Column: After decades of inaction, students still need on-campus sexual assault resources

Editor’s note: This post contains references to sexual assault. If you have been affected by sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 for free, confidential support 24/7 or visit online.rainn.org. If you have any questions about this column, please contact the editor at eic@gwhatchet.com.

My mandatory training as part of New Student Orientation informed me about quick tips on campus, like where to get the best latte, how to create a homework routine – and that I’d need to travel across D.C. if I ever needed a rape kit. The knowledge that neither the GW Hospital nor Student Health Center offers rape kits was one of the most jarring parts of my orientation experience and left me with a pit in my stomach and lingering feelings of confusion and fear. If I find myself a survivor of sexual assault, it will be my responsibility to go to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the only D.C. hospital that provides medical forensic exams, just for the collection of evidence to seek justice. 

This isn’t just hypothetical – it’s a reality for all survivors of sexual assault and violence at GW and in D.C. GW claims to support its students and stand against sexual assault and violence through its Title IX Office, but I feel the University has abandoned me through its complete lack of action. The University has a responsibility to leverage its connections with the GW Hospital to ensure on-campus resources for sexual assault survivors, including the provision of rape kits.

Ambulance services like EMeRG can quickly transport survivors of sexual assault to receive medical services at the GW Hospital, which is owned by Universal Health Services. But because the hospital doesn’t provide rape kits, which are ideally administered between 24 to 48 hours after an assault takes place, patients can’t seek justice after their initial injuries are treated there. Rape kits include tools to collect forensic evidence from a survivor of sexual assault, and the evidence they provide is often necessary for survivors to press charges against their abusers. 

The MedStar Washington Hospital Center receives city funding to provide medical forensic exams through the national Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, or SANE, which trains and organizes personnel to administer them. Without SANE, which D.C. originally began at Howard University Hospital in 2000, hospitals lack the required expertise to properly administer exams with care and respect to patients. 

When Howard University Hospital withdrew from SANE in 2008, Denise Snyder, the director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, contacted all major hospitals in the city and received little to no interest in hosting SANE, according to the Washington City Paper. The GW Hospital was “historically resistant to providing [sexual assault] services outside the University community” according to minutes from a SANE meeting on the issue. And Snyder told the Washington City Paper that one hospital feared becoming the “rape hospital,” while others claimed the program would be a financial burden. But one by one, D.C.’s major medical facilities – except for MedStar – refused to help the city’s residents. The GW Hospital’s reluctance to provide rape kits risks the health of those within and far beyond Foggy Bottom – if MedStar chose to discontinue its SANE program, the entire city would be left without access to rape kits. 

GW Hospital’s administration and University officials, whose Student Health Center does not provide rape kits either, have repeatedly turned a blind eye to this gaping hole in sexual assault policy. In 2011, student advocacy groups hosted protests and a vigil to call for rape kits on campus after a study highlighted a majority of students falsely believed they were able to obtain them on campus. In 2015, students circulated a petition with the same demand. And that same year, GW student Eve Zhurbinskiy campaigned for – and won – a seat on the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission with a platform to add forensic medical exams to the GW Hospital. In all instances, the cost of implementing the SANE program, estimated in 2015 to be about $700,000, clouded advocacy efforts. But neither the GW Hospital nor GW itself have examined options to implement SANE and offer forensic exams by other means

Considering that 13 percent of all college students experience sexual assault during their academic career, it’s bizarrely unjust that the most accessible and publicized medical facilities on GW’s campus are so wholly unequipped to provide support for survivors of sexual assault. And the off-handed, irresponsible manner in which the University informs students about the lack of rape kits during orientation leaves sexual assault survivors on campus in a deeply emotionally and physically draining situation with both financial and practical barriers to receiving treatment at MedStar. Rape kits are no solution to addressing the root causes of sexual assault and violence, but they are a necessary form of quantifiable evidence with which survivors support their cases in court. Barriers to accessing them make an already-imperfect system worse for survivors.

Though the University may provide survivors with emergency medical attention for their injuries, it still has a responsibility to provide rape kits and the evidence they can collect so survivors can advocate for themselves after the fact. One hospital being equipped to deal with this issue in a major metropolitan area is absolutely unacceptable. Many university students across the country are also calling on their administrations to provide rape kits on campus, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Penn State are among the few universities that already provide these services to students.

The GW Hospital must support students and its surrounding neighborhoods and model moral behavior for the rest of the hospitals in the District by providing easily accessible rape kits. A “not our problem” liability statement during orientation can’t replace comprehensive support for survivors, and it certainly doesn’t cultivate an environment of safety and comfort for students. Students have been demanding rape kits on campus for more than a decade – it’s time to do something about it.

Terra Pilch-Bisson, a freshman majoring in American Studies, is an opinions writer.

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