(This is the first in an occasional series of stories about sexual assault and prevention at WSU)
By Brian Charles Clark, WSU News
It’s a slow road, full of switchbacks and reversals but Americans’ attitudes towards sexual assault appear to be changing direction. Where once a blame-the-victim approach to addressing accusations of rape and other forms of assault dominated, police and other frontline advocates now argue that offering care should be our first response.
“We call it a care-driven process,” says Kimberly Anderson, Title IX Coordinator and director of Washington State University’s Office for Equal Opportunity, the unit responsible for investigating claims of sexual harassment and assault. Because sex and gender-based violence are considered civil rights issues, sexual assault and its consequences fall under the umbrella of the federal Title IX, and thus the OEO. “We start with resources and support. The investigation is not secondary, but care is first. That’s something we’ve seen a shift in over the last few years on campus: people are becoming more thoughtful and more informed about these issues.”
Care comes in many different forms. One of the most important is not investigating an accusation, if that’s what the claimant-survivor wants, unless there is a clear indication that additional harm may result. That’s a big shift from the past when, nationwide, an “either it happened or it didn’t” attitude drove investigations. Survivors were frequently ridiculed, blamed, and had their cases tossed out when evidence was insufficient and biases against victims could not be surmounted.
No wonder so many victims of sexual assault have simply eschewed saying anything to anybody about their experiences. But in recent years, the number of reports has increased dramatically.
“When I started in 2011,” Anderson continues, “the OEO received fewer than 80 reports across the WSU community. Last year, we received something like 650. The outcomes of our cases are generally split. About half result in a finding violation and half do not. The latter often reflect a finding of insufficient evidence.”
But, whether there’s an investigation or not, “We do some sort of resource extension for every case that comes in our office.”
“Resource extension” in this context means offering care to both the complainant and respondent, to use the neutral legal terms. The OEO and the Office of the Dean of Students can work with faculty and staff to minimize the impact of assault on students by, for instance, supporting a request for an incomplete because of the stress of trauma. Claimant-survivors are informed about healthcare options, both physical and mental, that are available on WSU campuses.
Respondents receive the same information as conplaintants. The University strives to provide equitable care and support to all students and recognizes that being accused of this type of misconduct can be stressful in its own way.
How the OEO Investigates
Anderson is passionate about training and staying current with ongoing research and remaining open to new avenues of investigation. “Nobody can tell you, ‘This is the perfect way to investigate a sexual assault case and it’s never going to change.’ Every month we learn something new. If you stick with one source for your training, you’re not doing enough to understand” the complexities of these issues.
Anderson is emphatic that, “Nobody has ever said, ‘Let’s not investigate this case because it’s going to make us look bad.’ Everything I have ever heard is, ‘Let’s do this right. We take this seriously.’”
Rapists rarely jump out of bushes and grab us. Much more likely, they are a friend or a friend of a friend.
But part of taking each case on its own merits also means recognizing that complainants often don’t want an investigation. Reasons for foregoing an investigation are many. A common one is that, contrary to the rape myths that abound in American culture, our assailants are often known to us. Rapists rarely jump out of bushes and grab us. Much more likely, they are a friend or a friend of a friend. What started out as a good time with a few drinks turns into a nightmare. Victims of intimate violence committed by people they know often simply do not want to compound trauma upon trauma by dragging themselves, their assailant, and their witness-friends through an investigation. Other reasons include not wanting others to know; lack of proof; fear of retaliation; being unsure of whether what happened constitutes assault; not knowing how to report; and fear of being treated poorly by the criminal justice system.
Investigations are taken seriously, then, and it’s not just the OEO that gets involved. “If we’re rubber stamping a finding, then when it gets to the next level, to judicial review due to appeal, the judge and attorneys are going to say, ‘You didn’t follow process,’” Anderson says. “Then we’ve had the complainant waiting for a resolution for all that time, and if the original decision doesn’t hold up the outcome can feel worse than if we’d done nothing.”
Experience and precedent inform the OEO’s investigative process. “You learn from previous rulings that the judges are looking for certain evidence,” Anderson adds. “We often ask the WSU attorney general’s office to review our findings to serve as an extra check to make sure we get it right.”
How OEO Investigators Are Trained
“We try to have really diverse trainings,” Anderson says, with the goal of not ascribing to a single point of view about how assault cases should be investigated. “That’s not a quality balance.”
Anderson and her team, along with the sexual assault investigators who work with the WSU police department, receive training in trauma-informed interviewing techniques. This science-based method, based on research into the neurobiology of trauma, is a “a gradual and nonthreatening process,” according to the federal Office of Justice Programs, that respects the victim and recognizes that “memory loss, lack of focus, emotional reactivity, and multiple versions of a story can all be signs of trauma exhibited during interviews. Interviewers should be familiar with the signs of trauma and not assume the victim is evading the truth.”
“Part of the problem,” Anderson says, “is that we haven’t treated victims of interpersonal violence with the same dignity as those of other violent crimes. We try to take that into account without jeopardizing the case.” She adds that while trauma-informed investigation techniques are helpful in gathering information, it is important to treat all parties with the same care and respect. “We often seek other forms of evidence, such as text messages, eye‑witness statements, and other documentation to reach conclusions.”
Who Should Report—and How
All faculty and externally facing staff have a requirement to report to the OEO any concern of sexual harassment or violence. All other supervisors are to report any other form of discrimination. WSU’s Executive Policy 15 has more information.
Anderson says there are a number of ways for students, faculty, and staff to report harassment and violence.
“They can walk in. They can call us. They can submit an online complaint form—which can be submitted anonymously. Our ability to respond to anonymous complaints may be limited but we can use that info and to identify patterns, and to help us target resources.
“There are other ways, too: they can create an anonymous identifier or make note of the time they submitted the complaint so that if, some time down the road, they need to follow up they have a contemporaneously submitted report. They can go directly to the police. They can come to us and we can connect them with the police. We work closely with Alternatives to Violence on the Palouse in Pullman and, on all campuses, with other local advocacy groups.”
There are Title IX liaisons on all WSU campuses, Anderson says, who’ve all had training to provide care and support.
WSU Information and Resources
Reporting a sexual assault takes extraordinary courage, especially in a culture that, despite progress, still often puts the blame on victims, and heaps shame and disrespect upon survivors accordingly.
And yet, if you’re in a room with 100 men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or any number of other reputable sources, somewhere between 20 and 35 of the women present have experienced some form of sexual violence, and as many as one in six men have as well. That’s not even counting harassment and the thousand other cuts of microaggression women, gays, lesbians, queers, gender-nonconforming and transgender people experience on an ongoing basis.
Survivors deserve respect and the first and best thing we can do is simply to believe them.
When asked what we, as bystanders, as friends and family members, can do to help prevent assault, Anderson suggests two things: One, respect the person claiming to have been assaulted. In Anderson and her team’s experience, it is very rare for someone to make a knowingly false accusation of sexual assault. The price for the complainant is just too high. Whether there’s an investigation or not, survivors deserve respect and the first and best thing we can do is simply to believe them.
The second thing we can do is take a bystander intervention training, such as Green Dot. More on that in the next piece in this series.