

“They were laughing outside, and I don’t know if they were drunk or being jerks,” she said. He finally passed out, and she jumped out of his two-story window.

Blankson decided not to let any administrators know about the incident. “I more or less wanted to get over it and forget about it,” she said. Roberts decided to pursue a university judicial affairs case once she found out the name of the person she says attacked her.

“I need to go through this process, because I don’t think I could ever get over it if I didn’t try everything I could to make sure he has to pay for what he did,” Newbridge thought. However, resolution did not come. She said, ”The day after the verdict, I decided that I wanted to transfer.”

“I felt really disgusting and I didn’t want people to think I was disgusting, so I didn’t want to talk to people about it,” Blankson said.

University approach and response to sexual assault on campuses nationwide has come under scrutiny in the recent months, and the challenges faced by universities and victims have been revealed through discussions about the way administrators should respond.

According to a national study funded by the Department of Justice (DOJ), one in five women will experience an incident of sexual assault during their time in college. However, the same study indicates that more than 95 percent of college students who are sexually assaulted do not report to campus police or officials.

This is an issue at Elon.

According to Leigh-Anne Royster, coordinator of personal health programs and community well being, the biggest reason for this is fear.

“So in an instance of sexual violence you’ve just had all your power and control taken away from you,” she said. “What are the chances you want to put that power into someone else’s hands again?”

Instead of speaking with administrators, Blankson told the fraternity president. “I tried to keep it so that this kid didn’t get in trouble with the campus, because I didn’t want my name out there,” she said.

The fear of what others think is another reason victims tend to stay silent, according to Royster. “People do a lot of victim blaming,” she said.

A range of civically engaged Americans said that victims of sexual assault are sometimes responsible for the act, particularly when dressed “provocatively” or when in “dangerous places,” like bars and “bad neighborhoods,” according to a 2010 FrameWorks Research Report.

According to Vicki Moehlman, Captain in the Elon University campus safety and police department, victims tend to buy in to these beliefs. “A lot of girls here seem to think it’s their fault and that they brought it upon themselves, and that’s totally not the truth,” she said.

This kind of stigma leaves students feeling as though they cannot disclose the details of their experience, says Royster. The fraternity president’s response to Blankson’s story was unexpected. “He said that he was sorry that it happened but that he wasn’t going to do anything because it wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “He just said ‘you’re lucky that you didn’t get raped.’”

Blankson simply accepted that statement.

“I had been drinking that night, and I don’t remember most of the night at all,” Newbridge said.

On average, at least 50 percent of sexual assaults among college students involve alcohol, according to research conducted by the Michigan Department of Community Medicine in 2002.

“In 99.9 percent of incidents of sexual assault, the victim and the suspect or the victim or the suspect is intoxicated,” Moehlman said of Elon.

Newbridge says she believes alcohol led to events she would not have consented to otherwise. “I have never had sex with anyone before, because that’s really important to me,” she said. “I would never do that in a normal state of mind.”

The Department of Community Medicine’s study, shows that alcohol can lead to a decrease in a woman’s concern about her experience and her ability to give conscious consent.

“I don’t think students are fully aware,” she said. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions like ‘I shouldn’t go to the university if I was drinking, because I will get in trouble,’” a myth that, according to the university, students do not have to worry about.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through with the judicial process,” Newbridge said.

The Elon office of judicial affairs is responsible for handling any situations related to Elon’s honor code, which is based on values of honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect. As a result, students have the opportunity to present cases of sexual violence.

However, just as students do not want to report incidents of sexual assault, they also tend to decide not to pursue a judicial affairs hearing, Royster says, with a mere 16 percent of students coming into her office deciding to pursue judicial affairs action.

For victims, there are many reasons to avoid judicial action. “I wanted him to feel bad for it and for him to know he really scarred me for it, but I also just wanted it to be done,” Blankson said. “I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I knew by going through judicial I’d have to tell my story a hundred times.”

Royster says these fears are common. “They fear telling the story again to multiple people. They fear going through the process and the person not being found responsible,” she said. “I think all of those things are legitimate.”

Jodean Schmiederer, associate dean of students for judicial affairs, agrees. “A lot of times you want consequences to happen to that person, but it’s difficult understandably to have to step forward and talk about it,” she said.

Newbridge was worried about these issues, but she decided going through the process was a necessary step towards healing. “I tend to analyze every event in my life, and I knew that I would never find closure without confronting my aggressor,” she said.

“If you don’t have a completely detailed story about what happened that night, it’s going to be really hard for you to win the case,” Newbridge said.

The Elon judicial system determines whether a student is responsible through a “more likely than not” procedure. “Our conduct process for all cases is based on the status of a preponderance of evidence,” said Schmiederer. “It’s really just if it’s more likely than not that it happened.”

This type of system has come under scrutiny in recent months. A recent CBS News article highlighted a case in California in which a student, who was drinking at a party, said she was sexually assaulted, and is suing the university for violating her civil rights. The student said the judicial board’s questions seemed to focus on her conduct that night more than anything else.

According to Schmiederer, the behavior of a potential victim is a focus during a hearing, particularly when alcohol is involved. “If a person is too intoxicated to be able to give consent and sexual activity occurs, then it is sexual assault,” she said. “How do you determine how intoxicated is too intoxicated to give consent?”

If a student has been drinking, it is up to the judicial affairs hearing officer to decide if the accused student was aware of the intoxication.

According to Schmiederer, they have to determine – “Was there any indication or any reason for them to know that the student was intoxicated?” To do so, details are key. “We try to talk to as many witnesses as possible,” she said. “We look at details and discrepancies in details.”

For Newbridge, this was an issue. The hearing took place weeks after the incident occurred, and details, such as the color of the cups the location of the incident, were lost due to the passage of time.

“I just feel like I wasn’t taken seriously because I couldn’t remember a lot of things,” Newbridge said.

“I’m disappointed in the judicial process.” Newbridge said. “If he has no repercussions for this now, what message are you sending?”

The campus policies surrounding sexual assault have been called into question in recent months, and this April, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter, which addresses how universities should respond to incidents.

Several universities, including Stanford and the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma, have already responded to the letter, publicly stating that changes to the way they conduct sexual assault investigations and cases are in the near future. (Read more about the changes these universities have made).

The letter will impact Elon policies that will be discussed during the summer planning months. According to Royster, changes are necessary. “I don’t know that the judicial policy as it currently reads fully reflects a policy of accountability on our students,” she said.

Royster said she hopes a policy that requires proof of consent is established.

“Not knowing that someone was drunk or not being sure is not an excuse,” she said. “I think currently students can say ‘I couldn’t have known,’ and that can be grounds to find them not responsible.”

According to Schmiederer, the office of judicial affairs hopes to provide post-decision support for both parties involved and utilize student members of Elon’s honor board to serve as resources for students going through the process.

In order to combat the number of campus incidents, Royster says improvement to education and awareness is necessary. She hopes to create a hotline with a number students can call at all times.

“I’m also working on building a more comprehensive website,” she said, hoping to include the use of social media in order to reach students.

SPARKS, Elon’s peer-education program, whose purpose is to promote healthy lifestyle choices, plays an important role as well, raising awareness about the impact of alcohol and substance abuse.

(Read how Elon’s peer-education program, SPARKS, compares to another private, North Carolina university.)

“In some ways I definitely think I should have talked to someone, even if it wasn’t an administrator. Maybe even a counselor,” Blankson said.

It has been more than a year, and Blankson said she feels she has moved on. “Now, I’m a little bit better about it, but it was really hard to see him on campus and living a normal life, carefree about the whole thing,” she said.

Although she now says telling someone may have been beneficial, she has been able to come to some conclusion on her own. “I’ve gone through that night 100 times in my mind,” she said. “I realized that wasn’t my fault, and it was a really hard thing to get over.”

Newbridge has been home for several weeks now, her decision to transfer from Elon made the day of the judicial decision. Her time is spent swimming and with her family, a support system she says she couldn’t have survived without.

It’s been hard.

“Now, I’m more sad about it than angry,” Newbridge said. “I have nightmares all the time.” She sees a psychologist once a week, a process that she says has helped her process the events that are still fresh in her mind.

Healing has begun, and although the judicial case she experienced did not end in the way she had hoped, she does not regret it. “I think going through the judicial process was the biggest step of the healing process,” she said. “I stood up for myself when my wounds were still fresh.”

To students who have experienced sexual assault and are unsure if the judicial process is an option he or she should pursue, Newbridge says to go for it.

“I think people who are debating whether or not to go through the judicial process, and ultimately choose not to, will in the long run regret their decision, wishing they had taken the opportunity to have control and power in the aftermath of an assault.”

This story was published in the Pendulum, Elon’s newspaper.

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According to Royster, peer-education groups are an important part of sexual assault prevention.

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2 thoughts on “Sexual assault response: A challenge for universities and student victims

  1. Fantastic Story!
    Brings to light issues that the university sometimes tries to keep hidden, and gives a voice to those who might be afraid to stand up.
    Thanks for all your hard work to put this together, it is such a real issue.

  2. We’ve been over this and I have told you how well you did. I just want to point out that you should copy edit the graphics when you have the time – maybe next week. There are some typographical errors here and there that you will want to fix.

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