Column: In college sexual assaults, focus on the victim

So far the national conversation about campus rape has been largely about how colleges and universities need to get better at investigating and punishing perpetrators of student sexual assault. But as this month's landmark report from a White House task force makes clear, an overemphasis on rooting out the guilty loses sight of a very important thing: the welfare and wishes of victims.

Many victims simply are not able to pursue charges against their attackers in the weeks or months after the incident. They need time and privacy to heal from the trauma at their own pace. And sometimes, for some women, that means talking with someone to sort out their options without the fear of setting off Title IX alarms and losing control of the healing process.

"If victims don't have a confidential place to go, or think a school will launch a full-scale investigation against their wishes, many will stay silent," according to "Not Alone," the report issued by President Barack Obama's Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

At Florida State University, we know this from experience. FSU is one of more than 50 colleges and universities whose handling of sexual assault cases is being reviewed by the federal Office of Civil Rights. We expect that review to show that for years we have made the decision to put the victims — almost always women — first.

Caring for women students has been a part of the university's DNA since it became a women's college in 1909. Our Title IX process for handling sexual assaults was designed and is administered by women. And at the heart of that program is a corps of dedicated victim advocates that responds to every incident with support, counsel and advocacy.

Based on the White House report, our victim advocate program could serve as a national model. These advocates stand at the center of a sexual assault response network that includes health services, housing, student affairs, academic support and other services.

They have the authority to accompany victims to the police station, medical exams and legal proceedings. Victim advocates arrange for a safe place for students to stay, contact their professors to reschedule exams, change classes, obtain transcripts — even devise an escape plan if the victim were to run into her assailant. Our advocates also counsel "secondary victims" such as family members.

Most important, the advocates are trained to empower victims by placing their rights, needs and wishes at the center of the process. Among these is the right to confidentiality as she contemplates how to seek justice. Our advocates advise each victim of her rights to file a criminal and/or Title IX complaint — and they honor her wishes not to pursue either course if she isn't ready or fears re-victimization by openly participating in criminal or campus proceedings.

A victim-centered approach will sometimes expose a university to certain reputational risks, especially in today's emotionally and politically charged debate over campus safety. What alumni, parents and the media often label as a cover-up or an institutional lack of will may be — and very often is — a case of a victim advocate honoring state laws protecting confidentiality and heeding the forceful refusal of a client to talk to police or the dean of students office.

This is part of the balancing act FSU faces by putting victims first, a balancing act recommended by the president's task force. Its report instructs universities that just as they must not refuse a victim's request to file a complaint, "where a survivor does not seek a full investigation, but just wants help to move on, the school needs to respond there, too."

None of this is to claim that FSU has been perfect in handling sexual misconduct cases or that every victim is satisfied. No institution can say this.

But our victim-centered approach has worked well in the majority of cases since we adopted it a decade ago, and we are gratified that the task force recognizes its value.

Mary Coburn is vice president of student affairs at Florida State University.

Column: In college sexual assaults, focus on the victim 05/14/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 7:39am]

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