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How to Take Action If You're Sexually Assaulted on Campus

What you need to know if you're sexually assaulted on a college campus, including best next steps, victims' rights, and support services for students.

It's always the hope that sexual assault won't occur on college campuses, but the reality is far different And for students, or anyone, the aftermath of a sexual assault can be as traumatic and terrifying as the attack itself. Survivor injuries extend well beyond any physical trauma. While these crimes leave many victims feeling hopeless and humiliated, there are valuable services and support that can help, both on and off campus. Unfortunately, these services often are never utilized due to the survivor being unaware or fearful of the processes.

To better understand a sexual assault victim’s options, I consulted Virginia Commonwealth University’s Police Department (VCUPD), a recent recipient of accolades such as the Leadership in Victims Services Award by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. VCUPD is becoming well known for its progressive approach to removing barriers to sexual assault reporting by adopting survivor-oriented strategies such as the You Have Options Program (YHOP). I spoke with Sergeant Chelsey McCarty from VCUPD about the best steps to take following an assault on any college campus. Here's what you should know

Prioritize your safety

The first step is the most vital: Your immediate safety is the main priority. Get to a safe place and stay there before reaching out for help. Contact a friend you feel you can trust if you need support, but it’s important to go to a hospital to seek medical attention. A medical evaluation will identify injuries that may or may not be visible, and a doctor will be able to assess them. This also gives the option to begin a forensic evaluation, which contributes to the prosecution process. This sounds like a lot of big, intimidating processes—we understand. However, timeliness is important in forensic evaluations. It can be done as far out as five days for survivors who have some difficulty deciding whether to come forward.

Related: 6 Ways to Stay Safe on Your Way to Night Classes

Report the assault

The steps following the medical evaluation are all up to the individual. Victims can report through an online forum, over the phone, using an advocate to report their case, or in person. The assault can be reported to the campus or local police department, but we encourage victims to consider also seeking counseling. When speaking to the police or campus safety, keep in mind that every campus handles these situations differently. For example, VCU has the You Have Options Program (YHOP). According to Sergeant McCarty, this program “puts the victim in the driver’s seat,” meaning they have control over everything that happens. Not every college has a program like YHOP, so it's important to look at your university’s website and find more information about their programs.

Find what counseling resources they offer and what they can do for safety. College administrators must record the allegation in the school’s daily crime log under the Clery Act, which requires higher education institutions to be transparent about crime on campus. Reports are anonymous and only include the statistics for your school’s Annual Security Report. But it’s up to the victim what happens next: a case can be built around the report or it can be left as is. 

The judicial process

Going through the judicial process isn’t the right step for every victim. In many cases, this could involve facing their attacker, repeating the story, and possibly causing additional emotional stress. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to go through with it. However, some victims find prosecution to be an empowering process, even therapeutic in a way. A judicial process may also shed light on sexual assault and raise more awareness of the heinous act. The right course is highly unique to each survivor; what’s most important is that you feel safe and comfortable with what you choose to do.

Understand Title IX

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that was passed to prohibit sexual discrimination. Most colleges have a Title IX Coordinator who can help students walk through the aftermath of an assault. Keep in mind that Title IX Coordinators are mandatory reporters. This means if an assault is reported to them, they are legally obligated to file a report. This goes for campus police, security, RAs, and professors as well. Confidential resources are typically counselors and victim advocates; they’re not legally obligated to report an assault if a victim prefers to seek support but is reluctant to officially file. This varies from campus to campus, so it’s important to research your college’s confidential resources if you haven’t yet decided what to do. Victims can also dial 800-656-HOPE to speak to a trained staff member at the RAINN Organization regarding reporting and next steps. It’s a free confidential service.

Related: Mental Health and Discrimination: Facts, Resources, and Advice for Students

Remember, it doesn’t matter what you were wearing, how much you had to drink, your race, your gender, or your sexuality. Your assault is never your fault. Responding to sexual assault requires a multifaceted approach that prioritizes the survivors' well-being and empowerment, which is very difficult to do in the immediate aftermath of an attack. From reporting the incident to accessing medical care and counseling services, survivors are encouraged to take agency in their recovery process. Because I'll say it one final time: Your assault is not your fault—but your recovery is in your control. 

For more advice on staying safe and maintaining your peace in college, check out our Important Guide to Student Safety and Support on Campus.

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