Despite its cold and snowy winters, Missoula, Montana may seem like your average college town. But, this seemingly normal place has a major issue. Rape and sexual harassment is a huge problem in our society, especially at Missoula’s University of Montana. What may be just as troubling as how common these crimes are on this campus, is how often victims are treated unfairly when they report to the police, or take the case to court. As described by Jon Krakauer in his book, Missoula, victims are often disrespected, and perpetrators get away with the crime way too often. At the University of Montana and too many other places, properly handled rape and sexual harassment cases are few and far between.
The system is broken, and it needs to be fixed. Victims of rape and sexual harassment are suffering. They have just experienced significant physical and psychological harm. Justice systems around the country rarely do anything to help. Thankfully, this can be fixed. We have great models of how to handle this issue on campuses.
My aunt, Col. Elena Oberg worked at the United States Air Force Academy from 2010 to 2012. With her experience and knowledge of how the Air Force handles sexual harassment and assault cases, she believes, “universities would be wise to implement a system similar to the Air Force.”
According to RAINN, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 23.1% of undergraduate females experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. Considering how many women are undergraduates at universities, that is a huge number. The Air Force Academy is not immune to this. They too occasionally have issues among their cadets. But, what’s different is how they handle those issues.
“In approximately 2005/2006,” Oberg explained, “the Air Force established a team at every base made up of a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and Victim Advocates who supported sexual assault victims, provided counseling, helped victims navigate any needed medical care and supported them through any investigation and subsequent legal action. They also educated commanders and senior enlisted personnel on how they could support and care for sexual assault victims.”
This alone is so much more than the University of Montana provided for any of the victims described by Krakauer. There were never any advocates to support these people through the process. They were completely alone, and because of this the prosecution process often was almost as traumatizing as the original event.
According to RAINN, only 20% of female student victims, aged 18-24, report to law enforcement. This is because most sexual violence crimes are committed by acquaintances to the victim. Despite being very damaged by the crime, the victim may not want to report because of the implications for their friend. They may feel like they somehow caused what happened. Maybe it was their fault for getting drunk. Or, they had originally planned on having sex but then changed their mind, and didn’t clearly enough withdrawal consent. It is very common for the victim to feel guilty for what happened.
Oberg explained to me that the Air Force Academy has a solution to this. Cadets have two different options of how to report. The first is called a restricted report. If a victim opted to make this type of report, “they received counselling and medical care. However, no investigative organization was notified, so no investigation is done.” This is an optimal solution for a victim who wants to maximize privacy, or doesn’t want to send their acquaintance to prison. They still receive the psychological care that they need. The victims in Missoula never received any type of counselling, and they suffered for a long time.
This is not the type of report that is right for all victims. The Air Force Academy has a second type of report for these cadets, called an Unrestricted Report. Oberg explained, “In this case, the victim still receives support and care, but the assault is also fully investigated by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) which conducts all Air Force investigations into serious crimes.”
With this type of report, more people are made aware of the situation. From Oberg’s experience at the Air Force Academy, “Investigators, prosecutors and the entire command chain were generally very supportive of victims.” She added, “We wanted victims to report any experience they had with sexual assault. In my opinion, we took every allegation seriously and made sure complete investigations were conducted.”
If the case was taken to court, something called an Article 32 hearing was conducted. In this hearing, “Victims don’t have to testify,” Oberg explained. These victims were also “assigned their own legal council (called a Special Victim’s Counsel) to help them navigate the investigation and legal proceedings.” This is an example of how investigations should be conducted. The subject was always innocent until proven guilty, but the often emotionally-unstable victim had the support they needed through the entire process.
The Air Force Academy took further steps to support victims. “Often, a victim can have strong physical and emotional reactions to being assaulted and need some sort of accommodations.” Oberg explained that, “Commanders would work with the victim to adjust their schedule to minimize the chance that they would come in contact with the subject.” There were some examples from Krakauer’s book of victims having traumatizing experiences when coming in contact with the subject after the assault. This solution minimizes the possibility of this occurring.
Unfortunately, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment will never disappear from our society. No matter how much we teach our kids, bad things will occasionally happen. But, what we can change is how these situations are handled. Victims need support. There are great models of how to provide them with this, such as at the Air Force Academy. Places like Missoula need to find a way to implement a similar process in order to properly handle these cases.