The scene is all too common.
Emblazoned across the screen as you flip through TV channels, landing on a crime show; lighting up an entire theater with the images of a ‘classic’ college party. It is as easily found in movies and television as it is in real life.
A woman is walking to her car alone late at night, engulfed in shadows between streetlights; the click of her heels is rapidly increasing. A girl is led away from the party, red Solo cup in hand, swaying.
However it is portrayed and no matter the circumstances under which it occurs, sexual assault is a serious crime that is quickly becoming a national issue for college campuses.
Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz has gained the nation’s attention; she carries the mattress on which she was raped, for as long as her alleged attacker remains on campus.
At the same time, a bill, The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, is currently going through Congress. It is designed to help to advocate for victim’s rights and collect more accurate numbers for this underreported offense.
The bill, if passed, will call for national, confidential surveys of college students, to get more accurate numbers of assaults occurring on individual campuses. It would also force colleges to adhere to certain disciplinary actions concerning assaults, make schools appoint an official adviser to coordinate services and provide guidance, and require campus police departments to set up a protocol for working with local police in these cases.
There are already several laws in effect on college campuses designed to regulate the handling of sexual assault cases.
One of the most prominent on Troy’s campus is the Clery Act, which forces colleges to maintain transparency in regards to the crimes that are reported on campus, making the statistics visible for the public to see.
“We get audited by the Department of Education every so often,” said Chief of University Police John McCall. “They pull our reports and make sure that everything jives. If it doesn’t, we’re subject to a big penalty.”
Chief McCall went on to say that if a school’s Clery Report is wrong, it is possible that the school could lose its federal student loan and financial aid programs.
“It’s very important for me that my Clery Report is accurate,” McCall said.
Troy’s report is viewable both online and in the Oracle. It includes all crimes, not just those related to sexual offenses.
In regards to sexual assault, McCall said, “If that crime comes across our desk, that will be the number one priority. Any crime against a person we feel is extremely serious and we will try to solve that case to the best of our ability.”
McCall also mentions that if there is a case of a violent attack or an attacker that has not been apprehended, an SOS message will go out to everyone on campus. This will allow students to be aware and take the appropriate precautions for their safety.
In the majority of the cases reported on campus, however, he states that both parties know one another and even those reports are few and far between.
“We average one or two a year that we investigate,” said McCall. “We find out that about half of those that were initially reported were not factually accurate.”
In regards to the handling of each specific case, both Chief McCall and counselor Fran Scheel made statements on the subject.
“If it is an assault where someone is injured, the first thing we want to do is get medical attention,” said McCall.
The best ways to report an assault are to either call 911 or go into the Police Department or Student Counseling Center personally after the attack.
“One of the things that we want students to know is that it is their choice of rather or not they press charges,” Scheel said of the Student Counseling Center and the SAVE Project, which deals with sexual assault. “We do not pressure students. Mainly we offer them support through their ordeal and letting them explore their options.”
These options are especially helpful to students that are afraid of the possible repercussions of reporting their attacker but still wish to seek professional help after the incident.
But Scheel emphasized that the SCC does encourage students to come forth and file a police report. “We would encourage someone, if they have been sexually assaulted, to report it to law enforcement so the perpetrator is held accountable.”
This is helpful in the prevention of repeat attacks and additional victims.
One of the main issues concerning rape is the high number of incidents that go unreported. According to numbers released by the Department of Justice, only five percent of sexual crimes committed against college females are reported.
If this is applied to Troy’s campus and McCall’s numbers, there are an average of 19-38 cases of assault that are never reported to the Campus Police Department every year.
Scheel states that one of the main reasons for this discrepancy is the common re-victimization of those that have already been victimized.
“Many times there’s the myth that she was asking for it,” Scheel said. “Society tends to blame the victim – ‘What was she wearing? What was she doing?’
“No means ‘no.’ It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, or if you were flirting or dancing. That person’s [the victim’s] behavior does not invite or cause rape. If you did not consent to sex and someone took advantage of you and either psychologically or physically forced you, then that is legally rape by law.”
While many changes are being made in our justice system, it is clear to Scheel that there also needs to be change in society’s opinion and handling of rape.
“It is a highly unreported crime because there are so many fears associated with reporting the crime,” said Scheel. “They may feel a sense of shame or embarrassment, or that people will not believe them or that nothing will be done and justice will not be served.”
“We don’t want to discourage girls from reporting by any means,” McCall said about the fears of victims in admitting to being assaulted. “We want them to come forward so that we can help them.”
Until current social stigmas surrounding sexual assault victims are lifted, Scheel says that rape will continue to be a frequently under-reported crime.
On the legal side, she says that it is also common to have students afraid to admit a crime was committed against them because they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“We don’t want the fact that they were drinking to stop them from getting help,” Scheel commented on the subject.
She mentions that if an individual has reached a level of intoxication where he or she is incapacitated, legally he or she is unable to give consent. That will be considered rape in the eyes of the law.
Regardless of the situation, if the victim knew the perpetrator, and whether the victim wishes to press charges, it is suggested that anyone who has experienced a sexual assault on campus go to the Student Counseling Center. The SCC will provide help processing the event, as well as advocacy.
The SCC is located on the edge of campus, across from the Paden House on College Drive. Students can call the center at (334) 670-3700 to make an appointment.
If it is a true emergency, students are urged to call 911 or University Police. They are also welcome to go to the Campus Police Department directly to file a report.