by Shelby Harding
Last year, I wrote an article documenting sexual assault I experienced at an off-campus party thrown by Whitworth students. At the time, I hesitated to write it—I did not want to be victimized or garner sympathy. What I wanted to do was to raise awareness; even though we go to what can be generalized as a safe school, we cannot always be safe. We cannot always be behind the Pinecone Curtain.
Sexual assault is not something new at universities, even at Whitworth. The New York Times recently published an article discussing the rise in sexual assault and rape cases on college campuses across the country. One in five women, according to a government report, will face a sexual assault of some kind while attending university. With this rise in sexual assault and rape, many schools have taken it upon themselves to determine the fate of the arbitrators rather than the proper citizen authorities: the police. Furthermore, they rely on the victim to decide whether or not to press charges.
After the incident was reported, Student Life began questioning those who were at the party and my close friends that had helped me home. I was asked to go see a school counselor and talk with Student Life. They were very helpful with the counseling that typically goes along with traumatic experiences, but the one thing that bothered me quite a bit was the fact that they kept asking me what I wanted to do. Did I want to press charges? Did I want the person who assaulted me to face suspension or other disciplinary measures?
I was in the state of mind where I could not make a life-changing decision like that. At the time, I thought that if I pressed charges through the police, I would have to go to court, testify and take time out of my already jam-packed life. If I had the school punish him, I could face backlash from his friends— they were people I knew, people who said he was a good person. There was a ridiculous amount of pressure from all sides for ME to make a decision.
If neither of us had been university students, I believe it would have been a lot easier for me to press charges. I would not have hesitated to press charges had I not had so much pressure to, and even more pressure to think about the consequences for him. If we had been anyone other than university students, who would have handled this? The police and their specialized departments, just like any other private citizen. If my case was immediately handed to the proper authorities who have experts regarding these matters, I believe I would have pressed charges and I would have not regretted it. I didn’t press charges because of the pressure, and that’s a decision that I have to live with.
There needs to be less pressure on the victims of sexual assault and rape to press charges, especially with university students. What universities really need to focus on is the mental welfare of those who have been hurt, rather than trying to implement a justice system that should not be in their hands. Sexual assault and rape are criminal acts and not something that a university should handle. When a student is sexually assaulted or raped, it is not a matter of maintaining image. It is a matter of protecting students, and the current way of handling these cases is not protecting them, nor is it giving universities a very good image.
Universities, including Whitworth, need to step up and be brave. Allow the authorities to be the first to intervene and make academic punishment a secondary punishment rather than the primary. Universities should be outraged by students committing atrocious acts and crimes, and stop lessening the blow to the perpetrators by allowing them to bypass the law and authorities. It’s time to change the policy and focus on what really matters: helping affected students return to their normal lives.
Contact Shelby at firstname.lastname@example.org