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UT System Drafts Sexual Assault Investigation Training

Acknowledging that survivors of sexual violence often behave differently than victims of other crimes, researchers at UT Austin released an expansive report Monday the UT System will use to train hundreds of officers who handle campus sexual assault.

A look at the sun setting over the University of Texas at Austin Tower in 2011.

Acknowledging that survivors of sexual violence often behave differently than victims of other crimes, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin released an expansive report Monday that the UT System will use to train hundreds of officers who handle campus sexual assaults. 

The Blueprint for Campus Police, drafted by UT Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, will be incorporated into training for almost 600 officers across all eight of the system’s academic institutions.

“Police in America, historically, have responded to the investigation of crimes in kind of a generalized fashion, regardless of whether it’s a homicide, robbery, theft,” or assault, according to Mike Heidingsfield, the UT System director of police. Because assault victims have experienced trauma, their cases often call for a more specialized officer response he said.

The training is especially necessary because of the prevalence of sexual assault, according to Noël Busch-Armendariz, the report’s principal investigator. One study, released in September, found that more than 18 percent of female undergraduates at UT Austin had been sexually assaulted since arriving on campus.

The report offers specific guidelines for officers from the moment they first interact with victims. “Let the victim know that they are safe,” the report reads. “Let the victim know they will not be judged,” and “understand that a victim’s alcohol or drug use is an issue of increased ‘vulnerability rather than culpability.’”

The specificity of the report allows officers to approach abstract concepts, like empathy, in immediate, real-world ways, according to Busch-Armendariz. “We wanted to make the blueprint a product that was meaningful and useful,” she said.

Some signs that might indicate an individual is lying about being the victim of a crime — if their story changes between retellings, or if they can’t remember key details, for example — must be reinterpreted in the context of assault, she added.

“Trauma victims often omit, exaggerate, or make up information when trying to make sense of what happened to them or to fill gaps in memory,” the report reads. “This does not mean the sexual assault did not occur.”

The eight academic institutions in the UT System have unique cultures — and unique prevailing beliefs about assault — but some misunderstandings about rape are widespread nationally, Heidingsfield said. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education launched a federal investigation into UT Pan American (which has since been merged into UT Rio Grande Valley) and 54 other colleges over their handling of sexual abuse complaints.

The report acts as sort of a primer about the reality and impact of sexual assault, addressing a number of “common rape myths” as well as concepts such as victim blaming.

“If a girl is raped while drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control,” reads the first entry on the myth list. Other items include “if a guy is drunk, he might rape someone unintentionally” and “a lot of times, girls who say they were raped agreed to have sex and then regret it.”

After adapting their perceptions based on the reality of assault, police officers are encouraged to adopt policies that are “victim-centered, science-based, and trauma-informed,” Heidingsfield said.

Another dominant theme of the report is victim behavior after an incident of assault. Although officers might expect survivors to be hysterical or crying, they are often “in shock and passive, quiet, and unemotional,” the report reads.

“The crown jewel to this research effort for us is that we now have the science to understand neurobiology, and victimology, to apply that to how victims present themselves to police officers,” Heidingsfield said. This “allows us to push tradition to the side and now understand why victims say what they do.”

Although the report outlines best practices for dealing with survivors of sexual assault, researchers did not actually interview survivors in the process of conducting their study. Instead, they relied on 27 interviews with campus presidents and police officers, among others.

The report’s authors did employ previously collected data from survivors in other institute studies, Busch-Armendariz said.

“The retelling of incidents wasn’t really necessary for the data they’re collecting, and they had the information they needed,” said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a UT System spokeswoman. The researchers did not want to “reopen real emotional wounds,” she added.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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