Pittsburgh college students: If you’ve been sexually abused, these local resources can help.
This story was originally published by PublicSource.
Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.
Every survivor of sexual violence goes on their own journey of seeking healing and justice at some point. But often they don’t know where to start.
If you are a student who has experienced sexual violence, resources and options are available to you in the Pittsburgh area and at your university. Advocates, academic leaders, and legal and health professionals who spoke with PublicSource encourage survivors to know their rights and choices and what to expect from the options available.
Health care providers could help with emergency care and evidence collection. Therapy could help with mental health. The community could translate into support and advocacy. Title IX, a federal statute, could be your legal tool.
Justice can mean many things: for some it goes through the criminal justice system, while for others it follows the Title IX process. Anyway, it’s possible these paths may not end with the result you hope for. Regardless of the institutional results, receiving early validation and support from others is often crucial, said Megan Schroeder, director of victim response at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. [PAAR].
“We have a lot of conversations with our clients about not getting hung up on that specific outcome, whatever it is,” Schroeder said. “We really want to think along the way, ‘How could we infuse you with that support or that validation so that you can really get something that you need out of this process, no matter what turn of events?'”
PAAR has been providing counseling and support to survivors for 50 years. The organization operates a confidential 24/7 helpline at 1-866-363-7273, which can serve as a helpful starting point. When you call, counselors walk you through your options, offer support, and help you access resources and services.
The PAAR website says advocates can reach you anytime at hospital emergency rooms and county police stations, explain your university’s policies, and provide information about reporting to police and prosecuting. a civil case, among other options. You can find more information about PAAR’s services here.
As you begin your healing journey, here are some additional resources and options that may help.
seeking medical care
Amanda Ringold, nurse practitioner in the emergency department at UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital, encourages students who believe they have been sexually abused to contact a health care provider even if they are unsure if they were assaulted.
“Prevention is always better than cure,” Ringold said. “People will come and say, ‘Well, I’m not even sure anything happened. I was drinking and I fell asleep. And now my pants are on backwards.
Getting medical attention as soon as possible can help with evidence gathering, if that’s an option you’re looking for. UPMC recommends that survivors refrain from changing clothes, eating, drinking, brushing their teeth or taking a shower until they receive treatment. If you’ve done this before, bring the clothes you were wearing with you — evidence may still be collected, according to the PAAR.
At UPMC Magee, medical professionals talk to survivors about resources, offer a sexual assault exam or “rape kit,” and connect them with therapeutic support through PAAR as soon as possible, Ringold said. The hospital calls a PAAR advocate as soon as a survivor arrives.
In Allegheny County, nurses specially trained in the care of survivors are listed as available at UPMC Magee and UPMC Mercy.
“We have a specific room. There is a shower. It’s a bit around the corner, a bit quieter for them,” Ringold said of UPMC Magee. “In the room, [we] do a basic assessment, make sure they have no immediate or emergency medical needs, then we’ll talk to them about all their options, gathering evidence, contacting law enforcement .
Hospitals are able to treat survivors and collect evidence even if the person has not reported or does not want to report to the police. The patient’s wishes are paramount, Ringold said, and if they wish, they can be screened for sexual assault. This could include taking saliva and fingernail samples and providing medication to prevent infections, according to UPMC.
“We can screen them medically and make sure they are physically okay and offer them any drug prophylaxis for STDs, pregnancy, HIV and let them go,” Ringold said.
You can contact the UPMC Magee Emergency Services Line at 412-641-4950.
Report to your university
Filing a complaint through your university’s Title IX office may allow your university to conduct an investigation and will require the institution to provide you with supportive measures. Your university may be able to connect you with counseling, allow you to take time off, or help you have a more manageable course load, among other forms of support.
One support you may find valuable is a no contact order, which universities can provide to prohibit you and the person who harmed you from contacting you directly. You can also ask your university to change your accommodation or schedule on campus.
To receive these accommodations, you’ll need to file a confidential report or formal complaint with your university, according to Know Your IX.
Katie Shipp, a partner at the Marsh law firm, advises students to find their university’s Title IX policy, identify the Title IX coordinator, and report their assault. “It’s something people should look into and exactly what they need to do to file a complaint that will trigger an investigation.”
PAAR can also educate survivors about their rights under Title IX, perhaps with a clearer, more trauma-informed approach than a university, said PAAR advocate Susie Balcom.
“Sometimes there’s more trust between us and the students who come because we don’t work for the university,” Balcom said. “We can answer more nuanced questions, like, ‘What does this information mean in legalese?’ — where the Title IX office can’t really fit that much into that space.
Under Title IX, universities can examine evidence beyond what could be collected in a hospital. Journal entries, correspondence, text messages, photos, and any witnesses willing to corroborate the report also count.
Because memory, especially at the time of the trauma, can be vulnerable, legal experts recommend that students record everything they remember about the incident.
If you file a formal complaint, Shipp said what follows is “a court-like process.”
- Your Title IX office will interview you, and the perpetrator will be given a summary of the allegations and given the opportunity to speak with an attorney.
- The Title IX office will interview the author.
- The Title IX office will decide whether to initiate an investigation, after which the university may bring in a third-party investigator.
- A hearing will take place during which each party may have an adviser, who may be a lawyer. At this time, you may be subject to cross-examination.
- The university will make a decision and provide the opportunity to appeal. If the perpetrator is found responsible, the university may impose sanctions such as withdrawal of a degree, expulsion from school, a written letter of apology or suspension.
Under current Title IX guidelines, schools are not required to respond to complaints that occur off campus, Shipp said. There is also no time limit, so the Title IX process can be extended. The Biden administration recently proposed additional changes to how complaints are handled, which are currently under review.
Seeking Mental and Emotional Health Support
Engaging in therapy or counseling can help you begin to process your experience and heal. It is common for survivors to experience a variety of emotions after their trauma or experience anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the state of Pennsylvania, survivors of sexual abuse over the age of 18 can apply to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for up to $5,000 in counseling services – without having to appear to the police.
PublicSource spoke with survivors, attorneys, attorneys, police, and university officials to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence on Pittsburgh college campuses and reveal gaps in how universities and the system of criminal justice protects students and serves survivors. Learn more about his series “The Red Zone” here.