Why Aren’t UT Students Getting Rape Kits?

The numbers don’t add up

Photo by John Anderson

Jasmine Bell graduated from UT in December with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Bell was born and raised in Austin, and she hopes to stay here for the next few years to pursue a graduate degree from the same school that she was so eager to attend as a child – she's still waiting to hear if she's been accepted. But these days Bell is disillusioned with the institution.

Bell is a survivor of what she calls a "sexually abusive relationship." She and her ex-boyfriend dated for over a year when she was an underclassman. (He was not a student.) For years, she told me, Bell blamed herself and justified the ongoing abuse because "he never hit me." But that didn't mean he didn't leave scars. Bell now lives with PTSD, a condition for which she claims UT's administration was unsympathetic.

Bell's story is not unique. A recent set of statistics released by the university found that 15% of the school's undergraduate women and 7% of female grad students have been raped during their enrollment. These numbers are part of a larger study conducted by the school's Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. As of last spring, 5% of UT's undergrad men and 3% of those in graduate school said they too had been raped during their time here, while 23% of gender nonbinary students say they've experienced unwanted sexual touching. Overall, according to the UT study, 9% of approximately 51,000 students will be raped before they graduate.

Of the 4,600 students who’ve been assaulted while at school, only six have gone to get forensic exams on campus.

Worse still is that UT's numbers are not above average when they're stacked up against other big colleges across the country. Rape remains a prevailing problem on college campuses, which is why local advocates against sexual assault continue to work with UT to make its campus more aware and accommodating to survivors.

In the fall of 2015, after several months of logistical meetings with stakeholder groups, UT began providing sexual assault forensic exams to student survivors of rape. It was a radical step for the university to take. Emily LeBlanc, who co-chairs the Austin-Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, said there are under a dozen other colleges in the country that offer such a service. "It's a big deal, period," reflected Jenny Black, SAFE's director of forensic nursing and advocacy. "As far as I know, there's not another university in the state that's doing it."

Since so few schools offer students this kind of service – designed to offer students an alternative, easier-to-access option where they potentially feel more comfortable – it's difficult to know what to expect. But certainly no one expected the number of collected rape kits to be what they are today: Since November of 2015, only six rape kits have been collected on UT's campus. That's less than 1% of the kits that could have been created, based on the 4,600 IDVSA-reported sexual assaults of students. (Exams are also conducted at SAFE's Eloise House and several hospitals throughout Travis County. SAFE forensic nurses served 413 people between the ages of 18 and 23 between November of 2015 and December 2017.)

Black, who began her career in forensic nursing 11 years ago, said she's often struck by how few UT students she and her colleagues have served. "I figured with that kind of population – that many people – we'd be seeing more," she said. But Black believes the IDVSA numbers make clear "the issue is not 'Well, it's just not happening.'" She said it's more reasonable to infer that some sort of systemic failure, or perhaps general disregard, is stopping students from reaching out to the professional response system.

Distrust In the System

There is no clear answer to the question of what's preventing students from accessing SAFE exams at UT, a service that is both free of charge and requires no insurance claim to be processed. But University Health Services' nursing director Kathy Mosteller put it bluntly: "The vast majority [of rape survivors] that come to us don't want a forensic exam."

Mosteller said "you could get a Ph.D. on 'why'" that is the case. ("I don't have that," she quipped.) But anecdotally, she believes that for many students there exists a degree of uncertainty over what happened to them. "I hear a lot of, 'I drank too much, he was on top of me. I don't know what happened.' There's a lot of self-blame."

Kathy Mosteller (Photo by Jana Birchum)
News reporting on APD’s rape kit backlog “may discourage some people.” – UHS nursing director Kathy Mosteller

Mosteller assists with UT's Clery campus crime reporting, published annually in the school's Security and Fire Safety Report. Though Clery covers all campus crime, UHS's statistics generally cover physical assaults. Through this reporting, Mosteller confirmed: The majority of student survivors say they were assaulted by a friend or acquaintance. "It's mostly someone they were with at a party or a bar," she said. Knowing one's attacker can fuel uncertainty. "If you're a stranger and you hurt someone – they don't care about what happens to you," said Bell. "But if you do it to your girlfriend or friend, she doesn't want you to go to jail." Ultimately, no one wants to believe that someone they trusted would take advantage of them.

Austin Smith, a third-year UT student and resident adviser for on-campus housing, believes students aren't seeking out forensic exams on campus for more complicated reasons; many of the students he interacts with "don't feel comfortable with any university department. ... For many communities, there is a distrust of the university based on lived experiences or word-of-mouth."

Smith pointed to the recent commotion over UT's decision to keep pharmacy professor Richard Morrisett on staff after it was discovered that he pleaded guilty in 2016 to a family violence assault charge for strangling his girlfriend. UT investigated the incident, concluded Morrisett wasn't a threat, and allowed him to return to work, saying he's "being punished by the criminal justice system." (See "Is UT Harboring a Domestic Abuser?" Feb. 16.)

That response hasn't done much to convince students that UT has their best interests in mind. In February, a group of students marched across campus in protest of Morrisett's retainment, while graffiti has been sprayed around campus accusing UT of protecting abusers. Bell responded to the most recent vandalism with an online post accusing UT of valuing Morrisett's grant money over the "safety, welfare, and peace of mind" of students. Later, she told me the school's decision to keep Morrisett on staff represents a "slap in the face" to survivors of sexual and dating violence. "I already knew UT didn't care about survivors, but I didn't think they'd go that far. There's not even a question of whether or not he did it; he pleaded guilty. He strangled someone."

Asked about the school's decision to keep Morrisett on staff, UT Communications Strategist Shilpa Bakre forwarded the statement University President Greg Fen­ves provided in January following the first round of backlash to the revelations. Fenves promised an administrative review of policies and procedures regarding off-campus violence. Those recommendations are expected in the coming weeks.

The distrust among students also extends to the legal system. Smith said he's never met a sexual assault survivor who's wanted to get police involved in their own case. While getting a rape kit does not commit a survivor to filing charges (exams can be stored for two years if the person is unsure about pursuing prosecution), the process is tightly linked to a criminal justice system that often fails survivors of rape and assault. "If someone is clued in enough" to know UT offers free SAFE exams, Smith said, "they also know the statistics around the legal process when it comes to assault." Rape is a notoriously difficult crime to prosecute. Another IDVSA report found that, in Texas, only 9% of rapes get reported, and few perpetrators see jail time after a trial, if charges are even filed. According to Travis County records, only three alleged perpetrators were convicted by a jury of sexual assault in the 13 months from Jan. 1, 2017 to Jan. 31, 2018.

Storage of analyzed rape kits at APD's evidence warehouse (Courtesy of Mike Eveleth)
Since November of 2015, only six rape kits have been collected on UT’s campus.

Mosteller did not mince words when she said that the news reporting on the Austin Police Department's rape kit backlog "may discourage some people." APD has spent countless hours in the media hot seat for its appallingly large backlog of untested rape kits, culminating in the department's shutdown of its DNA lab in the summer of 2016. The lab was closed after an audit found a lengthy list of issues including poorly trained staff, outdated procedures, and at least one badly botched sexual assault case. By last February, APD had accumulated more than 4,000 untested DNA cases – 80% of which were SAFE exams. In the year since, the department struggled to find labs with the capacity to test more rape kits (as the problem of untested kits is not isolated to Austin). It's no wonder survivors aren't confident in the legal system.

If there's a silver lining, it's that APD has since finally stepped up. As of mid-March, the department's backlog had dropped to 219 kits, four of which are new. APD confirmed that testing has been completed for 1,875 kits, and they remain on track to zero out the backlog before year's end.

Who's Clued In?

Still, sexual assault advocates continue to praise UT for its decision to offer the forensic exams. Many say that the service is worth it if it helps even one survivor. The Survivor Justice Project's Ana Rodriguez DeFrates called the university a "national leader" for offering the service in a health care setting, which she said could go a long way toward destigmatizing the process. But just allowing these exams to be collected is not enough. "We really need to see an effort on the part of UT to make it known to students," she said.

Campus outreach is left to the university, and it seems not much energy has been put toward spreading the word. Walk by the Voices Against Violence office and you'll see windows adorned with posters promoting consent. Asked why there aren't posters – or even stickers covertly placed in bathroom stalls – informing students of this service, the office has no answer. (VAV declined to speak with me for this story.) Smith, who got involved with efforts to end sexual and dating violence in high school, says he's posted relevant information in the past, but admits "it can be difficult." Posters, including ones in bathrooms, have to be approved by each building's management. Sometimes there's "pushback from other players on campus," he said. "There are folks in Communications who worry it'll seem like the campus is unsafe."

To the untrained eye, that's true. But what must be understood is that the number of assaults aren't unique to UT. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, more than 11% of all U.S. college students experience rape or sexual assault. These attacks are happening, and providing support after an assault is as important as providing prevention. Rodri­guez DeFrates said, "It may be scary to advertise" the service, but reminded: "We can only take advantage of what we're aware of."

Making matters more complicated is that SAFE exams are only offered on campus during UHS's business hours, Monday through Friday, from 8am to 5:30pm. For the first two years, the clinic was also open on Saturday afternoons, but that ended last fall, due to budget constraints. The decision to limit availability wasn't easy, but as Mosteller explained it, "We couldn't see how it would be safe for an assault survivor to come to this building at 2am and have to sit outside waiting for someone who has access."

Students right now can learn about forensic exams on the UHS website and the 24-hour nurse hotline. In theory, most college students are proficient internet navigators, and Mosteller said the information is easy to find if sought out. But she also understands that "somebody who's gone through an experience like that is traumatized, so they may not be thinking clearly."

It's no surprise that the topic of sexual assault is not one the university is eager to discuss during student orientation. As it stands, according to Mosteller, campus departments already compete for "precious minutes" to speak with incoming students. Instead, Mosteller said the goal is to make sure campus leaders have the information to disseminate, including RAs, teaching assistants, and faculty. She acknowledged, however, that "it's possible that more work could be done on that."

Austin Smith (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Which is true, according to Smith, who said he doesn't recall information about forensic exams "ever being mentioned" during RA training. He said students who do advocacy work on campus "shouldn't be used as an excuse for the university to not promote resources.

"I don't think UT can just point at passionate students and say that's enough ... if they really want us to do the legwork, they should give us some sort of platform, or assistance. They should ask us for input."

Making the Numbers Match

Mosteller – and it seems the school as a whole – is committed to making UT a better place for survivors. Mosteller believes it's important that the school is asking whether students are aware of the services provided, and questioning how the school can make the necessary information "so available that the answer is 'absolutely.'" Though she doesn't claim to have an answer, she did provide a few suggestions that could help.

Currently, before incoming freshmen register for classes, they must go through an online training course covering drug and alcohol use. Mosteller suggests the university look into implementing a similar training regarding consent, respect, and campus services – including forensic exams. This could be impactful because "one thing that gets people is when they can't register," she said. "Some may still sleep through it, or maybe that's not the way they learn, but it's still one more opportunity." And if orientation may not be the best place to initiate this conversation, parent newsletters might be: Surveys show that students reach out to their parents more than any other group when in need.

Whether either of those two ideas will be capitalized on remains to be seen. Mosteller implied both were out of her scope of control and Bakre confirmed that creating and implementing an online training module is a multi-department collaboration that takes time. Neither was aware of anything like it currently in the works. However, UT has been busy implementing the recommendations made by the Institutional Stakeholder Group within the IDVSA report. Three additional full-time staff members have been hired: one to oversee BeVocal, a program and training on bystander intervention; an education coordinator to provide in-person Title IX trainings (according to Bakre, over 900 faculty and staff have been trained since December); and a confidential advocate who oversees the Interpersonal Violence Peer Support program for additional student support.

UT has also updated its Consensual Relationship Policy to better clarify prohibited relationships. And in August it expanded confidential options to the Student Ombuds, Faculty Ombuds, and Staff Ombuds offices. This should give students (as well as faculty and staff) additional support opportunities, more reporting options, and better access to university resources.

By this summer, UT plans to staff academic departments with Title IX liaisons to increase reporting opportunities, and a Title IX Impact Report is in the works, which will publish reporting numbers, behavioral trends, prevention, and education efforts across campus – though Bakre did not mention if that will also include post-assault services. Perhaps these steps will help rebuild students' trust. For now, Smith hedges: "I don't think UT makes a strong enough effort to support survivors of rape, but they work really hard to seem like they do."

Rodriguez DeFrates put a more hopeful spin on the situation, saying UT should be "given the chance to do the right thing. ... They need to start letting students know about the service. Yes, we want the number of rape kits collected to be low, but because the need is low" – not because students don't know the option exists.

See www.healthyhorns.edu or contact the 24/7 Nurse Advice hotline: 512/475-6877.

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