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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Campus

Sexual assault task force to combat mishandled investigations


Student Government Association President Winni Zhang created a sexual assault task force in June. The new group will consist of five students and representatives from departments like Equal Opportunity Services, UHPD and Women and Gender Resource Center. File photo/The Cougar

A sexual assault task force created by Student Government Association President Winni Zhang will be working this year to reform the way the University of Houston Police Department handles sexual assault investigations amid reports of victim-blaming.

The task force, which was created by Zhang’s Executive Order 001 in June and is still being formed, aims to create a streamlined process for sexual assault reporting and ensure that all UHPD officers respond to sexual assault reports with a trauma-informed approach, said SGA Vice President Adrian Hernandez.

“There are times where what they are doing — some of the questions are victim-shaming,” said Hernandez, the chair of the task force.

UHPD Lt. Bret Collier told The Cougar that it’s hard to say if sexual assault victims found questions inappropriate without the specifics of the case.

“It’s difficult to speak to, because I don’t know what case they might be talking about, and what officer and what training they may have had, or whether it was the initial officer or the investigator,” he said.

All officers are trained to respond to all types of calls, Collier said, including sexual assault. In addition to the academy and field training, more than half of UHPD’s officers are certified through the Sexual Assault Family Violence Investigator Course, which is a significant percentage for any police department, he said.

SAFVIC training includes debunking myths that enable sex offenders, including the myth that sexual assault victims should be blamed for various reasons such as dressing a certain way, participating in what some perceive as irresponsible behaviors and not fighting back, according to the SAFVIC website.

While not every officer receives such training, those who do return with information on preventing and investigating sexual assaults on campus, Collier said.

The Women and Gender Resource Center has worked with a number of different UHPD officers when students have been escorted to its office, said Devan Ford-McCartney, WGRC director.

Inadvertent victim-blaming has occurred at times, she said.

“It has happened with some officers, and with others not so much,” Ford-McCartney said. “But I do think everyone is coming from good intentions in the work that they do.”

A new approach

WGRC, which does not collaborate with UHPD, offers free trauma-informed training courses, she said.

Trauma-informed is simply saying that you’re understanding the impact of trauma, said Ashley Griffin, sexual misconduct services coordinator at WGRC. It follows core principles: empowerment, trust, choice, safety and collaboration.

When someone is impacted by some form of sexual violence, they lose power and control over their person and their environment, Griffin said. By telling victims what options are available to them, victims can feel like they have power and are in control.

Such an approach can prevent victims from re-experiencing trauma, which can go a long way, she said.

“If I understand that you’ve experience this trauma, I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that you don’t have to re-live that,” Griffin said. “An example of that is having to tell the story five times, and you have to keep repeating, ‘Oh this is what happened, then he did this, or she did this, or they did this.’”

A trauma-informed approach would train officers not to ask victims what they were wearing or if they enticed the perpetrator, said CLASS Sen. Valerie Campos, who began working on reform prior to Zhang’s executive order.

“It allows (officers) a little more empathy and a little more restriction on what they should be saying in that moment so that they don’t make the individual go through that trauma again,” Campos said.

Low numbers, high impact

The task force will connect SGA senators like Campos who are passionate about sexual assault projects with the executive branch, Hernandez said.

In addition to the vice president, the task force will consist of eight students as well as chairs from departments related to sexual assault issues, such as the UH Wellness Center, Equal Opportunity Services, WGRC and UHPD, he said.

The impetus for the task force was the low number of officially reported rapes and sexual assaults, Zhang said.

“We looked at the EOS data from this year … and rape was at zero,” she said “I mean, reporting is incredibly low on our campus, so we don’t get accurate numbers to see what it looks like, and I personally have heard stories.”

The number of reported sexual violence crimes does not reflect their impact, Ford-McCartney said.

Some individuals may fear coming forward, Griffin said, due to the way the judicial system treats cases of sexual assault and rape as well as the stigma of sexual violence.

“When you think of just our culture and how we look at it,” she said, “it creates a barrier for individuals who want to report.”

Another barrier to low reporting is the misperception that the only type of sexual assault is rape, Griffin said. Sexual violence is a continuum, ranging from forced penetration to inappropriate comments comments, she said.

“It’s really boiling down to what kind of sexual violence we’re talking about, Griffin said. “And if you’re thinking about rape, a lot of times it’s someone that someone knows.”

If the rapist is a close connection — a husband, a wife, a family member or best friend from down the street — the likelihood of reporting is lowered.

The task force will research effective survey methods to bring to UH and get a localized number of how frequently sexual assaults occur.

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