Sexual Assault- It Happens Here, Too

Multimedia reporting by Diego Pineda

All Takeva Mitchell could think of was getting clean, showering, hoping to erase the disgust, guilt and pain she felt. When her roommate found her crying she encouraged her to call the Elon Town Police. It was March 13, 2014. She had been sexually assaulted.

The sophomore at Elon University lived in the same apartment complex as Adrian McClendon, then a junior. They were hanging out for the first time until things took an unexpected turn at around 11:45 p.m. Mitchell struggled to fight him off. All she could think about was that she could use her strength to escape the touching, groping and pushing.

“It wasn’t until he got real physical with me that I realized, ‘Oh this is about to happen,’” Mitchell said. “Anything I did, he was on me. He was on my every move.”

Eventually, Mitchell yelled for McClendon to stop and let her go. He stopped and shooed her away. She gathered her belongings. As she approached the door of the apartment, he followed her. He reached out and put his hands inside her pants. She broke away.

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Sophomore Crystal, a sophomore whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was walking home from a fraternity party after consuming alcohol. She texted another sophomore to see if they could meet. Crystal always made sure to tell guys she had consensual non-penetrative contact with that she wanted to wait for marriage to have sexual intercourse. It was Sept. 3, 2016.

As they laid naked in his bed, he kept on asking Crystal how certain contact felt. She responded saying it was fine but warned him not to go further or he would be inside of her. As she laid on top of him, he aggressively thrusted his hips and penetrated her after she had clearly told him she did not want that.

case studies“I hopped off and went to the bathroom and there was a lot of blood. That was the most terrifying part of it,” Crystal said. “I looked down and there was blood everywhere.”

Unfortunately, these women’s experiences are like those of about 20 percent of college women. It is estimated that one out of every five college women will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault before they graduate.

Reporting or remaining silent

When Mitchell reported her case on the night of her assault, she remembers that her mind was going crazy. She did not know if the officers were going to believe her story and if they would take it seriously. After telling the officers who arrived at her apartment what had occurred, she was then taken to the station to give an official statement. She recalls the process of officially reporting the assault being long and tedious.

“They want you to tell where were you standing when this happened and where was he standing and where was his dresser at and where was his TV at and where was his bed,” Mitchell said. “Still to this day I can tell you exactly like how his bedroom was lined up.”

Mitchell said that the information she had to give in her statement had to be very precise with time and with specific details of what exactly had occurred.  She said she understands why many victims do not report their cases. Going through the reporting process requires victims to constantly remind themselves of an experience they want to forget or not talk about.

Add heading (17)The 2015 Elon University Annual Safety and Fire Report, the most recent report, states that there were three reported cases of rape and one of fondling. This is the same number of reported cases of rape and fondling in 2014 and two more than those reported in these areas in 2013. Because of the different avenues students have to report their cases, this is not a clear estimate nor does it say that only four sexual assault reports occurred that year.

When Crystal walked home after her assault, she called the university’s 24-hour confidential support hotline, Safeline, through which an advocate told her the options she had if she wanted to report the case as well as if she wanted to go to the hospital to complete the rape kit. The morning after the assault, she went to the hospital to complete the rape kit which she said was almost as bad as her original experience.

“I had to tell the story about seven or eight times, which is a nightmare because it just happened so I had to relive it over and I cried every single time I told it,” Crystal said.

According to the Elon Department of Health Promotion, students who believe they have been victims of sexual assault can report the incident by contacting law enforcement whether that be Campus Safety and Police or Elon Town Police, Elon University Student Conduct, Human Resources or filing a Title IX Report. They have the right to report in one or all of those avenues. They can also contact the Safeline and keep it confidential through the coordinators for violence response or counseling services.

Before choosing to report, Crystal was contacted frequently by the Safeline responder to remind her of the options. Though he was her friend and she knew there would be social repercussions that would affect both sides if she decided to report, Crystal chose to make her official statement on Sept. 16, 2016, through student conduct. She did so because according to the National Sexual Assault Violence Resource Center, about 60 percent of those who commit sexual assault are likely to do it again.

“Every time I was going through the process and I was tired and sad and didn’t want to do it anymore, the responder said, ‘Why did you choose to press charges in the first place?’” Crystal said. “I didn’t want this happen to another girl. I can’t let this happen again.”

According to the National Assault Hotline, females of ages 18-24 who have gone through sexual assault, do not report to law enforcement due to fear of reprisal, the belief that the police will not do anything to help, not wanting to get perpetrator in trouble, the belief that it was not important enough to report and the belief that it was a personal matter. Most students surveyed said they did not report due to other reasons.

Add heading (18)The U.S. Department of Justice special report on Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, states that approximately 80 percent of sexual assault victims knew their offender.

Students Promoting Awareness, Responsibility, Knowledge, and Success (SPARKS) at Elon try to advocate for social justice and wellness. SPARKS peer educators such as senior Sara Blough mentioned that the reporting process can be traumatizing for someone who was just assaulted that day.

“We currently don’t live in a society that is welcoming to supporting survivors and still has victim blaming undertones,” Blough said.

Blough also mentioned that there is a lot of stigma and shame that only exists in society but also in police stations since there is a lot of victim blaming during the interrogation process.

Stepping into the Reporting Process

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Randall Williams, director of student conduct at Elon Univerity.

Randall Williams, director of student conduct, says that it is up to the student to decide if they want to report and press charges either through student conduct or campus police. Even if a student goes to student conduct to report, they are still reminded of resources available to them such as counseling or if they want to take the case to the police.

“What happens is that students have their choice. You don’t force a student to report to us,” Williams said. “We don’t force a student to go to the police. There are a lot of different avenues in which a person can report this information.”

Both Mitchell and Crystal carried out their case through student conduct. This office investigates under the standards that they follow. They take the information found to their Title IX coordinator and share what they have found to the respondent and defendant.

Williams believes a lot of students choose to report through student conduct because this office uses a lower standard of proof in holding someone accountable than when reported to the police. Students chose to report through student conduct because this civil system is more likely to find someone accountable for their actions and sanction them.

“We’re dealing with sanctions as it pertains to the university,” Williams said. “In a criminal process, it pertains to someone’s freedom.”

Under the student conduct investigation, both sides provide statements on what occurred on the night of the assault along with statements of witnesses.

In Crystal’s case, her perpetrator was found not guilty of non-penetrative sexual assault but found responsible for nonconsensual sexual intercourse and penetration. He had a one-year suspension, which he appealed under procedural error and then his sentence was reduced to six months.

Crystal’s case exceeded the 60-day timeframe on decision making under the Department of Education’s school’s obligations under Title IX. It took about 90 days for the decision on her case to be made. This frustrated Crystal. So did the perpetrator’s appeal, which was based on the fact that he had not been told the reasoning behind his sentence. According to Crystal, both parties received the same email and the reasoning behind the sentence was offered in the final report that the student conduct office offered to both.

“It’s very hard for me because I wanted him to be responsible for his actions,” Crystal said. “If he isn’t held responsible then it can occur again without any repercussions and that’s problematic, but I also didn’t want to ruin his life.”

In Mitchell’s case, McClendon was charged by the state in March 2014 for sexual battery and false imprisonment by the Town of Elon Police. In a May 15, 2014, Alford plea in which the defendant maintains innocence but admits the state can convict, the sexual battery charge was dropped and the sentencing for false imprisonment was dropped for two years.

Through student conduct, Mitchell’s case had a hearing to decide what would be the university’s decision regarding the case. McClendon was placed on preliminary suspension, a decision that frustrated Mitchell. She had asked the hearing board to suspend him for a semester.

“I felt everything was a slap in the face, I should have never reported. I should have never gone to the school,” Mitchell said. “Because at the end I took a loss. He didn’t take any Ls- no he got to stay on campus, he is still on the football team, he still started that following year.”

Though McClendon admitted to touching Mitchell without her consent, she did not understand why he did not get disciplined the way she had hoped.

“When is enough, enough? What does a woman have to go through for justice to really be served when it comes down to sexual assault or rape?” Mitchell said. “What are the qualifications for real justice for sexual assault and rape?

Entering the healing process

beccaBecca Bishopric Patterson, coordinator for health promotion, serves as an advocate for sexual assault survivors.

“There is no right or wrong or normal way to feel or heal after an assault and that’s going to look vastly different for many different people,” Patterson said.

The effects that come after the assault can affect a person’s physical, emotional and psychological aspects. A person’s personal, social, professional and academic responsibilities can be affected as well. Though every experience and its effects afterward are different, similarities exist within the reactions that survivors feel.

“It is devastating for both parties,” Williams said. “You’re bound to see changes in behavior, some students become depressed, some students have high anxiety or stress.”

After the assault, Mitchell had a hard time sleeping, did not do well in classes and did not have a  desire to be around people. She recalls being scared and could not be alone. Though at some moments she wanted to leave Elon, she knew that if she had made that decision then she would know that her perpetrator would have won and that would have hurt her even more.

“I’ve done all the crying, the moping, the depression, the weight loss, the not eating. I would sometimes pee on myself at night,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t want to be around guys. I didn’t want anybody to touch me, to hug me.”

Seeing McClendon on campus made her uneasy, scared and nervous. Her family and friend support system along with her faith is what she believes helped her recover.

“I pushed through and I knew at some point through my faith I kept thinking, God, I have been through a lot I know you can get me through this,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell studied abroad in Australia the following Spring after the assault. She refers to Australia as her “healing place.” There she could find peace and the ability to be comfortable with herself and around others. Though she has not spoken to McClendon since the time of the incident, she said she used to pray for him and for his healing as well.

“Life is so short, it is not worth being depressed and sad over one thing that happened in your life,” Mitchell said.

Crystal still has not told her parents. She has made a conscious decision not to and says it is a cross she is willing to bear. After the assault, Crystal recalls having a difficult time being alone and reliving the experience. She went through withdrawal and had a lack of motivation. Despite having a cease contact order, which was issued by student conduct to prevent any communication with her perpetrator, there are aspects that she still recalls from him.

“It’s the small things that you don’t even think about,” Crystal said. “The way he talked, the way that he moved, you think you see him at the corner of your eye and it’s not him.”

The support from her friend system as well as from the coordinators for violence response has helped her through this process. She considers herself on the path to recovery.

“I am not back to normal because that won’t exist anymore,” Crystal said. “This is part of something that happened and this is part of who I am now, but it’s not all of who I am.”

Defining sexual assault

A problem exists within the definition of sexual assault.

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The Elon University 2016-2017 student handbook defines sexual assault in two categories- non-consensual sexual contact and nonconsensual sexual intercourse. Sexual exploitation can be linked to the definition of sexual assault as well.

For Mitchell, a simple definition would be any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent.

Crystal would define sexual assault as an unwanted or unwarranted sexual advance. She acknowledges that people of all gender identities will have their own definition of this term since everyone’s views and experiences with sexual assault are different.

roysterLeigh-Anne Royster, director of inclusive community well-being at Elon, said that though the definition of sexual assault not only varies between states but also between institutions it is also an umbrella term that can cover a lot of different offenses.

According to the 2015 Elon University Annual Fire and Crime Report, the North Carolina definition of sexual assault is “an offense that meets the definition of rape, fondling, incest, or statutory rape as used by the National Incident Based Reporting system. A sex offense is any act directed against another person, without the consent of the victim, including instances where the victim is incapable of giving consent.”

“I think that sexual violence is such a severe epidemic with severe consequences for such a huge proportion of our population,” Royster said. “We don’t even consider it to be the same kind of issues as other epidemics that cause detrimental effects for folks. It is critical because it is largely ignored by much of our population.”

She recalled that when she began working at Elon 12 years ago, there had only been about one or two incidents of sexual assault reported. Once she began working to improve and add resources that could assist victims with the reporting and healing processes she saw the numbers steadily increase to 32 the following year after she arrived.

The percentage of sexual assault is not clear on college campuses due to the divide that exists between reported and unreported cases. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center states more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.

Senior Emily Seligman and SPARKS peer educator said that the rates of people who experience sexual violence on Elon’s campus are comparable to the rates of national college statistics.

Addressing society’s stigmas

Since there is no normal healing process, Patterson believes that an aspect that consistently helps is that whomever the survivor confesses to the first time on the assault responds positively and is willing to help them, then the survivor may seek other resources. If that person responds in a way that blames the victim, the number of those survivors that will speak out and seek help drastically declines.

Crystal believes that victim blaming makes society easily wrap their head around the subject of sexual assault.

“I blamed myself when my friends didn’t blame me,” Crystal said. “The whole culture of victim blaming is so innate to both human nature in rationalizing these actions.”

Though Elon offers the HAVEN program for incoming first years, skits during orientation, speakers and events throughout the years, and many other resources, work still needs to be done to raise awareness and create an environment where survivors feel comfortable reporting according to Crystal.

“We have to continue to change the narrative of what sexual assault looks like,” Williams said. “There’s got to be deeper conversations about consent and college culture.”

Patterson, who works closely with the educational aspect of sexual assault and other issues on campus believes that the most powerful way to educate people is through peer to peer interactions. Through these interactions, people know how to respond and handle sexual assault incidents.

“The more student voices we have spreading the word all over campus, the better the culture is going to get,” Patterson said. “We’re all participating in this culture and we’re either participating or challenging it. We all have a responsibility in this.”