WASHINGTON - As Congress and institutions of higher education look at how to reduce sexual violence on campuses, a program pioneered in Oregon is being held up as a model for helping victims and increasing the likelihood that they will report such attacks.
Experts on the issue and lawmakers at a Senate Judiciary panel hearing Tuesday praised the "You Have Options" program of the Ashland, Ore., police and Southern Oregon University officials for their joint effort to address campus sexual assaults.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) called the Ashland approach a model.
Ashland police encourage sexual-assault victims to report in any manner they wish, including anonymously. The victims also may dictate the pace and scope of the investigation and can suspend it at any time, said Angela Fleischer, a mental-health social worker who helped police set up the program.
Fleischer, Southern Oregon University's assistant director of student support and intervention for confidential advising, said the program gives assault victims information through confidential advisers who are trained in how to speak with people who have suffered trauma.
"We must provide survivors of campus sexual assault with options for reporting to police that are beneficial to both law enforcement and survivors," Gillibrand said. "This will encourage more survivors to come forward to pursue justice, and ultimately lead to more cooperative witnesses and better information to send to district attorneys to prosecute."
She said the discredited Rolling Stone story about a campus gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity two years ago could harm efforts to support rape victims.
"Clearly we don't know the facts of what did or didn't happen in this case," she said. "But these facts have not changed: UVA has admitted they have allowed students who confessed to sexually assaulting another student to remain on campus. That is and remains shocking."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) said the magazine story was "bad journalism" and "a setback for rape survivors."
"This is not a crime with rampant false reporting. It's underreported," she said. "Our problem is victims are too frightened to come forward."
McCaskill and Gillibrand have been outspoken about dealing better with sexual assaults. Along with other senators, they have been working on legislation that would change the ways colleges are required to handle sexual-assault cases.