Elizabeth Phillips, a SESP sophomore, was sexually assaulted on Northwestern’s campus on Oct. 17th, 2015.
“I was actually having a lot of fun. I was dancing with my friends, meeting new people, taking cool pictures,” Phillips says. “And then I wasn’t. I lost my friends and ended up locked in a room with a fraternity brother who later violated me.”
Being raped or sexually assaulted on a college campus is excruciating, especially because of the number of routes a survivor can take in the aftermath. Most websites, including Northwestern’s, tell victims to “get help.” That vagueness makes taking action even more difficult. While one victim may pursue justice in court, another may not report an incident at all.
If you know what you’re looking for, you can find a detailed document on Northwestern’s Title IX website explaining step-by-step what will happen if a student goes to the university to report sexual misconduct. The problem is, even if they find the document, many students still do not know if they want to report to the university in the first place.
Immediately following an assault, a student may choose to have a forensic examination, often called a rape kit, in which evidence is gathered to use later if an investigation opens. However, Erin Clark, the assistant director of the Center for Awareness, Response and Education, says the vast majority of students do not choose to pursue kits. If they do, they encounter a barrier: Searle does not offer rape kits. The closest place to get a forensic exam is the Evanston Hospital on Ridge Avenue.
“Like most campus health services, we do not offer it,” explains Lisa Currie, Director of Health Promotion & Wellness and CARE. “It’s a very resource-intensive procedure. Since we have access to many hospitals in the area, it’s just not something we have pursued. But we have considered it.”
Some students, like Medill junior Emagin Tanaschuk, don’t know forensic kits are an option available to them until it’s too late.
“I didn’t know I could get one,” says Tanaschuk. “But I would’ve gotten one.” However, because she thought about her situation for two days before reporting the assault, she couldn’t. To preserve evidence, you need to be wearing the same clothes as you were during the assault, and you can’t have showered. Following her assault, Tanaschuk joined and later became the head of a very small student group on campus called SPEAK for Change, an organization for survivors to aid in campus advocacy on campus.
“I was told the rape kit is a lot more invasive than a regular pelvic exam,” Jane* says about her experience at Evanston Hospital. “It would be more prodding, it would hurt a bit more, be a bit more uncomfortable, take a longer time. It takes a long time to get the results.” She ultimately chose to get just a pelvic examination, but even that took three hours.
Many Northwestern students affected by sexual assault turn to CARE to learn about their options. However, Clark says that the center is also many students’ ending point. John*, who reported his assault a year after it happened, noted that he was “ping ponged” between many officials for a week before being directed to CARE, where he had to talk to three different counselors during his reporting process.
“Some students prefer not to have a Title IX report filed, don’t want people to know what’s going on,” Clark says, “or they’re not sure what resources are out there and don’t want to cross that bridge of having other people know until they know what resources exist.”
When students choose to file a report, Clark has seen how the months-long process can be arduous, even though CARE can support students through that process.
For Tanaschuk, filing a report was difficult, because it forced her to think about graphic details she didn’t even consider before. “An NUPD detective came and I basically outlined what happened,” she says. “It was hard because they’re taking notes for a police report and they need raw details.”
Phillips agrees that the reporting process is difficult. “I had to say what he did to me and everything he said in chronological order multiple times,” she says. “I had to forcibly bring myself back to that night and verbalize it to people who then got to decide if I told the truth or not.”
Joan Slavin, the Title IX Coordinator, helped develop the current system Northwestern uses to respond to reports of sexual misconduct. If a student chooses to report the incident to the university, the university goes to Slavin.
Students who file reports online or through the Title IX Report email will receive an immediate auto-response with links to resources and an opportunity to set up a time to meet.
Here’s where the situation gets dicey: The victim first chooses if they want a meeting. Let’s start with if they do. In the meeting, Title IX staff will again talk about resources available to victims and offer protective measures and accommodations. The student may then decide to proceed with an investigation, and Title IX will gather information, potential witnesses and evidence for the event. Following this meeting, the university contacts the person accused and schedules hearings on the specific case. If done through the school, the complaint is handled by University Sexual Harassment Prevention Office; if not, the Evanston Police Department will conduct a similar investigation.
Slavin says that until this summer, there wasn’t a centralized department to handle student, faculty, and staff cases in the same place.
“Previously, the Office of Student Conduct handled reports of sexual misconduct against students,” Slavin says in an email. Now, the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office does it all. “We believe the centralized model will allow us to increase coordination of prevention and complaint resolution response.”
If a victim doesn’t want a meeting, or has a meeting and decides not to follow through with an investigation, the university says it “typically can honor that request.” Students can still discuss sexual misconduct situations with a confidential resource at CARE or Counceling and Psychological Services. However, the university reserves the right to begin an investigation if they feel it is necessary.
“Every day, there are always those little things that will bring you back to that moment,” John says. “You think, ‘I should have done this,’ ‘I should have done that.’” But a lot of the time, it isn’t about what he’d do differently – he just remembers what happens and gets an “empty feeling inside.”
“I barely remembered it, and even the details, when I would think about that, it would get me in such a bad emotional state,” Jane says. “I didn’t want this huge negative thing to have happened to me, and if I had reported it, historically, rape cases never go anywhere. The thing you don’t hear about is how draining they are on the victim, so I didn’t want to do it. If it became a legal thing, I would have to tell my family about it. I don’t know when I will or if I will.”
When recounting her experience, Phillips says she personally never got to decide to report. “The day after my assault, I was told by one of the fraternity brothers who helped my friends find me that they had reported it to their fraternity,” she says. “My choice was taken away for me a second time, and I had to begin verbally explaining what happened less than 24 hours after everything had happened. Once the reporting process begins, you don’t get to take a step back.”
The reporting process all feels very clinical, perhaps even sterile. But to its credit, following some updated measures like the centralized body and more relevant information for survivors and those accused this summer, Tanaschuk says the university is fairly transparent about the process.
Slavin says in an email that Northwestern has “an excellent policy on sexual misconduct, and well-developed procedures for handling reports of sexual misconduct.”
Although he says he thinks the procedure itself was fair, John doesn’t believe the outcome of his process was just. At his hearing, which occurred late this summer, his assaulter was banned from entering John’s place of work, assigned a course in alcohol use and issued a no contact directive forbidding him from reaching out to John online or in person.
“Him going to that mandatory alcohol thing doesn’t do anything for me,” he says. “It doesn’t do anything for him or his potential to do what he did again. I don’t feel better at all. I don’t feel like reporting to the police would be any different … I don’t feel like this university did the right thing.”
Still, Tanaschuk is happy with the updates Title IX made over the summer, although she says information is still hard to find. With SPEAK, she is working to create a simple yet detailed flow chart of what to do after an assault.
Clark says that while it is positive that the University has centralized the process, it remains difficult for officials to connect to the emotional side of a report.
“They don’t really have the time to sit down and be transparent about the emotional aspect,” she says. “I’ll often get to know a student, so our level of transparency is really different. I do think [the] Title IX office is transparent about their side of the work, but their work is more about the process.”
Tanaschuk’s biggest problem with the way Northwestern addressed her case was that when academics became too difficult for her to handle, an administrator immediately recommended she take a medical leave.
“I had to really push back and explain thoroughly that me going home was not going to help me. It was going to do the opposite,” says Tanaschuk. “And as much as I feel like they might’ve cared, it felt condescending.”
Even though Northwestern has resources for those affected by sexual assault, they doesn’t erase the assult. John, Phillips and Tanaschuk have experienced negative coping mechanisms for months after. Phillips says she had trouble eating, even half a sandwich, and she described regularly drinking before morning classes. For John, who had a history of cutting, the assault “just exacerbated the problem” for a while. Tanaschuk’s grades plummeted, and professors often weren’t willing to work with her.
Being a victim of assault can be mind-altering and life-changing. Phillips says it damaged her sense of autonomy. “All my life, I was told that I could make my own choices and be in control of my own body, and in one night I realized just how easy it was for someone to take that control away from me,” she says.
With that in mind, it’s important to note that no matter what you do, if it feels like the best option for you as a victim, it is. Clark hopes that activism and advocacy across the country will increase opportunities for survivors to get help in ways they choose.
Even now, some universities have not made responding to sexual assault a top priority, Clark says. “Recent activism has done a really great job harnessing some momentum to make it come to the top of the heap, but I think there’s always more we can do,” she says.
Tanaschuk thinks students should be educated about resources for responding to assault during Wildcat Welcome. When it comes down to it, many survivors like her simply do not know where to turn or what to do.
“I know that they talk about how to avoid sexual assault and how to not sexually assault people, but I don’t remember them saying ‘if this does happen, here are your options,’” she says. “I wish that was a little bit more clear.”
Editor’s note: names have been changed to protect students‘ identities.
Elizabeth Phillips contributed reporting.