I am survivor of domestic violence. It has taken me many years to feel comfortable writing that. After finally finding the courage to face that truth, I now find I must face a new truth, a truth that I am still having difficulty coming to grips with, especially given my organization's focus on elevating college students:
There is a great divide between how abuse encounters are treated in college vs. post-college.
When I finally sought help and found the courage to let someone know what I was going through, I was supported. I was believed.
That appears to be in stark contrast to the experience many victims of assault on college campuses may have when they report these issues, especially when it's related to sexual assault.
This issue is not about blaming colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education have many dedicated faculty and administration committed to serving students and playing a valuable role in preparing students for the world ahead. But even with all the positive outcomes a college education guarantees, there is ample research that colleges overall need to do a better job handling sexual assault cases.
To highlight the divide, I have decided to share one instance from my own experience. I was in the ER trying to convince the nurse that I had a "home renovation gone wrong" accident. She was concerned; I was dismissive. I found myself laughing off my clumsiness and trying to engage in general conversation so that she could see I was in good spirits and stop giving me "that look." But this nurse, she wouldn't stop that look and then she wouldn't stop with the questions.
She saw me becoming more and more uncomfortable so she left, then she sent in a different person to check on me. Not a doctor or another nurse, some sort of counselor pushing pamphlets toward me. I still can see the words "Domestic Violence" sprawled in big black letters. Some stupid hotline number. As if.
I told her "No thank you" and explained that obviously I was no domestic violence victim. I was a successful, very educated young professional from a good home. I wasn't some helpless, hopeless woman with no options. Or at least that is how I tried to rationalize the situation. I told them I felt fine and I left the ER with a couple of Advil and an attitude. How dare they think I am some victim?
Compare that scenario to the victims on college campuses that we hear about all too often. Trying to tell their stories. Trying to get someone, anyone to listen to them and more importantly, believe them.
For me that experience in the ER, the genuine concern and attempts to get me to face reality were turning points. It jolted me into realizing this was not normal; it was not OK. So I think I was lucky.
Unfortunately, on many college campuses students who say they were sexually assaulted may not be so lucky. Many victims have said they felt they were discouraged from reporting the abuse, or felt they received insensitive treatment by officials and police, and too often feel they were blamed for their own assault.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating over 100 colleges for possible federal violations of how they handled such cases. College campuses reported over 5,000 forcible sex offenses to the Department of Education in 2013; a recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice estimated the number of offenses is at least six times that number.
We should not seek to simply vilify institutions and campus administration. We are all struggling with this. So what we need to be doing is collaboratively coming up with solutions that increase awareness and promote prevention of this epidemic, while simultaneously creating an environment that is more supportive of the victims.
The Campus Accountability and Safety Act would establish new campus resources and support services for student survivors. It would ensure that college and university staff meet minimum training standards to address sexual assault cases.
Colleges are joyful places charged with preparing students for "the real world" and all that true adulthood has to offer.
It's time to close the gap and give our students the support they need and deserve if they are abused or assaulted on campus. I know from personal experience that support is the best way to give them a chance to move beyond the trauma and propel them toward the better and brighter future that's still within their reach.
I look forward to reading your feedback, especially as I will continue to write about the other big issues impacting college campuses in the following weeks.