Justin Peligri: The sexual assault discussion we’re not having

There is a blue banner hanging on the GW Hospital above the Metro entrance that reads, “Defining Medicine.”

The hospital may offer some of the best care in the city, but this message sounds a little presumptuous, especially since there’s a major medical service that the hospital fails to offer: rape kits.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

Nurses use this this set of tools – sometimes referred to as a physical evidence recovery kit – to examine sexual assault survivors and collect forensic evidence. Evidence from these tests, typically collected shortly after an assault occurs, can be used in a hearing if the survivor decides to press charges.

Since sexual assaults create not only physical trauma but also emotional scars, it isn’t easy for sexual assault survivors to put themselves through an invasive medical procedure. But GW students who want a rape kit examination should get easy access if they think it’ll help them build a case down the road.

Right now, that’s not the case: The only place rape kit services are offered in the District is at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, nearly four miles away. With D.C.’s winding streets and perpetual construction, that 15-minute ride – longer, with traffic – is agonizing for survivors in need of immediate services.

That’s where the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program is housed, paid for in part by federal money.

The University Police Department offers a shuttle to the hospital center – a good service, but it’s not nearly convenient enough for sexual violence survivors. After being brave enough to come forward and seek help, they deserve a simpler road to recovery.

Bringing rape kits to GW Hospital wouldn’t be easy. It would require more than just a few quick phone calls or a signature from University President Steven Knapp. In fact, GW’s 20 percent stake in the hospital might not even be sufficient to successfully lobby hospital administrators on this issue.

But Melissa Hook, director of the D.C. government’s Justice Grants Administration, said no District hospitals have voiced an interest in housing their own rape kits.

Is money the hangup? It shouldn’t be. The agency has historically covered the costs of nurse training, medication and advocacy work to keep the more than $1 million a year program afloat.

Institutions, GW Hospital in this case, seem to be covering for themselves. There’s a lot of liability associated with housing a lab that collects evidence for potential legal proceedings in a hospital, Hook said.

It’s disappointing that GW Hospital isn’t even showing interest.

While only 17 instances of assault have been reported on campus in the last four years, we know that underreporting is rampant – especially on a college campus where peer pressure abounds and social circles are intertwined.

Offering rape kits and nurses to perform these tests just might convince survivors to come forward. They’ll know that after an examination, they can prove that they’re telling the truth and have evidence against the nearly inevitable slut-shaming claims.

But that’s not the approach GW Hospital has taken.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, told me that it’s rare for colleges to offer rape kits, “but where there is a big university hospital, you’d expect to see it more often because they are serving a larger community.”

GW Hospital fits that bill. The University educates far more students per year than any other college in the District. It makes sense to offer these students easy access to rape kits after federal studies showed 20 percent of college women are victims of some sort of sexual violence.

But the hospital is large – it serves many more patients than the GW student body alone. Adding rape kits at the hospital would keep our community healthy and prevent people from having to travel all the way to Washington Hospital Center – a service that few even know exists.

“If a victim reports to a University first, it has a responsibility to aid the victim and make sure that they are able to get to resources as quickly as possible,” Berkowitz told me.

He’s right: If the GW Hospital doesn’t launch a more serious effort to give rape kits a presence right on campus, then we as a community are all failing the students on this campus who need our support them most.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

This column was updated Feb. 2 at 11:48 p.m. to reflect the following:
Correction appended
This column incorrectly states that there were 17 instances of sexual assault reported on campus in the last four years. In fact, this number only refers to instances reported to city police, and does not include ones reported to the University Police Department. We regret this error.

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