Friday, October 17, 2008

Not Just an Evergreen Problem

The Carnival against Sexual Violence 57 is up at abyss2hope. My post on the deployment of rape myths in the Marc Dann sexual harassment scandal was included - thanks to whoever picked it up!

Among the interesting posts in the carnival was a report on a student who was allegedly raped at The Evergreen State College. The incident occurred on a Saturday night; she didn't get a medical exam until the following Tuesday. Her reason for waiting? The student health center was closed over the weekend.

At Change Happens: The SAFER Blog, Ashley comments:
So this school A) had no one available to help this woman when evidence collection was most imperative and B) once contacted, allowed her to wait even longer to obtain the proper care and have evidence collected. Further, by pushing her visit to the emergency room back yet another day, they may have made it impossible for her to take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. At the very least, they’ve made it less likely that EC will work.

This is just one of the many reasons that every college should have crisis counselors and sexual assault nurse examiners on call and ready to handle cases like this 24/7. As this case shows, students are often reluctant to call local agencies, and will tend to turn to familiar, college-based programs, especially in a time of crisis.

Now, it's unusual for student health centers to be open from 9 to 5 on the weekend. My undergrad alma mater is open on both weekend days, but they have a massive endowment. My graduate institution offers some Saturday hours; the university where I currently teach is open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons.

Obviously, restrictive weekend hours are unhelpful - not least, because assaults usually aren't conveniently scheduled during normal business hours. But even if an assault occurred at high noon on a weekday, student health centers don't typically deal with the first-line response at all. My university would refer the victim directly to the emergency room of our local hospital, where a SANE nurse (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) would perform the necessary exams, treat any injuries, and offer emergency contraception. This procedure is the same, 24/7: the student health center would never be involved, only the ER.

In other words, Evergreen's approach seems to be pretty typical. Like many other colleges, too, Evergreen has an office charged with preventing sexual assault, which also offers services to survivors. Its web page provides a link to a community sexual violence prevention agency with a 24-hour hotline. This goes one step further than my university, whose website gives 24-hour phone numbers only for the hospital and the police department.

Universities can and should support programs to prevent assault and help survivors cope. But I don't think we can expect student health centers to carry the burden of 24/7 services. Realistically, a university will not pay for its own on-call nurse. This will become even less likely as already tight budgets shrink during the harsh economic times ahead. Even our local hospital has only three SANE nurses serving a five-county area.

What colleges can and must do, however, is make sure that every student knows the importance of getting an exam and EC within the first hours after an assault, that they have easy access to the relevant emergency numbers, and that RAs and other student affairs staff know how to direct victims to help. This is a matter of education. It should be a core aspect of any university's sexual assault prevention program.

Universities can also partner with community agencies. Stanford, for instance, maintains an on-campus office for the YWCA Sexual Assault Center, located in its student health center. It's associated with the off-campus YWCA Rape Crisis Center of Silicon Valley and offers a 24-hour hotline. Without knowing all the details of how that partnership works - and most crucially, who pays for what - I think this might be a promising model to pursue. It allows communities and colleges to pool resources, which ought to create mutually beneficial synergies, and it gives students a bridge from their familiar environment to resources beyond the university.

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