Sexual assault survivor speaks out

sexual assaultAngela Cameron went to a party with a friend on a Friday night in early April. He offered to let her stay over his apartment and she did, only to find her underwear on the floor when she awoke from a blackout the next morning. She had been sexually assaulted.

Some time later, she recalled, she “was in class, staring at the person who raped me. Part of me wanted to strangle him. Another part of me wanted to hide in a corner,” Cameron said.

According to Cameron, she can’t remember the next week of her life following the assault.

“I went into acute shock. … You pretty much go on autopilot to react normally to an abnormal situation until you can’t handle it,” said Cameron, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism and theater who said she wanted her story told so others might learn from it.

In 2014, one in four college women has survived rape or attempted rape, according to One In Four, a national nonprofit aimed at ending sexual assault. This would equal 1,350 female undergraduate students on a college campus the size of the University of Miami’s. Although these statistics are nationwide, sexual assault is an issue that colleges, including UM, are addressing.

Recently, UM has begun to address the issue of sexual assault in a combination of programs and events. This includes the formation of the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education led by President Donna E. Shalala in May and Canes Consent, an event that raises awareness of sexual assault, started in 2013. There have been other events, such as “A Call to Men,” and efforts like the Sexual Assault PSA by Student Government, as well as The Hook Up, a presentation held during this year’s orientation.


Cases on campus

There were four forcible sex offenses reported on campus in 2013, according to the 2014-2015 University of Miami Comprehensive Combined Annual Security Report and Annual Fire Safety Report. The university is required to publish an annual safety report, which includes important phone numbers, resources and crime statistics on each UM campus.

“I think a big part of the reason why there are only four reported forcible sex offenses is that people are afraid of being re-traumatized by telling the story over and over again. I’m sure there are many more assaults than are reported, but we cannot report rumors,” said Lieutenant William Gerlach, head of UM Police Dispatch Center.

Reported Sexual Offenses at the University of Miami

In July 2014, an incident occurred on campus that brought national attention to UM and the issue of sexual assault. UM football players JaWand Blue, 20, and Alexander Figueroa, 20, were arrested and charged with sexual battery after admitting to intoxicating and raping a 17-year-old UM student in Figueroa’s dorm room in the Pearson Residential College. Both players were dismissed from the football team and expelled, according to statements made by Head Coach Al Golden in a press conference on Sept. 16.

Blue and Figueroa will have the sexual battery charges dropped against them if they complete sex-offender treatment classes and 100 hours of community service.

“The victim, also a campus athlete, did not want to undergo the ‘devastating’ experience of testifying,” prosecutor Laura Adams told a judge on Nov. 5, according to an article published in The Miami Herald.

The University of Miami Police Department (UMPD) works with the Dean of Students office, in conjunction with Wilhemena Black, the University’s Title IX Coordinator, to assemble yearly safety reports and collect crime data. Black ensures the university’s compliance with Title IX legislation by coordinating investigation of any complaints.

Dean Tony Lake, associate dean and director of Judicial Affairs at UM, serves as deputy Title IX coordinator. Lake investigates reports of sexual violence and serves as a mediator in the process of disciplinary hearings.

Between Black, Lake and several other deans and administrators, the university works to meet the requirements detailed in Title IX. If an institution fails to do so, the U.S. Department of Education may fine the school or even cut funding altogether.

“There are some parts of this issue that have to do with compliance, because you could lose funding for not doing so,” Lake said. “However, this is a greater issue. It is a civil rights issue. It is a gender equality issue. It’s a global issue. It’s also a public health issue, physically and mentally.”

A common trend among universities under investigation for violations of Title IX is the underreporting of crimes — specifically, sexual assault — to protect the school’s image. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Princeton have all been accused of mishandling rape cases and underreporting sexual assault to protect their prestigious image.

UM does not keep from reporting sexual assault complaints to protect its image, according to Gerlach.

“If that was our concern, we would zero out the numbers, say there is no problem, and discourage reporting,” he said.

The conversation about sexual assault and institutional transparency was sparked in part by direct action taken by President Shalala earlier this summer.

In May, Shalala created the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education. Shalala assigned Patricia Whitely, vice president for Student Affairs, to oversee its progress and effectiveness.

“Peers are our most valuable tools,” Whitely said. “The peers influence the campus climate, so students need to stand up for each other, for their friends, and for themselves. They need to say, ‘We will not be bystanders.’”

The coalition is comprised of 25 members, including representatives, professors and administration from many schools and departments across the university.

According to a memorandum Shalala sent to the university community in May, the coalition has four main objectives. It aims to increase awareness about the university’s and students’ efforts to educate others about sexual violence and bystander intervention. In addition, the coalition plans to collect information about the nature of sexual assault on campus.

It is currently working on a campus climate survey to create a list of as many resources as possible and to get a closer estimate of how often sexual assault does happen at the university, according to Lake.

Lastly, the coalition will plan meetings, programs and events related to sexual violence and provide feedback about the university’s efforts and suggest improvements.

“We want everybody working together to make sure that nobody is a victim of sexual violence, either on or off campus,” Whitely said.

Alongside the President’s Campus Coalition, UM introduced Haven, a two-part online bystander education program implemented in fall 2013. All incoming freshmen and transfer students are required to complete the course before the end of their first semester.

The program begins with an introductory video and clear definitions of words such as “rape” and “consent.” Modules educate students on topics such as healthy language in relationships and actions to take when encountering a survivor of sexual assault.

The course works in the same way as Alcohol Edu, an online alcohol education course started in 2012 for incoming students. The programs allow for an intersession period of 30 to 45 days between the first and second parts.

Once a student has taken an assessment test and completed the modules, they can also save helpful resources — hotline numbers, on-campus facilities and authorities — to their notepad for future reference.

According to Lake, the university was searching for a program that was informative and effective. Haven, Alcohol Edu and other programs that educate students on critical life skills were created by the company EverFi.

In addition to Haven, new students also attended The Hook Up at Orientation—a fast-paced and comprehensive session on “hooking up,” from kissing to safely engaging in sex.

Speaker Heather Imrie also discussed the inextricable link between sexist slurs and gender-based violence. Imrie had participants yell words used to describe females and males who have sex, noting the different connotations.

“I don’t think women should have to be skeptical,” freshman Coleman Reardon said after attending The Hook Up. “If guys just stopped with the name-calling… Even if they think it’s not hurting anybody, it might be. If they just start with that, then that gets us somewhere.”


Reporting the crime

The university has a system in which students can speak to a dean, file a complaint and have a hearing. However, UM is moving toward a “web” system where any person can lead a survivor to other available resources.

“A student can call the Sexual Assault Resource Team or visit the Counseling Center; speak to Dean Abramson [Assistant Dean of Students and social worker] or myself, a faculty member, their R.A., or a student organization member,” Lake said.

According to Lake, once a student reports a case, he or she decides if the report becomes a complaint with the Dean’s Office. The complainant can then decide whether he or she wants to be involved in the disciplinary hearing or step out of the process.

Lake takes statements from the complainant and the respondent, and interviews any witnesses. He also cooperates with Coral Gables Police Department to collect any evidence and open an investigation.

At every point along the way, administration checks in and accommodates the student in whatever way he or she needs to be supported.

“We as an institution have tried to build a system that is impartial,” Lake said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to come into the issue as prosecutors against one student. As investigators, we gather evidence and present it to a hearing panel.”

The hearing panel is comprised of a minimum of three representatives. There is at least one person representing each the student, the faculty and the staff on campus.

The main difference between legal trials and hearings at universities is that in disciplinary hearings, an accused person can be found responsible with a preponderance of evidence. This means that if evidence leans more to one side, there is a decision, as opposed to ‘guilty beyond reasonable doubt.’

Once a decision is made, there is a sanction.

A student found responsible for violating sexual assault policy would generally be suspended, according to Lake. Different forms of sexual violence, ranging from stalking to sexual harassment, will merit disciplinary probation and completion of an educational program.

Both the complainant and the respondent can appeal the sanction. During the appeal process, Whitely and Dean of Students Ricardo Hall then decide whether to uphold or re-evaluate the sanction.

For Lake, disciplinary hearings are often not black-and-white.

“The hardest part of my job is taking a step back,” Lake said. “I find myself getting too connected to the emotions of the accused or of the victim sometimes.”

However, for Cameron, Lake was a constant source of support throughout her hearing.

“He is one of the few people on campus who is really there for students and wants them to get better,” Cameron said.

Lake often suggests visiting the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The center was one of the first rape treatment centers in the U.S. and has treated more than 42,000 victims of sexual assault. It is the only rape treatment unit in Miami-Dade County.

Still, complaints of mishandling cases and victimizing questions surround the university’s disciplinary system. According to Katharine Westaway, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and creator of Canes Consent, one student’s aggressor was allowed to stay on campus, even after he was found responsible for her rape.

When finding someone to confide in, students went to individuals such as Westaway, who created Canes Consent in fall 2013 with a group of her students to raise awareness about sexual assault after several students came to her with their stories.

The event featured a DJ, food, TED-style talks and giveaways. The second Canes Consent will take place on Dec. 4 and will be an opportunity for survivors to speak out, according to Westaway.

“I couldn’t stand by and do nothing, so we got together as a class to create a mechanism to stop sexual assault on campus. I think the students are doing a lot of great things, and it’s time for the administration to step up,” she said. “They need to put real resources and funding into survivor groups, education and greater sex education classes. It’s time for them to show their support by providing resources.”

A specific change Westaway advocates is reform of the judiciary system at UM.

“It’s just as though nobody has thought about going through this system as a victim,” Westaway said. “What would it be like for you if you saw your rapist in the dining hall after he was accused of rape? I know victims who have told me that the trial at the university was as bad as the rape.”

Cameron recalled feeling despair after receiving a letter from the Dean of Students office with the sanction: Her rapist would be suspended for a single semester.

To be in compliance with strict privacy regulations, universities cannot disclose any information regarding sexual assault cases. This is one of the reasons why there is often no response from colleges as they are being publicly criticized by students.

“I looked at my mom after that whole process and I said, ‘Was this hearing even worth it? Was it even worth it to mentally and physically drag myself through the whole thing? He can come back next semester,'” Cameron said.

If a student is displeased with the outcome of a hearing and complains about the institution to media outlets, the university cannot issue any statement containing details about the case. Usually, universities issue a “no comment” statement when confronted with complaints about Title IX cases.

Such was the case with Columbia University, when senior Emma Sulkowicz began carrying the mattress on which she was raped around campus in protest. Sulkowicz was one of 23 Columbia and Barnard students to file a Title IX complaint against the university.

“It’s not to say that what is happening [at universities under investigation] is correct, but that things are much more complicated than they appear,” Lake said. “We have to comply with all these different regulations from individual sources — Congress, the White House, senators, the federal government — and they are all using their own language that we have to decipher.”


Canes care for Canes

According to Carolyn Eberhardt, clinical psychologist at the Counseling Center and director of S.A.R.T., survivors of sexual assault typically face many conflicting emotions at the same time after the incident. One of the most important things, she says, is to remind survivors that the assault was not their fault.

“It is important to be an open listener. Just be there for that person. It’s not what you tell someone to do, but how present you are with them,” Eberhardt said.

Numerous misconceptions surround sexual assault and rape. Most common are the ideas that sexual assault does not happen and that a person is “asking for it,” according to Eberhardt.

“Nobody is asking to be raped,” Westaway said. “Being raped is one of the worst things that can befall a person, and trying to blame the victim by their choice of wardrobe or by their choice of dancing, or what bar they went to. Nobody says, ‘Were you looking a certain way that was asking for that guy to punch you?’ We only do this to rape victims.”

According to Cameron, the first step toward improving the university in terms of sexual assault is having survivors speak out.

“This happened to me and it is not OK. I’m going to at least … try. It’s going to take everything you have and then some, but it was worth it because even though [my aggressor] didn’t get much punishment, it has helped me learn how to live with what happened,” Cameron said.

After posting a message on the Facebook page of her sorority over the summer, Cameron remembers several women sharing her experience.

“I had sisters reach out to me and say that they were raped too, but they never reported it,” she said.

For many survivors, filing a complaint is not just a form of justice for oneself, but for others.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I found out he did this to somebody else and I had had the ability to stop it when it happened to me,” Cameron said.

Three months after Cameron reported the rape, approximately two weeks before the beginning of fall semester, the disciplinary hearing was closed.

Cameron’s perpetrator is allowed to come back in January. He will be on final probation.

“I’ve seen worse for plagiarism,” Cameron said in reaction to the sanction. “I’m not asking for him to be expelled, but I want the university to ensure my safety for the remainder of my time here as an undergraduate. I shouldn’t have to ask for this.”

Sexual assault is an issue that runs much deeper than legislation or codes of conduct, however. With the coalition and work of several student organizations, Cameron hopes there will one day be enough resources for survivors as well as the whole student body.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed since I came back to school is that the university has done a lot in terms of prevention for sexual assault, especially with this year’s incoming class. However, they don’t do much for people who have been raped. There just aren’t resources,” Cameron said.

Despite the hurdles that Cameron has faced, she shared a message of hope for survivors.

“You won’t realize that you’re getting better until you are OK. But you will be,” Cameron said.

This story was updated 11:15 a.m. Thursday to clarify Head of UM Police Dispatch Center Lieutenant William Gerlach’s statement about the relationship between reporting sexual assaults cases and the university’s image.