By Phillip Wozniak
Across the United States, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses. Sexual assault is an attack against the humanity and dignity of an individual, forcibly reducing a human being to an object of sexual gratification. The victims of sexual assault face many challenges, including psychological trauma, depression, exposure to disease, physical injury from the assault, pregnancy and perhaps most damaging, a prevailing sense of shame. It is a serious crime with lasting effects. Unfortunately, it is chronically underreported, leaving offenders free from consequences and able to re-offend. Furthermore, it is often perpetrated by acquaintances of the victim, adding feelings of betrayal and a sincere desire not to hurt the offender by reporting the crime.
In the fight against sexual assault, the University of Dallas can still do more. The university’s recent policy change is a welcome one, making an excellent step in the right direction; however, it lacks immediacy. The hours lost between the initial report and the beginning of an investigation are crucial. Due to federal regulations, the university does have the authority to contact law enforcement on behalf of the victim. As it currently stands, upon receiving a report of sexual assault, the Office of Student Life, Campus Safety, and the Title IX coordinator are quickly notified. The victim then receives an open invitation to pursue an investigation through the Office of Student Life and local law enforcement. Unfortunately, such time delays between receiving the report and commencing an investigation greatly reduce the number of options available to the victim for prosecuting the assailant. Evidence needs to be collected by law enforcement as quickly as possible in order to avoid a “he-said, she-said” situation. Law enforcement possesses forensic resources that are simply beyond the capabilities of any university; however, these resources cannot be brought to bear if law enforcement is never called.
We as a community have an obligation to provide victims of sexual assault with every possible resource for help. As soon as a sexual assault is reported on our campus, day or night, the victim should have access to a professional rape crisis counselor. The university can and should employ such a counselor in an on-call capacity. Furthermore, the university should encourage victims to call the police immediately. Sexual assault, under Texas law, is a felony of the second degree. Aggravated sexual assault, which can include the use of a weapon or date rape drug, is a felony of the first degree — both crimes are punishable by years in prison. Texas law rightfully treats sexual assault as a serious offense. It is absolutely critical that law enforcement take the lead in investigating sexual assaults on our campus. If a murder were to occur on the Mall, would we simply call maintenance to pick up the body and ask the math department to conduct our investigation? No, for so severe a crime, we would call the police. Victims should request that the crime committed against them be investigated in the same way.
By not involving the authorities, perpetrators are left free to re-offend time and time again. A staggering number of young women are sexually assaulted on college campuses. I do not believe that there are staggering numbers of male assailants; rather, there is a small number of perpetrators willing to habitually take advantage of women and use their association with them to avoid prosecution and consequences. The pattern will repeat itself until an offender is stopped.
Law enforcement response to reports of sexual assault is imperative, not only to obtain justice for the victim, but also to prevent more students from becoming victims. A police response brings medical care for the victim, timely collection of evidence and interviews with witnesses. Most importantly, it holds perpetrators accountable and prevents re-offending. Law enforcement professionals undergo months, if not years, of training to properly interview victims and witnesses and investigate these crimes. The victim of a sexual assault is the victim of a crime, not an incident or an indiscretion. As such, our community must respond accordingly, with compassion for the victim and justice for the perpetrators. The justice system can work for us, but it must be given the chance.
I would like to thank my brother, Austin Wozniak, a former Dallas police officer, for his invaluable help with this piece.