In the days after Megan Chuhran was sexually assaulted in a Kalamazoo College dorm room, she felt like she was torn between two terrible options: let the traumatic experience go, or endure months of interviews, hearings and investigations from professors, students and campus security to seek justice against her accused rapist, a fellow student.
Chuhran's memory of the night in 2004 is patchy—she suspects because she may have been slipped a date rape drug while drinking at an off-campus party, though no toxicology assessment was ever performed.
But she does remember a man, a year ahead of her in school, whom she knew from her English classes.
"I don't remember leaving, I don't remember walking back to campus, I don't remember him taking any of my clothes off," said Churhran, who received counseling in Chicago after she graduated. "But I remember [that] I couldn't move my arms."
Chuhran, who was 19 at the time, wasn't sure how to react in the days after the assault. Rather than report it to local police officials, who she worried might fault her because she had been drinking and because almost a week had passed, she turned to a college counselor.
But instead of offering support, Chuhran said, her counselor discouraged her from reporting the assault even to school officials, warning of a fraught and complex, 8-week-long disciplinary process that would ultimately require her to cross-examine her alleged assailant in front of professors who had taught both of them and other college students and staff. Chuhran went on with the report anyway, and the man was expelled at the end of the school year.
Chuhran's situation is not unique. The most recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 35 incidents of sexual assault are reported on college campuses per 1,000 female students. Among the men and women who experience rape or attempted rape in college, some who report their rape to school authorities are met with resistance, inadequate resources or convoluted reporting systems that could cause them further trauma.
There is no model campus sexual assault policy, rape advocates say, and procedures are difficult to compare.
"The [colleges] are trying to review and provide justice for what is outside of the campus a felony that veteran prosecutors have a hard time prosecuting," said Diana Newton, the executive director of Porchlight Counseling Services, an Evanston-based counseling center that focuses on college-aged victims of sexual violence. "It gets jumbled and messed up, and sometimes a second victimization can happen."
Some of those schools have come under fire recently from students and advocates of more comprehensive sexual misconduct policies. Among them are Occidental College in Southern California, which is settling with some students who filed a federal complaint last spring over rape on campus, and Amherst College, which has vowed to reform its sexual misconduct policies in response to an investigation into its handling of some student victims of sexual violence.
In Chicago, allegations that two women were raped by the same man on consecutive nights at Loyola University last January, as well as allegations that two women were sexually assaulted at suburban Benedictine University last month, have drawn more local attention to the scope of the problem.
Earlier this year the federal government gave universities more reasons to update their policies. The reauthorized Violence Against Women Act has a new provision requiring campuses to investigate student sexual misconduct in a manner that "protects the safety of victims" and "promotes accountability." Schools are already required to report the number of sexual assaults they log each year to federal officials, whether or not those assaults are reported to the police or brought to court.
Newton said Porchlight, which primarily counsels Chicago-area college students who have experienced sexual violence, provides more than 2,000 hours of counseling a year to students who come from nearly every local school.
"No matter the university size, quality, name, there are victims of sexual assault. it's all over the city," Newton said. "I've gotten three calls from three different universities in the last two days, and school just started."
When addressing sexual assault allegations, schools often struggle to help students recover from the trauma they say they've experienced while remaining fair to all parties involved. Kalamazoo College officials revamped the sexual misconduct procedures in 2007 after Sarah Westfall, the Kalamazoo vice president for student development, found the previous policy inadequate.
But, she said, any school would have a tough time crafting a response to sexual assault and misconduct that satisfies all students.
"I think people who don't deal with this feel like, well, it's obvious what you should do in each situation, and it's not," she said. "The information is usually unreliable, and you've typically got two people who are in a really difficult situation. It's easier to figure out if you stole my sweatshirt than if you harmed me."
After Amy VanBecelaere was sexually assaulted while a senior in 2009, the counselor at her Michigan college encouraged her to "deal with it" herself in lieu of going to the police. As a result, she said, she wasn't able to begin recovering from the experience until a year later, when she moved to Chicago to begin graduate school at Columbia College.
Columbia counselors were able to offer VanBecelaere, now 26, some counseling sessions, she said, and they also encouraged her to seek more treatment than they could provide through Porchlight. That advice was essential, she said.
"The biggest thing I learned [in counseling] is that it doesn't matter if you were drinking, it doesn't matter what you were wearing, it doesn't matter what time of day or night it was, it's still not your fault," she said. "It's never OK for somebody to assault you, regardless of the circumstances. If it's against your will, it's not your fault."
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