adequate services

On Tuesday, Nov. 13th, the Daily Texan published an opinion column by Katelyn Sack titled “UT’s response to rape fails to protect students.” Ms. Sack’s column gave readers the impression that UT does not provide adequate services for survivors of sexual violence. This assertion is, quite simply, untrue.

Voices Against Violence is a holistic program operated through UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center. This program provides resources for survivors of sexual violence and works to educate the university community about relationship violence, sexual assault and stalking. Since its inception in 2001, VAV has spearheaded the University’s efforts to prevent sexual violence and provide resources and services for survivors. Although I am not here to claim the system in place is perfect, I believe that it is important for all UT students to know their options as victims of sexual violence and UT’s programs and policies geared toward providing survivor services.

In the 10 years that VAV has existed, more than 150,000 individuals on UT’s campus  — from orientation advisors and the UT Police Department to incoming freshmen and student athletes — have participated in VAV’s training sessions. These sessions offer information on how to be a safe and supportive first responder when an incident of sexual violence is reported, what sexual violence entails and how to identify red flags.

Ms. Sack suggested in her column that part of UT’s failure concerning survivors of sexual assault lies in how survivors are counseled on campus and what their “best reporting option” may be. To be clear, no one has the power to tell survivors how best to respond to their experiences. In fact, for some, the “best reporting option” may be no report whatsoever. The very notion that any one path could possibly be “almost always survivors’ best reporting option” shows an inherent misunderstanding of a survivor ally’s role. The individual who experienced the violence is the expert on it and how he or she feels about it. Attempting to tell a survivor what is best for them potentially disregards a survivor’s ability to take control of an already difficult situation. No one has the right to take the power to choose out of the hands of the survivor.

Voices Against Violence employs a survivor-centered approach. This means that regardless of how survivors choose to come forward with their story — whether they’re seeking medical attention by calling the 24-hour University Health Services nurse advice line, justice by reporting to the UT Police Department, guidance from a resident assistant, or peace of mind by contacting a Voices Against Violence counselor directly  — VAV has trained all of these individuals to respond appropriately. In line with the philosophy of keeping a survivor’s power in his or her own hands, an appropriate response includes disclosure of all reporting options available to the student, some of which include filing a criminal complaint, civil complaint and/or a University complaint.

Despite Sack’s assertion that a civil suit is a survivor’s best option, each of the options listed above has unique pros and cons that affect every survivor in equally distinct ways. Although civil cases are statistically easier to win, in the event of a student committing sexual assault against a peer, a lawyer may not even pick up a civil case. In a civil case, the survivor is essentially suing his or her assailant for a dollar amount that coincides with the heinousness of the crime committed. If the assailant is a young adult in college, he or she is unlikely to have the means with which to pay that amount — and who can really put a price on the privilege of living a life free of sexual violence? If damages cannot be collected, no one gets paid unless a negligent third party can be found responsible and brought to court.

So, yes, civil cases may be easier to win, but only if you can find the money to pay a lawyer to take the case and if the offender has assets. If a survivor finds a feeling of closure in seeing his or her attacker pronounced guilty, that is the survivor’s choice to make, whether through a civil or criminal suit.

In the end, the best support an ally can provide is respecting the power a survivor has over his or her life. The process of creating a safer campus is, as always, a work in progress. Until sexual violence is eradicated, there is more work to be done. But if you are a survivor in need of a place to turn, look to your family. Look to your friends. Look to your fellow Longhorns. We are here and we will listen. We can help.

If you would like to speak to a counselor trained in issues related to relationship violence, sexual violence and stalking, call the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center , which is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at 471-3515 and request a VAV appointment when scheduling.

If you need to see someone immediately, please come to CMHC on the 5th floor of the Student Services Building and ask to see a Crisis Counselor. No appointment is necessary.

If you would like to speak to someone over the phone confidentially and anonymously, please call UT 24-hour telephone counseling at 512-471-CALL (2255).

Wilkins is a member of Voices Against Violence’s student organization and an economics and international business junior from New Braunfels.