Across the board, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States.
Be it because of shame, embarrassment or a sheer lack of knowledge on how to report, the general opinion is that the more people that know how, and the more accessible that process is, the more victims will come forward with their stories.
When a victim walks into the Ferris Department of Public Safety (DPS) claiming to have been a victim of criminal sexual misconduct (CSC), they are immediately taken back into a room for questioning by a senior officer, more often than not, Detective Timothy Jacobs.
“I let them know before we even begin that they ‘drive the bus’ on the investigation,” Jacobs said. “We let them know what happens at each point with the investigation because you’ll have victims that don’t wish for criminal charges or they don’t know at this point. This stuff is very new to them, they’re scared and they haven’t had the ability to digest what the process is going to be.”
The goal is to avoid victims having to tell and retell their story to five different police organizations. Apartment complexes off-campus like Venlo, Oakwood, UPS, etc., are not within the jurisdiction of Ferris DPS and would have to work with city or state police, although Det. Jacobs says they would help in any way that they can, including follow-up with Title IX.
Title IX Coordinator Kevin Carmody and the Title IX program, base their cases more so on who was involved, was it a student or Ferris affiliate, as opposed to where the incident occurred. DPS, however, are much more concerned with geographic location and if it happened on campus.
Jacobs explained that even if a victim doesn’t know how they want to proceed and whether or not they want to press charges, the collection of time-sensitive evidence is crucial if they decide to prosecute down the road.
“There are certain things that you can’t get back, such as DNA evidence that we want to preserve,” Jacobs said. “Whether we prosecute or not, we want to have everything in case that day comes that the person does want to prosecute. And if this person is a predator, we have that evidence possibly for another case.”
The preservation of DNA evidence is often done by means of a sexual assault evidence kit as well as collecting things like bed sheets and any surveillance footage of the victim and assailant while they were in a public place.
This particular step will be made much easier by the addition of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) to the Spectrum Health facility in Big Rapids. While some advocates feel this addition is long overdue, it is welcomed nonetheless.
“I’m excited that they have a SANE nurse because it lends more credibility in court and the more that a person works with anything or does anything, the more efficient they become,” Jacobs said.
Both Title IX Coordinator and Detective Jacobs want to make it clear that whether or not a victim is inebriated or has been drinking underage at the time of the assault is completely irrelevant.
“The seriousness of sexual assault is such a major concern that the University does not want any barriers to reporting that experience,” Carmody said. “Including the use of alcohol and/or drugs.”
The next major step, after the rape kit and an investigation of the scene is complete, is assessing things like class schedules and housing situations. The goal is to keep the victim and assailant from seeing each other as much as possible. Often involved in this step is a personal protection order, a less severe version of a restraining order.
“I would get with their Dean right away and we would make provisions because the accused is not guilty, so they have a due process, but on the other side we would rearrange classes so they don’t see each other. This way they don’t meet but they can still meet their academic requirements,” Jacobs said. “The same applies for housing as well. If they’re in the same residence hall the first thing would be an interim move.”
Everything is collected as soon as the victim feels safe, including an interview with the suspect, all the evidence and interviews and lab results are sent to the prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor will either charge or not charge depending on what the victim wishes. Additionally, a victim’s rights advocate will normally come in and talk about what to expect if they wish to proceed. This means an arraignment, a pre-trial and an actual trial.
A common misconception in this process is that the assailant can’t be tried both criminally and by the university itself. This is not true. Even if criminal charges for whatever reason don’t stick, the Office of Student Conduct and Title IX program are still within their rights to expel a student from the university.
However, no matter how many steps are put in place to help survivors, the goal is always to prevent it from ever getting to this point.
During his freshman year, third year psychology major and WISE volunteer, Justin Wolber, got together with another student, who is no longer at Ferris, to fill a gap they saw in campus life concerning advocacy and bystander intervention.
“I saw it was an area that I could help and I could try and make a difference on campus,” Wolber said. “Because of that I’ve learned a lot about the topic and I want to utilize everything that I’ve learned. I’ve stayed with it and become passionate about making a difference and making those survivors feel safe.”
Wobler and the other student heard of a program from the University of Arizona, who they conferenced with in order to attain usage rights, that was based on the theory of bystander intervention as well as education and awareness.
The program is called Step Up and is designed by students for students, encouraging intervention in situations of sexual assault, mental health crisis and alcohol abuse.
“We targeted those three situations because we think they’re attainable for us to try and make a difference,” Wolber said.
Whether or not a bystander intervenes can be life changing for both of the parties involved.
“There’s a chance that this person could end up on a registered sex offenders list for the rest of their life, and there’s another chance that this other person has to live with the effects of sexual assault for the rest of their life,” Jacobs said. “You interfering can change both of those outcomes.”
Process of Reporting sexual assault
1.) The victim is taken into a questioning room with a senior officer.
2.) They are told upfront that they are completely in charge of what is done with the results of this investigation.
3.) The victim is given a booklet with frequently used terms and exact definitions of different degrees of Criminal Sexual Conduct (CSC). This is so they can more easily understand what is going on during the investigation.
4.) Officers find out where the incident took place and determine jurisdiction. The goal is to make sure the victim doesn’t have to tell their story repeatedly to multiple different police organizations.
5.) If the victim is coherent enough to make a written statement, this is the time that is completed.
6.) At this point a rape kit is performed to collect any evidence from the victim’s person. This exam should take place within 72 hours of the incident and will take up to 3 hours to complete.
7.) Collect any other time-sensitive physical evidence including bed sheets, DNA samples, surveillance recordings from public places the victim and assailant were at and photographing the scene.
8.) Any other people involved in the incident are canvased and questioned while details are still fresh.
9.) Before the victim leaves the police department, the officer attempts to arrange a follow-up counseling session for them.
10.) The Department of Public Safety then collaborates with other facilities to make sure the victim and assailant are kept apart as much as possible. This can include rearrangement of class schedules as well as an interim move within campus housing as necessary.
11.) All the evidence, all the witness statements, lab results and interviews with the suspect are gathered and sent to prosecutor’s office.
12.) The prosecutor will either charge or not charge depending on what the victim wishes. A victim’s rights advocate will normally come in and talk about what to expect if they wish to proceed with a trial. This means an arraignment, a pre-trial and an actual trial.
13.) Lastly, Ferris has the Office of Student Conduct complete their portion of this process. They have all of the information as well, and that is reviewed and the person can either be suspended or dismissed on these grounds.
What happens when a rape kit is performed?
Treatment of injuries:
The priority is to make sure that any physical injuries to the victim are treated before collecting evidence.
This portion includes questions about health history, recent sexual history, and details about the assault itself. Oftentimes particular injuries or articles of clothing contain DNA evidence that can be removed and analyzed.
This part varies depending on the nature of the assault, but it can include an examination of the mouth, vagina and anus. Additionally there are often samples of blood, urine and hair taken. This is also the point where exact injuries are documented both by being written down and photographed.
The last major step in the process is the treatment of and prevention of STIs and pregnancy, as well as the further treatment of injuries sustained during the assault.
(Information courtesy of RAINN.org)
To read more about the issue of sexual assault at Ferris, click here.
To read a first-hand account of being sexually assaulted, click here.