This article is part of an ongoing series examining the support system available on campus and in the community for students who have experienced sexual assault. The next article will look at the student organizations and clubs on campus.
In the last “Among friends” article, “The Southern” took a look at Florida Southern College’s Title IX program, also known as “Just Ask.” However, students can seek a different approach when dealing with cases of sexual assault, such as contacting law enforcement or community support services.
That is where the Lakeland Police department can come into play, which is listed under “off-campus resources” and “follow-up assistance” on one of Just Ask’s handouts.
Sharon Rose is a victim assistance advocate at the LPD, which has long been associated with the school. Dr. Marcie Pospichal, student support Title IX officer at FSC, came to the department wanting to know what resources they had on offer and developed a closer relationship.
“I think we’ve always had one [a relationship with the school] but it became more prevalent when Marcie took over,” Rose said.
During the criminal proceeding and beyond, Rose often acts as moral support for victims. Rose said that she sometimes keeps in touch with them for as long as eight years to let them know that someone cares about them.
For local counseling, Rose often directs victims to the Peace River Center in Lakeland.
“They’re a very resourceful group over there,” Rose said.
The Center is also listed under “off-campus resources” and has arranged activities with the campus, most recently participating in the Just Asktival on Feb. 4. In the future, the Center is hosting its first walkathon on March 28 to raise awareness about sexual assaults on college campuses, beginning at FSC.
The Center provides support groups and counselors at no charge, as well as a 24/7 hotline.
“We want people to come in,” Karen Lea from victim services at Peace River, said. “We don’t want people to carry that pain around with them.”
Many survivors undergo physical and mental trauma. Physically, some who did not seek medical attention after the attack may be left with internal damage or even sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Mentally they have to deal with the trauma of attack and some develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Rape is not sex,” Lea said. “It’s power and control.”
Gene Lord, coordinator for the LPD’s domestic abuse response team, said that rape often makes a victim feel powerless, and retuning that power to the victims as quickly as possible is a priority for the police.
“We try to reestablish that power back to the victim even by the first officers,” Lord said. “The first five minutes of contact with the victim reflects on how that victim’s going to recover, whether it’s lengthy or short.”
For some victims though, the trauma of the attack can lead them to hesitate before reporting, but Lord said every day that goes by weakens the overall case. It is one of the reasons that law enforcement prefers to have a forensic test done within 72 hours of the attack.
Peace River, like hospitals, has a forensic room. Lea said that under certain circumstances evidence can still be gathered around 6-7 days after the attack. Even so, the longer a victim waits, the more evidence is lost.
The Center’s policy is only to keep evidence for 90 days, but unless there is no room the evidence is usually kept closer to 6-8 months.
“We don’t go looking to throw evidence out,” Lea said.
This gives the victim time to figure out if they want to pursue charges since, like the school, Peace River does not have to pursue a criminal investigation.
In 2013, Polk County reported 302 forcible sex offenses and Lord said that the department dealt with 749 dating and domestic violence cases. However, many cases still go unreported.
Even when the case is reported, people sometimes have misconceptions about just how long it can take to be resolved. The longer cases drag on, the less inclined people are to continue. Lord said that, sometimes, attorneys stall cases so that witnesses’ memories become fuzzy.
External pressures, such as harassment or hostility from people who know the accused, can also lead to the case getting dropped. This leaves the court without its star witness and claimant, making the case difficult to pursue.
However, reporting is still important. Although the numbers have raised controversy, a widely-cited 2002 study by Dr. David Lisak and Dr. Paul Miller said that many rapists are repeat offenders, placing the number of rapes at 5.8 before they stop. Other studies have placed the number higher, meaning that every report, or even every time a victim seeks help, is a step in towards ending the cycle.