When the topic of rape at Christendom comes up, a common theme among the college’s defenders seems to be that it’s not the college’s job to deal with crime – victims should just go to the police and let the justice system handle it. A frequent criticism we hear leveled at Christendom rape victims is, “Why didn’t they just report to the police instead of going to the college?”
So I made some phone calls, and found out exactly what was involved in a Christendom undergraduate reporting a rape to the police in Front Royal. Let’s walk through the hurdles a student would have to face in order to actually get her attacker prosecuted by police.
Imagine a typical victim, returning back to campus after a date she was looking forward to ended in horrible violence being done to her. Her natural impulse is to simply try to recover–to take a hot shower, have a long cry, talk to a friend, zone out with a movie. Whatever she usually does when facing trauma or upset. She may also be reluctant to acknowledge what has happened, because it doesn’t match what she had believed about her date’s intentions and character. But if she waits till the next day, the rapist’s DNA won’t be collected, and the police will tell her there is nothing they can do. She has to take action now — even if it’s midnight or one in the morning.
A typical rape victim at Christendom will not know what to do or who to call. Christendom does not offer any training that would arm students with this knowledge, and important phone numbers aren’t posted. So she might have to struggle online for awhile (if she has a smartphone with internet access) to find out the right procedure, or spend half an hour making phone calls trying to figure out the right person to call.
She’ll find out that she has two choices. She could call the police station immediately and make her report to the police that very night, or she could go to the hospital to get a rape exam done.
If she calls the police, the department assured me they do have a detective who will come out to campus and assist her. They could not tell me what comes next in the process, whether a rape kit would be taken, whether they would take her to the police station or the hospital, or whether she would maintain control of whether or not to press charges. That makes it a very intimidating step, especially when our imaginary victim hasn’t yet had time to process or think about what has happened.
Our imaginary victim chooses option 2: go to the hospital. First, if she is an underclassman (freshman or sophomore), she has to hunt down a resident assistant (RA), whom she must beg for a curfew extension. If she goes to the hospital without first getting an extension, she may find herself in trouble with Student Life in the morning.
How to get to the hospital
Next, she has to find a ride. Most students don’t have cars. She asks all the girls in her dorm, but most are already sleeping, or else not in yet. Odds are, she does not find a ride. There’s a sexual assault support nonprofit the next county over, Choices of Page County. They provide transportation to a hospital. Unfortunately, Front Royal is too far for them to come. She calls another nonprofit, The Laurel Center in Winchester, and is told that hospital transportation isn’t a service they’re equipped to provide.
So she tries Uber. No luck. There are few Uber drivers in Front Royal. Last she calls a cab company. They finally come pick her up, and it isn’t that expensive to get to Warren Memorial, the hospital in town.
She checks into the ER and asks if she can have a rape kit done. No one there seems to know, as no one knew at first when I called. But at last someone gets back to her with an answer, after she’s been waiting for some time, alone and crying. There is no sexual assault nurse examiner at Warren Memorial. She will have to go to Winchester Medical Center, half an hour away.
She calls the cab again. This time she is told it will cost about $35 to get to WMC, and the same amount to get back. If she doesn’t have that amount, as many students might not, she will have to give up. But let’s imagine she does. It’s getting very late now, and she’s exhausted, but she takes the cab to WMC and waits again. Finally the nurse examiner takes a rape kit, and she can go home. By the time she arrives back at campus, it’s hours later, and her roommate has arrived and gone to sleep. She’s going to have to work through her trauma quietly and alone.
Reporting and pressing charges
After a few days have passed, and she’s had a chance to talk to her parents and a sexual assault counselor. She’s ready to press charges. She takes the Christendom van down to the police station and files her report. The officers grill her on the details, but her memory has some blanks in it — a common trauma response. They warn her that it’s very unlikely her case will go to trial. The local prosecutor, like most prosecutors nationwide, doesn’t like to do rape cases. It’s hard to get a conviction and will ruin his record of successful prosecution. But our victim is firm. She wants this done. She deserves her day in court.
It takes months for everything to come together. As soon as her attacker finds out she’s pressed charges, he begins following her all over campus, harassing her, and spreading rumors about her. He tells everyone she is promiscuous and a compulsive liar. He’s a charming man — that’s why she went out with him in the first place — and a lot of people believe him. She loses many of her friends. Daily, she has to share a classroom with him. He dominates the in-class discussion and interrupts her when she tries to participate. Her participation grades slip, then the exam grades. She has nightmares, which keep her up at night, and in the morning she sometimes sleeps through a class. Her GPA slips, and she risks losing her merit scholarship.
The grand jury decides
Finally, she gets her day in court. A grand jury will rule on whether or not she was raped. Her rapist gets a chance to testify, and she has, once again, to be in the same room with the man who attacked her so brutally. Unfortunately, her rape kit was never processed — as so many rape kits never are — so it can’t be admitted as evidence. And it doesn’t much matter, because her rapist admits they had sex. He just says she initiated it. There are no witnesses, no way for her to prove that he really attacked her. She cites her own actions in getting a rape kit, her statements over the following week to her friends and parents, the signs of trauma she has, his threatening texts. But none of these prove he raped her “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The grand jury chooses not to bring charges.
By then, she’s lost an entire semester to this struggle. Her scholarship is lost; her GPA will never recover. Most of campus agrees that if even a grand jury wouldn’t bring charges, her rape never happened. She’s a liar and impure, just like her attacker said. Opportunities she hoped for — a seat on student activities council, a job as an RA — are given to students with better reputations. She manages to access counseling, thanks to a recent initiative Christendom began last fall. But it can be hard to schedule it around classes and to find a ride to get there. Eventually, because this particular victim is blessed with unusual courage and perseverance, she graduates. But with her low GPA, she isn’t accepted to any of the grad schools she applies to. She manages at last to find a job, but the dreams she had when she first arrived at Christendom never pan out.
This entire story is hypothetical; most of the victims whose stories I know of had a much harder time, because they knew less and had fewer resources. Call it an idealized scenario.
It’s not Christendom’s fault!
“But,” people may say, “none of this is Christendom’s fault! It’s clear that the legal system is broken when it comes to rape cases; that the area has too few resources for rape victims; that people can be cruel — but none of that is limited to Christendom.”
No, it isn’t. But there are a lot of things Christendom could do:
- Train students in how to report a rape, the steps you can take, and what will happen after you report.
- Post phone numbers of the police station, the hospital, and a rape crisis hotline in every dorm.
- Guarantee students a ride to the police station or hospital, and a person to stay with you there.
- Employ a sexual assault nurse examiner itself, so students wouldn’t have to go to Winchester at all.
- Give students who report their rape an immediate protection order — switching their alleged attacker to other classes where possible and requiring him to avoid his accuser and not speak to her.
- Directly address victim-blaming and have talks about how purity is a disposition of soul, not a feature of the body.
- Listen to a student’s report and make a judgment about whether there is enough evidence to suspend or expel her rapist — not as a substitute for the law, but as an acknowledgement that the legal system can be broken where sexual assault is concerned.
All of this would absolutely make a difference in a rape victim’s ability to finish her education and accomplish her dreams. Some of them would require a little bit of effort on the part of the Christendom administration. We believe this change is possible.