While a full-time staff member at a university, I experienced a sexual assault during a work trip for the school. Shocked and broken, I reported the incident via email to my supervisor and department head within a few hours of the attack. Upon reporting the assault to my supervisor, the initial response I got was the opposite of supportive. He made light of the situation and told me that I should receive a “Medal of Bravery for beating off an assailant,” and that he was glad to know that I’m “tough.”
For anyone who has experienced any assault, let alone a sexual assault, you know this is not an appropriate response in any way, shape or form. My supervisor didn’t ask how he might be able to help, nor did he offer any available university resources. When I returned from the work trip, I was sent to “officially” report the assault to human resources (HR).
During my brief meeting with HR, the only support I received was a counseling brochure. As I left that meeting, it became clear that the need for me to report the incident was so that the institution could “check me off” as a liability concern.
With the exception of a few supportive colleagues, I didn’t feel that the college administration genuinely cared what had happened to me, despite the fact that it happened on the job. In the days and weeks following the incident, not only did no one check in with me to see how I was responding to the situation, but there was no accountability in regards to the inappropriate response I received from my supervisor that made light of the sexual assault.
HR was made aware of his inappropriate remarks, and I was informed in a closed door meeting that my supervisor was a part of the “boys club” at the university. Because of his status in the “boys club,” I was told that HR’s ability to hold him accountable would be limited. I knew from the moment that HR told me they couldn’t do their job because someone was a part of a “boys club,” that the college was an institution I couldn’t work for, morally or ethically.
Not surprisingly, I began job searching in the aftermath of this incident. As I was coping with the personal shock of the incident, the institution, who should have been my biggest ally, pushed me out the door.
How could I continue to report to a man who should have been supportive, but turned out to be undermining and oblivious? Every day that I went to work following the incident, I was consistently reminded of what happened to me, and how the administration handled it. And every time I would see my supervisor, I was reminded that he wasn’t held accountable for the way he mishandled the most tragic thing that had ever happened to me. As someone who’s naturally optimistic, it tore into my spirit to feel helpless in an unjust environment. After accepting a position at a different institution, I left the university.
This is the first time I’m sharing my story publicly. I feared the thought of speaking up because, as anyone who has experienced a sexual assault can relate, there’s a possibility of retaliation and the situation backfiring. Media and administrators often belittle sexual assault and prefer to sweep it under the carpet as an uncomfortable and unwanted discussion topic. Or, more often than not, people who share sexual assault experiences publicly are accused of fabricating their experiences.
In a culture where that’s the reality, how can anyone who’s experienced such a harmful event be expected to feel safe and confident sharing their story? It can also be painful to bring such recollections and memories to light.
Colleges like the one I worked for need to know that the way they manage and support their students and staff who experience sexual assault is flawed. By refusing to acknowledge that sexual assaults are happening, and by not implementing purposeful programs and policies to deal with such traumatizing assaults, the college administration needs to know that it is psychologically and emotionally hurting those affected. With that in mind, I’m adding my voice to the chorus on this issue in the hopes that the college will take responsibility for its actions (and lack thereof) and implement a plan to prevent sexual assaults on and off campus, better support its community members who are victim and hold its staff accountable who participate in the belittling of such experiences. It’s well overdue.
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