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Finding help at WSU when you need it the most

In early March, the United Nations Women National Committee United Kingdom released a study with a startling statistic about sexual harassment: 97% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have faced some variation of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Sexual harassment is widely unreported, but there are many resources available on WSU campuses that help survivors.
Sexual harassment is widely unreported, but there are many resources available on WSU campuses that help survivors. Photo credit: Aubree Eckhardt

While the data was collected in the United Kingdom, the number is indicative of women’s experiences worldwide. The fear of walking alone at night, the fear of a blind date and the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are typical emotions among women, especially those 18 to 24.

Weber State University’s student population is 57% female, and the average age of undergraduate students is 24, putting the average female student right in the middle of the 97% statistic.

While the hope is that no one would ever have to cope with these experiences, unfortunately, it is far too common, especially on college campuses around the nation.

Each year, crime statistics for certain criminal actions are compiled in the Annual Security/Fire Report and Safety Plan, which is then published online. The publishing of the crime statistics come from the Clery Act, which defines specific crimes to be reported in a more transparent way, including rape, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. These crime statistics are listed for the past three years in each annual report.

The 2019-20 report was published in late 2020 and included statistics for 2017-2019. Across all campuses, there were nine, 10 and seven rapes in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively. There were two reported cases of fondling in 2019 and no reports in 2017 or 2018. There were two cases of domestic violence in 2017 and in 2018 and seven reported cases in 2019. There were four cases of dating violence in 2017 and again in 2018, but there were no reported cases in 2019. There were 13 cases of stalking in 2017, four in 2018 and 14 in 2019.

While the victims of these crimes make up a fraction of the student population in numbers, these types of crimes go historically underreported and are intensely personal and painful for the survivors.

For members of WSU, there are resources for those who are victims of any of these crimes or who experience sexual harassment on campus.

One of the largest resources on campus is the Safe@Weber advocate, Jessica Pleyel. Though the Safe@Weber program is located in the Women’s Center, Pleyel stressed that all students, staff, faculty and even guests of campus, regardless of gender, are welcome at any time.

Victims can schedule a time to come in for appointments, or there are crisis appointments if there is an immediate need for an individual to see an advocate. Anyone can call the Women’s Center or email [email protected] at any time to schedule an appointment.

Once a survivor enters the office, all the choices are in their hands.

“I always try to start out by giving the survivor as many options as possible. It even comes down to, ‘Would you like a glass of water? Do you want some bubbly water? Do you want some hot chocolate? Tea?’ Because when someone is sexually assaulted or in a violent situation or in a harassment situation, they didn’t get any choice in that,” Pleyel said.

During the initial appointment, Pleyel informs them of her confidentiality level. Unlike many other campus staff, Pleyel is not required to report sexual misconduct to the university. She is, however, required to report statistics to campus police as well if something were to threaten campus security. The statistic report does not include names, phone numbers or any information that would reveal an individual’s identity without their consent.

“It’s how can I help. It’s honoring their story and giving them a safe space to process what happened,” Pleyel said. “I am not a counselor, so if that is a resource they are needing, I will always refer them to the counseling center. I want to make sure their story is heard.”

Then, Pleyel turns to the next steps. While there is no obligation to report to the university or to the police, the victim still has the option to do so. That may be filing a police report, contacting the AA/EO, safety planning, protective orders or even working with the university to have the classes withdrawn after the deadline or poor grades turned to withdrawals if the incidents made it impossible to succeed during that term.

“I’m not an investigator. I get to be completely, 100% on the side of the survivor. I get to be that person who is that safe person along the whole way who is constantly on their side and constantly with them,” Pleyel said.

A second reporting resource on campus is the Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Office. The AA/EO works with students, faculty or staff members who have experienced any type of harassment, discrimination, assault or other behaviors that are prohibited under law, like Title IX, or by the WSU Policies and Procedures Manual, specifically those listed in section 3-32, including sexual assault, sexual harassment and discrimination. The AA/EO may get involved at several different points depending on the circumstances of a report.

Professors, staff members or administrators of any type are mandatory reporters, which requires them to inform their supervisor or, if they are the supervisor, to inform the AA/EO. If a student were to inform them of one of these incidents, the reporter would be obligated to report the statement. Third parties can also report misconduct, concerning behaviors or sexual assault to the office and make a report. This is in contrast to Pleyel’s role, which does not require a report to be filed with the university, though she can assist filing a report if the survivor does so.

In the cases where victims have not been the ones to report the incident, the AA/EO reaches out by email first before following up with a phone call. The email will detail resources and the next steps for victims, which will vary depending on the severity of the incident. If the individual has not already reached out to Safe@Weber, then they will also be referred there.

If the individual were the one to report the incident directly to the AA/EO or after the office made contact, they would meet with the AA/EO to determine the next course of action for the complainant. This may be protective orders, no-contact directives, academic accommodations or even housing and living accommodations or arrangements. Some of the measures may be interim as the AA/EO statutes stipulate that both the complainant and the respondent have a fair due process.

Once the individual has officially reported the incident, they are able to choose if they would like to move forward with a formal or informal complaint, though informal complaints are not always available depending on the complaint.

An informal complaint is agreed upon by both parties. This will usually look like a sit-down between both parties to facilitate a conversation and potentially resolve the conflict. Informal complaints may be for something like harassment if it isn’t threatening the individual.

A formal complaint requires an unbiased investigation by the AA/EO to make a determination if there is evidence of the complaint happening or happening how it was reported. The evidence can include other individuals who have been told about the incident to see if stories match or security footage to confirm someone was on campus at the time of the incident.

A report is completed about the investigation, and both sides are given a chance to review the report before it is sent on to the Director of Student Conduct Cecilia Dockery in the Dean of Students office.

A Title IX complaint adds an additional step of a hearing. Title IX outlines very specific crimes and behaviors including sexual harassment, sexual violence, rape, dating violence and stalking.

After the report is made, the report goes to a hearing, which for more severe infraction of Title IX would be heard in front of the Student Code Committee. Both the complainant and respondent can be cross-examined by an adviser, which is not necessarily a lawyer, but it can be. An adviser does not have to advise either side, but they are responsible for asking the questions in the hearing. If a student does not have an adviser, someone can be appointed for them.

The decision from the hearing board is made based off of if there is more evidence than not that the harassment, stalking, assault or other Title IX infraction took place.

“We’re not the decision makers there; we’re just reporting the findings,” Laura Thompson, director of the AA/EO, said.

After either the formal report or Title IX hearing, sanctions, if found to be appropriate, are then given to the respondent by the Dean of Students office. Depending on the degree of the violation, this could range from a permanent no-contact order to a trespass from campus.

The campus police department works side-by-side with these departments. While reporting a sexual assault, stalking or sexual harassment to the university does not require a police report, it is always an option for victims to file a police report independently or to file it with the assistance of the Safe@Weber advocate.

Once WSUPD has a police report, the officers will investigate and determine if criminal charges should be filed.

Evidence used or given to the police, like a potential rape kit, can also be used during a university hearing.

“Underreporting is a national problem, and it might be a problem on this campus. We hope we can create a safe environment to permit students, faculty or staff to feel safe coming forward,” Thompson said.

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