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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

It doesn’t have to happen to you to matter to you

Twenty years ago, I was preparing to leave for college with my four best friends from high school.

We were excited that we would be living in the same residence hall. Our biggest concerns were finding a parking spot, locating our classes and adjusting to dorm life. None of us anticipated that two of the young women would experience a sexual assault during the first six weeks of college, making them a statistic.

One in five college women experiences a sexual assault, a statistic that has not changed over the past 30 years. Ninety percent of the sexual assaults on college campuses are committed by someone the victim knows. Both of my friends knew their offenders. One of the women had recently met her offender through a college organization, but the other one knew her offender from high school. The fact that many survivors know their offenders contributes to the underreporting of sexual assaults.

According to anonymous surveys, over 90% of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported. The primary reason college students said they did not report a sexual assault was fear of retaliation and embarrassment in their social circles.

One of my friends’ offenders was an upperclassman, and the power differential was a factor in her decision-making regarding reporting. Furthermore, unclear reporting structures leave students unsure how to report an incident or whom to contact. We knew criminal reporting was an option, but we did not realize that there was an on-campus complaint process.

We did not have sexual violence prevention and education training when we entered college in 2002. At that time, only 31% of institutions provided sexual violence training. The percentage of colleges offering prevention training is significantly higher today since institutions are required to make training available to incoming students.

Many higher education institutions have offices and staff dedicated to educating and preventing sexual violence, such as the Sexual Assault and Violence Education (SAVE) Program at LSU Health Shreveport. The program provides training and educational awareness programming to students, faculty and staff to identify forms of sexual violence and respond in situations in which they witness or experience harm. Additionally, SAVE staff offer resources and confidential support services to campus community members who have experienced any form of sexual violence.

Survivors of sexual assault experience physical and emotional consequences that may have an immediate and lasting impact on their future. College students who are sexually assaulted are also less likely to graduate and often experience negative implications that last past their college enrollment.

One of my friends graduated college in four years and has gone on to have a successful career, while my other friend stopped attending college after the first semester and has not yet returned to complete her education. The sexual assault she experienced may not have been the only reason she did not complete her degree, but it was a contributing factor.

The person experiencing the sexual assault undoubtedly experiences the most severe consequences, but their friends, family and even bystanders experience consequences. Others may feel guilt or depression for not preventing the assault from happening or for not providing support after the assault. I was not physically able to intervene and stop the assaults from occurring, but as I think back, I wonder if there was more I could have done to support them. I was there to listen and be a shoulder to cry on, but I did not know what I now know about reporting options and resources for survivors. I would have been better equipped to support my friends during their traumatic experiences with adequate preventative training.

I have been asked if I am a survivor of sexual violence since I serve in a position that provides support and advocacy to individuals who have experienced sexual violence. While I have not personally experienced sexual trauma, I have witnessed the short-term and long-term impact on survivors. It doesn’t have to happen to you to matter to you – which is the theme of Project Celebration’s programming in April.

Project Celebration is the local advocacy organization serving sexual assault survivors in Northwest Louisiana.

In addition to its community outreach and educational efforts, Project Celebration offers support to survivors during hospital exams and legal assistance, which are outside of the scope of the services that local schools and colleges can provide to students.

The 24/7 telephone number is 318-227- 7900. Sexual assault survivors may also seek services and resources 24 hours a day/ seven days per week through the statewide organization, The Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault (LaFASA) at 1-888- 995-7372, or the national organization, The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673.

Grace Nickels, Ed.D., SAVE (Sexual Assault and Violence Education) officer at LSU Health Shreveport.


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