Student’s ‘heartbreaking’ testimony shapes city’s response to sexual assault

Media Credit: Elise Apelian | Senior Staff Photographer
Silvia Zenteno, who was raped on campus as a sophomore, testified at a D.C. Council hearing last December, advocating for a sweeping bill to overhaul the city’s response to sexual assault. The council will likely approve that bill this month.

Updated: Monday, April 14 at 5:40 p.m.

After Silvia Zenteno was raped in a Munson Hall elevator last April, she kept it a secret from everyone except her closest friends for months and never pressed charges against her attacker.

Nearly a year later, she shared her story with a room full of police officials and D.C. Council members as she called for sweeping changes to the Metropolitan Police Department’s response to sexual assault.

Zenteno said if survivors decide to come forward, the city should provide a trained advocate – like the staff member she met at GW – to help survivors through grueling police interviews and medical exams.

“Knowing [the staff member] was there to help me and not to question why I was caught in that situation was relieving. She spoke to me about how I felt and helped me understand that what happened to me was not my fault,” Zenteno said during the eight-hour hearing.

Advocates for sexual assault survivors and police officials who watched Zenteno testify said her story still haunts them. They called it pivotal in shaping the legislation that will likely pass the Council next month.

“Things shifted when her voice was heard. People are still talking about her testimony,” said Sherelle Hessel-Gordon, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, who also spoke at the hearing. “That catapulted the activism to move this legislation.”

Finding an advocate
The summer after her assault, Zenteno said she tried to forget what had happened, keeping a list of trigger words that would cause her to spiral into a depression. When she returned to GW her junior year, she started meeting with Tara Pereira, an administrator who guided students through the process of reporting sexual assaults before leaving GW last December.

Both Pereira and Suzanne Combs, GW’s victims’ services coordinator, became Zenteno’s advocates. They would remind her that she was not alone or at fault for what had happened to her. Zenteno said they also helped her feel safer on campus by helping her set up a no-contact order against her attacker to keep him from reaching out to her and a restriction preventing him from going into her residence hall.

But Zenteno then discovered that the University had placed him just floors away from her room in Ivory Tower. She called Pereira and Combs in tears, and she said she lost trust in GW.

“When I found out, I had a really hard time with it. I didn’t understand how they would take something that’s so serious and then not pay attention to it,” she said.

In a meeting with Pereira, Combs and GW Housing, Zenteno was told that no single administrator monitors the restriction orders when giving students their housing assignments. Her attacker was moved out of the dorm within two days of the meeting.

Advocacy groups and police departments across the country have struggled to encourage sexual assaults survivors to come forward without overwhelming them. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes nationwide. Seventeen people reported on-campus sexual assaults to MPD over the last four years, according to data obtained by The Hatchet.

“I didn’t understand how they would take something that’s so serious and then not pay attention to it” – Silvia Zenteno

Zenteno said she thought that number was surprisingly low, though she said she knows other students who have decided not to report their assaults to the police department. More than 70 emergency calls for sexual assault on campus were made over the past four years.

An advocate’s most important responsibility is reminding a victim that they have choices, said Marisa Ferri, a grassroots activist and advocate for sexual assault survivors with the D.C. Justice for Survivors campaign.

“An advocate’s role is not to say, ‘You have a responsibility to stand up and be counted.’ They’re there to work with you and process what the situation is and show you where you have choices,” she said.

Ferri said the presence of a third party in all medical exams and police interviews could safeguard against mishaps or survivor mistreatment. She said another key component of the city bill includes giving survivors the right to see the results of their rape kit exams and creating a timeline to review the cases.

“What’s happening now is the victim doesn’t have any rights in the process at all,” she said.

After a scathing report, a fear of MPD
The D.C. Council measure would also increase oversight of the city’s police department by hiring a team of experts to monitor MPD’s response to sexual assault cases. City leaders have given more attention to sexual assault since the advocacy group Human Rights Watch released a scathing report two years ago that accused the D.C. police of mishandling hundreds of cases.

Zenteno told the Council last year that the report discouraged her from reporting her assault to MPD because she feared police would close the case without a proper investigation or blame her for the attack.

But as she debated whether she should report her crime, she said her inability to trust the police department made her recovery even more difficult.

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“I was very emotional about the issue and didn’t want to put myself in a situation that could possibly get any worse,” Zenteno said. “It is something that runs your life for a period of time and you don’t want that to be longer than it can be – that’s what I was afraid of.”

Peter Newsham, assistant chief of police at MPD, said Zenteno’s “heartbreaking”
testimony confirmed the department’s fears that the Human Rights Watch report would deter survivors from reporting crimes.

Months later, an external review of the report found that the 170 missing cases it cited had actually been filed. While the review found inaccuracies in the Human Rights Watch report, it still put forward suggestions for MPD to improve its response to sexual assaults.

Before the report was made public, Newsham said MPD was already working to improve its sexual assault response by increasing training for officers and firing many officers from the sexual assault unit who mistreated survivors. Newsham also said city police have partnered with groups like the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. to ensure survivors have a trained advocate to meet them at the hospital if they request an exam. The bill would also guarantee advocates could remain in the room for police interviews.

Newsham said while MPD already tries to provide victims with advocates, the new law would send a message to sexual assault survivors and help empower them to file reports against their attackers.

“To the extent it makes more people want to come forward is good,” he said. “How victims are treated, that will continue to evolve. I don’t think the way anyone approaches sexual assault is perfect, but that’s what you’re aiming for.”

About four months after shaping the city’s conversation about sexual assaults, Zenteno is also focusing her attention on the issue on campus by working as an intern in the victims’ services office, attending meetings with Combs about sexual assault and victim advocacy.

She hopes the new law – and the attention around it – will prompt institutions across D.C. to pour more resources into sexual assault response.

“Even though the system is changing slowly, it’s still changing, which is always good,” she said. “There are multiple reasons that sexual assault is not reported, but I’m hoping that being uncomfortable with MPD won’t be one of those reasons anymore.”

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