After the assault

How faculty and staff can help traumatized students.

By Tricia B. Bent-Goodley

One in five college women experience sexual assault prior to their graduation from college. As if that’s not enough, many deal with domestic violence and stalking as well. Interpersonal violence significantly affects the learning experience of students we see every day, but until recently, the role and expectations for faculty and staff have been minimal.

We don’t have to sit back and watch this culture of violence continue—and, in fact, we shouldn’t. Faculty and staff can play an important role in responding to interpersonal violence on campus. The key is to understand how to respond.

What you might see

Survivors of interpersonal violence are not all the same, so try not to pigeonhole them.

Some want to focus on just getting through the semester; they are committed to preventing the incident from having any negative impact on their academic performance and may even try to ignore what has happened. The consequence of this response is that by the time faculty or staff become aware that something has occurred, it is close to the midterm or the end of the semester. For faculty, this is the worst time for a student to ask for supports like additional time on assignments. But, if this is the time the student realizes she needs help, the situation demands attention.

Sometimes, signs of violence can be seen earlier. Survivors might miss classes because they’re afraid of bumping into the perpetrator on campus. If stalking is involved, the victim may fear potential stalking behaviors—a perpetrator lurking outside the classroom door or showing up at the class study group in the dining hall, for example. Some survivors may be depressed and unable to get out of bed; others may feel anxious.

For some, walking on campus can produce traumatic feelings and remind them of the incident. It can be a scent or a sound that triggers traumatic memories. For survivors with a history of victimization, these issues can be even more pronounced.

While one may see the social, psychological and academic signs, brain science is what is behind it all. That’s what helps us understand what we’re seeing among our students who have been victimized by sexual violence.

Brain reaction

Brain science helps explain and increase understanding of victim behavior following trauma, but victim behavior can still seem odd to the untrained eye. For example, the survivor may not remember what happened at all, or may not remember the order in which it happened. When asked to state what occurred—a question that would be common in a crime report—the survivor’s response is often limited.

Also, most people would expect a victim to either fight or flee. But the brain’s reaction to intense fear can produce an additional response: A victim might freeze. This reaction occurs due to high concentrations of hormones fluctuating in the brain and is at the root of “tonic immobility,” a natural state of muscular paralysis. The victim may not understand her own response, and may even feel guilty for not responding. Yet in this moment, she is literally incapable of fighting back or fleeing the situation. Between 12 and 50 percent of victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault.

Hormonal fluctuations also can affect memory and, specifically, the ability to recall events in order. Four distinct areas of the brain control this level of functioning: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus and amygdala are both sensitive to hormonal fluctuations.

The hippocampus processes information into memories, and the amygdala processes emotionally charged memories. During a sexual assault, the amygdala detects that there is a threat and activates the hypothalamus, which stimulates the pituitary gland to release a “hormonal soup” including catecholamines, corticosteroids, cortisol and opioids. Catecholamines provide the body with the fight-or-flight response. During a sexual assault, the catecholamines affect the victim’s ability to think rationally.

Meanwhile, corticosteroids decrease energy, cortisol impairs memory function, and opioids combine with oxytocin to reduce the perception of pain and the ability to express feelings.

As a result, a victim could appear to be calm in the aftermath of a sexual assault, with no affect—the direct opposite of the hysterical crying or rage most people would expect. On top of that, the victim’s hippocampus may block clear memory of the incident, and the amygdala may prevent the synthesis and ordering of any details that are remembered.

These issues are particularly challenging because the first thing we ask a victim to do is to tell us what happened, in what order, and not to leave out any detail. And she might be asked to share this information multiple times, with multiple people. The victim may not be able to recall all of the events that occurred but may remember smells or scents. As she recalls more information, untrained investigators and even counselors begin to wonder whether the victim is imagining the entire incident, is withholding information or is making it up.

Alcohol complicates these issues further, making it even more difficult to recall information, and unfortunately, alcohol is involved in a vast number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

Trauma-informed approach

It is vital that campuses mobilize to provide trauma-informed approaches in how they respond to and intervene in sexual assault reports. As described above, victims may feel as though they are in a fog for weeks following the victimization. The body needs time to recover from having released such powerful hormones. It is critical that faculty and staff be sensitive to this reality and follow these steps to become trauma-informed in their response:

  1. Support the victim by showing you care. You should not counsel the victim—that is not your job—but kindness goes a long way. Above all else, believe the victim. False reports are rare (fewer than 5 percent), so it’s a pretty good bet that she’s not lying. Showing you care means refraining from victim-blaming, and listening carefully and sympathetically.
  2. Be sure the student knows your role and responsibilities around disclosure, and that systems of care are in place to support her when she does share. Some faculty and staff struggle with their institutions’ requirements for them to report disclosures. While they are supposed to share information with the campus personnel responsible for working directly with victims, some are afraid students won’t disclose if they know the information will be shared. Institutions should be educating students about reporting requirements, so when they report an incident they know what will and will not happen. For some students, there is a sense of relief in sharing, because they know that resources will be mobilized to support them.  
  3. Do not try to investigate what happened yourself. There is a human desire to want to know more, but faculty and staff should resist it and instead show they care by connecting the student with the appropriate resources. It is critical that the victim have the opportunity to share her story the minimal number of times, with people who are directly involved in providing services.
  4. If you do not know who to report to or when to report, take the time to find out. Where you refer the victim is based on your college or university’s designated process. By now, reporting requirements should be clear to faculty and staff. Minimally, the Title IX coordinator should be an option. Institutions are required to ensure that responsible people know reporting options and processes.
  5. Trust your student affairs colleagues. If you are asked to make academic accommodations for a student, work to provide those accommodations without prying about why. Some students may need to take an exam off campus or in a different office because of a stalker. Some may be fearful of being in the classroom because they were sexually assaulted in that building. Allow students to use academic accommodations and counseling. These supports make an important difference for the student.

Campuswide approach

On a broader scale, your institution has a responsibility to address sexual assault sensitively and effectively. For one thing, it must coordinate campus and community responses. Both are important. Students must have options to decide where they want to be served. Some students do not want to use university services: They may worry about confidentiality and privacy, or lack confidence in the institution’s ability or interest in helping. In these cases, referrals to off-campus providers can be hugely important.

The campus must also coordinate its responses internally. Sexual assault or interpersonal violence response teams should meet regularly to ensure that victims are receiving needed wraparound services and that the approach is “trauma-informed.” The group should provide an opportunity to learn how to improve responses for the future. In addition, a campus advisory board that mobilizes campus partners across academic and student areas is important. Groups such as residence life, judicial and student services, counseling, student health centers and academic affairs are important to troubleshoot issues, identify trends, and assist with planning programs and policies that make sense.

A trauma-informed approach also means that there is an awareness of cultural diversity on campus. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling sexual assault. Every college campus has diversity among its students, and it is vital that prevention education, bystander awareness, trainings and intervention responses are rooted in an understanding of that diversity. Being aware of cultural context should never be limited to hiring one person to provide care for an entire community of students. Instead, campuses must reflect on their policies, program initiatives and practices to determine if they are culturally appropriate. They must work to build relationships with diverse groups of students and recognize that there may be resistance and mistrust. It is up to us to build trust and engage with diverse groups. That way, we will build bridges across campus and help greater numbers of our students.

For some campuses, the police are the first point of response, but this approach can be problematic among populations that commonly mistrust law enforcement. Some African-Americans and immigrant populations, for example, may view police as adversaries rather than allies. Focusing on law enforcement in these cases could actually deter some victims from reporting and getting the support they need.

Campuses need a variety of support mechanisms for their students, and law enforcement should make an effort to build positive and trusting relationships on campus. Where local police are the sole law enforcement agency to investigate sexual assaults on campus, they must receive trauma-informed training and other education so they can provide students with the support and care they deserve.

Some students have a prior history of victimization that exacerbates the raw emotion of a new assault. They may be acknowledging these feelings and experiences for the first time, making university counseling programs even more important. Sexual assault often happens before students even get to college, in middle and high school, when incidents frequently go unreported and untreated by health professionals. As a result, some students enter the college experience with an existing burden, increasing the need for more significant intervention.

Playing a role

No one office can be responsible for dealing with sexual assault on campus; that role belongs to the entire campus community. We can each play a part in reducing the violence and addressing students’ needs. Ultimately, survivors just want to be students. They still want the full college experience, and they deserve to have it. Many just want to go back to their lives and move past what happened. We must give them space and honor their voices in our approaches, policies, protocols and decision-making.

Faculty and staff can do that by coming together and modeling positive, healthy relationships on our campuses. Our students must see equity in gender roles and a respect for each other on campus.

In addition, we must commit to robust and multidimensional standards for handling campus sexual assaults. Essentially, such standards require the development of a social service framework within the campus community. And they must reflect an understanding of both university culture and what is needed to provide comprehensive care to survivors.

We must also build linkages with local advocacy organizations and partners, and these relationships should be supportive and respectful. Local providers need to be educated about university culture and understand what college campuses are required to do in response to sexual assault.

It is important to recognize that as you continue in your prevention education and bystander awareness efforts, reporting will go up. The number of assaults is not necessarily rising; reporting is increasing. Increased reporting can reflect students’ trust that their institution is equipped and willing to address the issue. We want that. Increased reporting can also indicate that the campus is improving its responses and that the reporting process is clearer to students. Since reporting trends can reflect how effectively campuses and communities are handling sexual assault cases, it is critical to educate both our institutions’ senior leadership and the general public about these trends.

We must also educate the media on better ways to cover such events. Unfortunately, sensationalizing when campuses get it wrong can sometimes prevent the advance of positive changes in the future, particularly for those campuses that are committed to doing their best. This new frontier requires a much more disciplined discussion and progressive discourse.

Moving forward 
with optimism

As college campuses continue to wrestle with implementing requirements for addressing sexual assault, and as we learn more about best practices on campuses, we have the opportunity to change the mindset of a new generation. Through these initiatives, we can reach young people with better understandings of healthy relationships, consent and equity. Members of this new generation will go into their communities and educate others about how to prevent sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence, and how to deal with it when it does happen.

This is not just about campus sexual assault. It is an opportunity to engineer social change, promote creative solutions, advance knowledge and maximize students’ potential.

Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a professor of social work and director of the Howard University Interpersonal Violence Prevention Program.

AFT On Campus, Spring 2015 Download PDF (3.75 MB)
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