UNCA officials encourage sexual assault victims to seek guidance

By Olivia Patterson – [email protected] – Contributor | Feb. 11, 2015 |
According to recent findings by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 80 percent of college students won’t report their rape or sexual assault, but UNC Asheville officials said they strive to provide a safe, caring environment for victims.
“We’ve worked really hard to develop a comprehensive approach to providing support and assistance to victims. They deserve the opportunity to begin to heal, and they don’t need to sit in silence,” said Jackie McHargue, dean of students.
There are a myriad of reasons why a victim of sexual assault wouldn’t want to report assault, including common factors such as embarrassment, shame or fear of judgment. According to Jill Moffitt, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, there are several misconceptions about the process of reporting sexual assault on campus.
“If they say that they do not want to have any action, we honor that as best we can under our obligation for Title IX. The only time that doesn’t work, and I’m very honest with students about this, is if there’s a larger threat to the community. If there’s a larger threat to the community, then sometimes I have to move forward without them,” Moffitt said.
Moffitt explained Title IX and her role as its coordinator for UNCA.
“This idea that the university has an obligation to not discriminate on the basis of sex,” Moffitt said. “The reason sexual misconduct, domestic violence and stalking are part of that is because we’re assuming that if you’re a victim of that, it is because of your sex or your perceived sex for gender non-conforming individuals.”
Moffitt said other victims may not want to report assault because of drug use or underage drinking prior to their assault. They may fear unequal treatment due to their inebriated state, or even receiving a citation for substance use on campus.  Moffitt said protocol for a drug-facilitated assault mirrors the protocol for assault without substance use.
“The protocol is the same. If they make a call, we immediately go out there. The very first thing we do is we ask what happened, and if they don’t want to tell us, that’s OK. What we make sure is that they feel supported, and if they require any medical attention. We just try to wrap them in support at that moment,” she said.
A victim may not want to report assault because they don’t want to get the police involved or press charges. Moffitt debunked that common misconception.
“The campus police are a fully-accredited law enforcement agency, so the only way that campus police do an investigation is if the victim wants to press criminal charges. In my year and a half of doing this, I haven’t had a student wish to go forward with pressing criminal charges,” Moffitt said.
Many students say they also fear forced or coerced withdrawal from school if they report an assault. Due to the traumatic nature of sexual assault, the majority of victims experience mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, which can make schoolwork difficult.
“If it was traumatic to where it continues to be a situation the victim is grappling with, we don’t force them or tell them to take time off. That is 1,000 percent their decision. We are able to work with their faculty to get the victim incompletes for the semester to buy them some more time,” Moffitt said. “There’s not a standard protocol saying that they must do a medical withdrawal or take an incomplete. It really depends on the situation. I want students to know we’re not going to leave you hanging. We’re going to work with you, and we’ll be advocates on your behalf to the faculty.”
McHargue commented on how the complex reporting process might intimidate victims.
“The process sounds really complicated, which is why I think people sometimes don’t want to report. I think the biggest message we’re trying to get out is that it can be complicated, but we’re here to make it easier. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” McHargue said.
The effects of not seeking help after a traumatic experience such as sexual assault can be devastating. Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can amplify over time and even develop into something as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I want students to know that people are here and willing to help,” said Eric Boyce, assistant vice chancellor for public safety. “I don’t want students to hear that it’s not hard to do this, because it is. We want victims to get help and start the healing process because it’s not healthy for them to try to do it alone. If victims don’t begin the healing process, the trauma will continue until they figure out a way to heal. We are here to help facilitate that, and will continue to until we can get them to a better place.”
Dealing with the aftermath of an assault coupled with the process of reporting an assault can seem overwhelming, but is extremely important for the healing process.
“I need students to report. I want them to know that yes, it’s a process and it comes with all the things a process implies, but we’re here to really help make that as smooth as possible without taking away their power, or re-victimizing them,” Moffitt said. “They’re not going to hear things like, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Not from us.”