For survivors of sexual assault — particularly college students — it can be difficult to know where to turn for justice. But for the past several months, local agencies have been meeting to make the process a little more streamlined.
The Charlottesville Albemarle Sexual Assault Response Team has been around since 2009, when Virginia code required localities to put teams together that encompassed both law enforcement agencies and survivor resource centers to efficiently respond to sexual assaults. On July 1, that law was amended to include representatives from local university Title IX offices, including the University of Virginia.
The teams are required to meet at least once a year and need to implement protocols and policies for how their communities should respond in the event of a sexual assault — from the collection and preservation of evidence to accurately advising survivors of their options for reporting assaults and how they can follow through with a criminal report.
The local team includes the Albemarle and Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorneys offices, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, UVa Medical Center, local victim/witness programs, the Charlottesville, Albemarle and UVa police departments and, now, UVa’s Title IX office.
Though the requirement did not go into effect until this month, Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci said the local SART is ahead of the game. The team began talking to the UVa Title IX office earlier this year and has since been working to amend the language of the team’s memorandum of understanding to include the university’s role.
“In a meeting with this office last April, UVa President Teresa Sullivan and General Counsel Roscoe Roberts committed to better ensuring criminal accountability for sexual assault,” Tracci said. “The implementation of a robust SART memorandum of understanding and protocol before the 2016-17 academic year will promote justice and criminal accountability in sexual assault cases, wherever they occur in our community.”
“With the assistance of all SART partners, I am confident these safeguards will be in place."
Before taking office in January, Tracci said the local team had met only sporadically and had not updated its protocol in almost three years. Making it his priority to update the language and include UVa, Tracci expressed interest in bringing the team together about every month in order to iron out the team’s policies.
Tracci said including UVa in the team will make it easier for students to come forward and seek criminal justice by making sure they understand all of their options. It also will give them a chance to preserve valuable physical evidence that can disappear after 24 to 72 hours, he said.
“It’s not our goal to ascribe blame,” said Tracci. “This is a complicated issue. That’s the purpose of revisiting this and having meetings to ensure that we have a mechanism that better identifies, investigates and prosecutes sexual assault at UVa.”
“You ought to be held accountable for sexual assault, whether it occurs on a campus, in a dormitory or across the street, off campus,” he added. “In my view, that is a non-negotiable cornerstone of what equal justice under the law is supposed to mean.”
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Noting that it is not a UVa-specific issue, Tracci said representatives from Piedmont Virginia Community College also have been attending the SART meetings. But Tracci said that, because UVa houses students, there is a greater risk of sexual assaults happening on Grounds — and Catherine Spear, UVa assistant vice president for equal opportunity programs and acting Title IX coordinator, said the school is more than happy to participate.
“UVa always has been a vital part of the broader Charlottesville community,” Spear said. “Having not only the Title IX coordinator but other UVa employees represented on the Sexual Assault Resource Team benefits everyone, especially UVa students, faculty and staff by ensuring there is effective communication and collaboration between the various community partners who offer options and support resources to individuals who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence.”
“The SART team provides a monthly forum for important connections and conversations to occur,” she added. “We have made meaningful progress and hope to have guiding principles in place as the new academic year begins in the fall.”
Currently at UVa, when a student reports a sexual assault, the report is immediately given to the Title IX office and an internal investigation is undertaken. According to the university’s policy, students can either go directly to the Title IX office or they can report an assault via “Just Report It,” the university’s website for online reporting (that can be made anonymously). The policy also states students can contact local law enforcement— if they choose to do so.
Tracci said the language of the policy does not make clear enough the importance for students to report their assaults to law enforcement. He said it is critical that students be given clear and prompt instructions about their options, which include going to the police and obtaining a Physical Evidence Recovery Kit, to ensure evidence is preserved, even if the survivor does not immediately want to enter the criminal justice system.
“Title IX has been misinterpreted by many institutions of higher learning in a manner that limits criminal accountability for these offenses,” Tracci said. “The near absence of sexual assault convictions at UVa over the last several years substantiates this concern.”
With new language and a new partnership with UVa, Tracci said he hopes it will be easier for student survivors of sexual assault to seek criminal justice. He also hopes that law enforcement and UVa can learn to work together during their two separate investigations.
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While UVa joins a team already in progress, all of the other agencies have the same goal of wanting to better serve survivors of sexual assault — they just have different perspectives of how that should be done.
The Sexual Assault Resource Agency sees its part of the team as being about helping survivors cope with their experiences and supporting them. Rebecca Weybright, executive director of SARA, said the nonprofit often takes a coordinator role and calls meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“SARA has the luxury of coming from the role of wanting to make things easier for survivors,” Weybright said. “Other groups have different agendas and different perspectives, and I think, as a community, the situation is trying to figure out how to get all of these different groups working as well together as possible.”
While only about 20 percent of SARA’s clients are students, Weybright said she is excited that UVa’s Title IX office is now involved in the team.
“Our local team in the past seven months has really done a lot,” Weybright said. “I think there’s a stronger level of trust at the table, which hopefully means people will talk more openly with each other. I think there’s been a sense of recognizing and understanding that we all have different perspectives and different parts to play with survivors of sexual violence.”
In addition to working with UVa, Weybright said the team has been looking at creating training for police to help responding officers better communicate with sexual-assault survivors. She said patrol officers often don’t know exactly what to do for a survivor, and the team wants officers to be more comfortable in those situations.
“That patrol officer — who may never investigate it because it gets passed off to a detective — may set the tone for the whole situation with the survivor if she goes forward with the criminal justice system,” Weybright said.
“A lot of survivors never report to the police,” she said. “If we as a community want survivors to feel comfortable reporting, then we have to look at what happens when they do, and whether that can be improved.”
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From the perspective of law enforcement, the wellbeing of the survivor is important, but so is potential evidence in the face of a criminal investigation, according to Charlottesville police Lt. Cheryl Sandridge, who recently joined the team as a police representative.
“Criminal investigations require certain things to happen, such as collecting evidence,” Sandridge said. “It’s important that the survivor is well cared for, though, and SART’s focus is on the survivor.”
“The law enforcement piece is to make sure all legal aspects are considered,” she said. “We all have our own little piece of the puzzle.”
Albemarle County police Capt. Tim Aylor also said it is important for the components of the team to work together and said the team has been rejuvenated after changes in leadership. He also said it will be a benefit to the entire process to have the Title IX office on the team.
“The police department believes in the team approach and working with community organizations to successfully investigate these cases,” Aylor said. “[We] want to be an ally for victims and, even if the case does not get prosecuted, we want to be able to provide adequate services for the victims.”
“We are still working through some of the logistics so that all three area police departments (UVa, CPD, ACPD) are consistent in our approach,” he added. “The partnership has been great. The team approach gives all parties an opportunity to work together to benefit the victims in these cases.”
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman also voiced his approval of the newly rejuvenated team and said he thinks it is making good progress by involving UVa.
“All of the critically important agencies are at the table and constructively discussing how we can improve our response to sexual assaults,” he said. “We are reviving work that was done previously by expanding, improving and including new topic areas. It’s a work in progress.”
While UVa and Tracci hope to have a new protocol signed by the entire team by the start of the 2016 fall term, Chapman said that though it’s a worthy goal, the quality of the protocol is more important. He said the meetings so far have been productive and are moving at a good pace toward that goal.
“It’s most important to build a protocol that is durable and has qualities that everyone wants it to have,” Chapman said. “It must be a reflection of the degree of serious thought to important issues that we expect of it and that the community has a right to expect of it.”
“But it’s also important that we do not fail to move with the appropriate vigor,” he added. “It is complex and it involves multiple agencies, and we’re most interested in getting it right.”