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VCU Police, Advocates Champion Options for Sexual Assault Survivors

During a past Sexual Assault Awareness month, VCU displayed t-shirts designed by sexual assault survivors.
During a past Sexual Assault Awareness month, VCU displayed t-shirts designed by sexual assault survivors. The University's police department is the first in the country to implement You Have Options, a survivor-centered program. VCU Public Affairs

VCU Police are seeing an increase in sexual assault reports. This coincides with a new program called You Have Options, which gives survivors more control of how the crime is investigated. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn more: Find information about VCU’s You Have Options program and resources at VCU’s Wellness Resource Center, including April's events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

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The majority of sexual assault victims don’t report the crime. Some feel shame, and worry they won’t be believed. Others fear retaliation or doubt they’ll see justice. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Police Chief John Venuti recognized this problem.

John Venuti: The normal police approach to a robbery or a larceny or a hit and run is we go in whatever direction, and that’s a very effective approach, but clearly that doesn’t work with sexual assault.

About six years ago, Venuti began to make sexual assault investigations more “survivor centered.” That means emphasizing dignity and respect, believing and supporting the victim, establishing trust and rapport. Last year, VCUPD implemented a formal program that uses these principles called You Have Options.

Venuti: We meet you where you are, and we help you get to wherever it is you want to go.

You Have Options was developed by a detective in Ashland, Oregon. It includes 20 elements, or options, giving survivors as much control as possible over how the crime is reported and investigated. They can report in person, by phone or online. They can remain anonymous or use a third party, like an advocate or a friend. When contact is made, VCUPD Detective Chelsy McCarty says they use trauma-informed practices.

Chelsy McCarty: Law enforcement has traditionally done interviews for robberies, larcenies and they always follow the same approach, the who, what, when, why, where. That doesn’t work for sexual assault and the reason for that is because the body has a physiological response to trauma so sometimes memories are suppressed and those memories could potentially have good, detailed information that law enforcement is going to need in the long run. So we what try to do is make sure our questions are open-ended, that they’re more about that survivor’s experience, and they’re sensory based as well. How did that person feel in that moment, what were they thinking about in that moment and really trying to delve into that memory that’s been suppressed by trauma.

Another change is where they speak with survivors. Many departments have just one type of room to interview both victims and suspects. It’s often stark, with metal furniture, fluorescent lights and white walls; it can suggest the survivor is being interrogated. Detective McCarty opens the door to a new space, called “soft interview room.” One big difference is the lighting.

McCarty: The chief designed this room to have lighting that could be recessed based on whatever the survivor is comfortable with.

A loveseat is a velvety purple. The walls are painted a sandy beige.

McCarty: Trying to create a soothing environment, more therapeutic environment…

Survivors choose between giving information only or collaborating on a partial or a full investigation. They can switch between these options at any time. They can decide not to press charges. Before any questions about the crime are asked, VCUPD explains obligations under Title IX and the Clery Act. Those federal laws require some information be shared with campus administration and the distribution of crime alerts.

McCarty: When a survivor comes in the first thing we do is discuss is Title IX, the crime alerts, making sure they’re well informed and have all the information they need in order to make the next decision. With that, a survivor is not obligated to provide their identifying info or identifying information of the suspect on that first meeting. We want to make sure that their medical needs are taken care of first, any emotional, psychological needs are met. And then we can get that information at a later date. We want to make sure survivor is safe is in a good place mentally and physically.

Youth Have Options is also “offender-focused,” meaning the program is designed to get at the root of the problem - serial perpetrators. Any information helps in these efforts, says Chief Venuti.

Venuti. When you look at a crime that is dramatically underreported, trying to get, even if it is very very limited information, even if we have a location where maybe potentially someone lives and that location is on the radar and we have another report at that location, you can begin to connect the dots and you can’t connect the dots unless you have information.

Fatima Smith: There are not only options, there are rights.

Fatima Smith is assistant director sexual and intimate partner violence at VCU’s Wellness Resource Center. She welcomes the program and VCUPD’s paradigm shift in handling sexual assault.

Smith: We’re acknowledging that hey, this thing happened to you and power and control was taken away from you, but when you interact with advocates at the Well, when you interact with VCU police,  we will give you the space to be in control and have power over what happens next.

Last year, VCUPD received 28 in-jurisdiction reports of sexual assaults. This year, the number is 31 so far, with the academic year closing in July. 

Venuti: We’re seeing pretty significant increases…

While the number has more than doubled, Chief Venuti it’s a sign of progress. He points a 2014 White House Task Force report on protecting students from sexual assault. “When a school tries to tackle the problem,” says the report “by acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report – it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting (either actively or by treating survivors without care), it can look safer. Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list – and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problem in the shadows.”

Venuti: I talk to the media every single day and on a daily basis we are trying to increase the number, as crazy as it may sound, we’re trying to increase the number of reports to the police department because that in fact will make VCU a safer place.

The Department can’t specifically say if the increased reporting is due to You Have Options, but believes it is playing a role. The Wellness Resource Center has also seen more students for sexual assault, Smith says in part because more people are talking about it.

Smith: I’m a big proponent of conversation is key to change...

Smith says all VCU students are required to do a 60-minute online sexual misconduct and gender discrimination training. The campus has programming and events during Welcome Week, for Sexual Violence Awareness month in April, and dating violence awareness month in October. Coupled with media attention, Smith says students are more informed.

Smith: I think students are realizing if I am assaulted or if I am violated or something happens to me, I not the one to blame, I am not alone. That’s a very powerful message.

VCUPD is one of six departments across the country to fully implement You Have Options. It’s the first campus police department to do so. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

Correction: A previous version of this story compared in-jurisdiction sexual assault reports in 2015/2016 (28) to total sexual assault reports this academic year-to-date (63). The story has been updated to compare only in-jurisdiction reports.