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The Blue & Gray Press | December 12, 2018

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Victims of Sexual Assault Find Support

Advocacy for student victims of sexual assaults on college campuses has increased recently, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Describing the process of investigating and ruling on sexual assault cases is, “complex and excruciating,” according to the Chronicle, which emphasized the dissent that exists over the way campuses handle sexual assaults.

At Dickinson College last month, students protested in an administrative building with the goal of making expulsion the only possible penalty for rape on campus.

On the University of Mary Washington’s campus, students can go through the university’s adjudication system as a violation of the code of student conduct or through criminal court via the University Police, according to UMW Judicial Affairs policy.

“Survivors might be more reluctant to move forward with such charges if the body that hears them is comprised entirely of students,” Director of Judicial Affairs and Community Responsibility Ray Tuttle said.

“A tragic outcome of campus sexual assault is that most students remain silent,” said the UMW Judicial Affairs policy on sexual misconduct. “In fact, because the act is often perpetrated by a trusted acquaintance, many students do not recognize that they have been assaulted. These silent victims can experience profound and long-lasting changes in their lives – psychologically, socially, developmentally, and academically.”

To combat these issues, the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services started a Healing from Sexual Assault group.

This is only the second semester the group has been held and is led by the new director of CAPS, Tevya Zukor.

Zukor, who previously worked for Virginia Tech and came to UMW in August, considers group therapy to be a passion of his. He held a Healing from Sexual Assault group at Tech as well, and brought the concept to UMW when he relocated.

He emphasized the underreported nature of sexual crimes, with most studies stating that 25 percent of college women will be the victim of sexual assault but far fewer will be reported at college police stations.

Zukor would like to see more women participate in the group therapy sessions, since most groups he has conducted are comprised of three to five victims. The small size, however, allows for the participants to share their experience in a way that aims to make them feel as comfortable as possible, he said.

“One of the most beneficial pieces of the group is the sense of trust and safety,” he said. “They can connect with these women. It is fundamental to the recovery process.”

One participant in this semester’s group commented on the group’s unique potential to offer peer support.

“I think this group is a positive coping mechanism to address a surprisingly common occurrence on college campuses,” the participant said. “Sharing my experience in a setting with people who have similar experiences has been immensely helpful and liberating. I highly suggest this to anyone who feels like they are coping alone.”

One of the difficulties many victims face, according to Zukor, is the issue of self-blame and tacit blame from friends and family members. Addressing their assaults in a forum where others have had similar experiences can help.

“Some places there’s an idea that sexual assault is a women’s issue,” Zukor said. “I think that is garbage. It’s a societal issue.”

Stereotypes like these and stigmas associated with sexual assault make the way campuses handle the issue a delicate matter.

“Colleges often will handle sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents differently from other judicial incidents because it is advisable to have individuals hearing such incidents receive training on specific issues,” Tuttle said. “These issues might include the range of responses to such an incident, on the part of the survivor, and characteristics of those who commit sexual assault or those who sexually harass other people.”

The Center for Public Integrity published an investigation that details the issues of secrecy and indifference when it comes to campus’ responses to sexual assault, while watchdog group Security on Campus proposed broader federal legislation.

Part of the reason for this type of advocacy is the prevalence of repeat offenders, according to Zukor.

“An overwhelming number of assaults happen from a small number of assailants,” Zukor said. “Research and data said that an assailant will offend again and again.”

He said that participants in the Healing from Sexual Assault group often discuss whether or not to turn in perpetrators, especially in cases of acquaintance rape.

Victim advocates disapprove of the idea of single-option sanctions, such as Dickinson College’s proposal of expulsion as the only punishment for rape, suggesting that these sanctions may actually lower the number of reported incidents, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Frequently victims seek no-contact orders rather than expulsion or criminal charges, and it is important for them to have that option, the article stated.