Society often puts the blame on the victims of sexual assault and doesn’t treat rape as seriously and sensitively as it should, says Jennifer Bain, co-executive director of Bozeman’s domestic abuse shelter and victim advocacy group, HAVEN. This is known as “rape culture” and is perpetuated by the the way people speak to victims and talk about the issue of sexual assault.
HAVEN legal advocate Ashley Livers says that this culture makes it difficult for victims to come forward, and also makes sexual assault one of the most difficult and sensitive crimes to investigate.
Bozeman High School resource officers receive copious amounts of training on dealing with sexual assault, participating in weekly meetings with a Sexual Assault Response Team and discussing the best ways to help victims. When a sexual assault is reported through the school (more commonly, reports are made off-campus), resource officers Mark Van Slyke and Nate Gaukler say they make it clear that the course of action taken is ultimately up to the victim.
“We ask them what they would like to do. We tell them that it’s 100 percent up to them. We try to make it as stress free as possible just to make sure that they’re comfortable and reassure them that they did nothing wrong and answer all their questions,” explains Slyke.
A source who reported a sexual assault as a student at BHS, and who wishes to remain anonymous, says the resource officers were “awesome, very understanding and very willing to do whatever it took to further my case. They had a really good handle on reassuring me and being like ‘it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, everyone has a right to not be assaulted.’”
Principal Kevin Conwell says that the administration works hard to make sure students involved in these situations are treated with fairness and sensitivity.
“It’s been my experience that everyone [understands] that a sexual assault is obviously a very serious and personal matter and are going to treat it with the utmost sensitivity and care and compassion,” says Conwell.
For the anonymous source, the process became rocky once a formal report was filed in the school and someone from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department (not affiliated with BHS) was called in. While the school administration is not specifically trained to deal with these scenarios, the sheriff’s department does have training on how to deal with sexual assault victims, which they feel is reflected in their investigations. The source disagreed.
“[They] had a lot of questions that weren’t necessarily supportive or made me feel like it wasn’t my fault,” said the source. “Everything that is talked about in terms of rape culture happened. It definitely made me question whether or not I was warranted in even reporting and whether or not it was a big enough deal to even be a report.”
For example, the source says they were asked what they were wearing at the time of the assault.
“It was very upsetting and almost degrading,” said the source.
A representative of the sheriff’s department says that asking victims about clothing helps them to make search warrants and classify evidence, but that the victims “probably don’t get that explained to them” before they are questioned.
“We try and get as much evidence and information as possible so we are not going back over and over, making them relive this horrible experience. We’re not trying to be rude or insensitive,” the officer explained.
The source also says that the sheriff who was called in told the victim they felt the attacker was “admirable” for being so cooperative and admitting they felt “very bad.”
“Even if you’re going to think that, that’s never ever ever an acceptable thing to say to the person,” says the source. “Even when the sheriff [said that], the other resource officer was sitting in the room with me [and seemed very uncomfortable]. I just felt so powerless, like I didn’t want to say anything, and I just started tearing up. He looked at me and was like ‘does that upset you?’ It’s hard when you’re in that situation and really vulnerable to say ‘you’re not treating [me well],’” the source says, adding, “I didn’t know what to say.”
Bain confirms many victims feel this way because their vulnerable positions make it hard to stand up to authority figures who aren’t supportive, but adds that it is the police’s job to look for facts, not provide a support system–which could land the officer in legal trouble.
When asked about the incident, the sheriff’s representative said that while he could not comment on the specifics of any case, they “don’t tell victims that” because it wouldn’t be appropriate.
Blackwood and Van Slyke say another thing that prevents victims from reporting sexual assault is the fear of repercussions, especially when alcohol is involved.
“No one’s ever going to report sexual assault if they know they’re going to get in trouble,” agrees the source, who was asked about why and how much they had been drinking when they reported the incident.
Advocate Livers says that asking “why” questions is essentially questioning the reason a victim was doing something, like drinking, which perpetuates the notion that what the victim was doing is more important than the fact that they were assaulted.
Van Slyke passionately makes it clear that having alcohol involved does not make sexual assault a victim’s fault and says that, from a police perspective, alcohol use is a non-issue.
“We will ask if there was drugs and alcohol, but they’re not going to get charged with a crime at all. We would never charge a victim,” says Van Slyke. “If they are drunk or high we do not care about that: everything is confidential between law enforcement and the victim.”
In this particular incident, however, a school official happened to be in on the source’s meeting with law enforcement (the official says they were asked to sit in; the source says this is untrue). While the source says the understood the questions regarding alcohol were not malicious and were asked because both parties were underage, they say that admitting they had been drinking in the presence of school staff put them at risk of being kicked out of their activity.
School officials dispute this account, and say that while the administration has an obligation to report any underage alcohol use, the school has never penalized a victim of sexual assault because there was alcohol involved.
But a coach who was involved confirmed that the school was looking to pursue consequences for the student’s (and others’) underage drinking and that they were informed that they might lose “some participants.”
“I expressed shock that there would even be question as to how to interpret the rules in that case [because it was in the context of a sexual assault],” explained the coach.
The source confirms that in the end however, they were not ultimately removed from their activity. According to both the coach and the source, this incident changed and clarified the school’s position on alcohol use and sexual assault: a student who wishes to report an assault can be assured they will not be in trouble with the school if alcohol was involved.
After the incident, when the source wanted to rearrange classes to avoid the perpetrator, they were told they needed to file a formal report to begin the process. This resulted in the student missing a week and a half of school before finals; the source says they were not told why the process was so lengthy or given updates on how it was progressing.
Assistant Principal Katie Laslovich says that the reason delays sometimes happen in these cases is because the administration is obligated to follow due process for both parties. Laslovich adds that sometimes students don’t report right away, and that they cannot act on information they don’t have.
In addition to the challenges presented by the reporting process, the source says that lack of understanding about consent made things even worse. The source says their attacker claimed the incident “was an accident” and they didn’t know they were in the wrong.
After going through the process, the source believes their experience confirms that the idea of “rape culture” is alive and well and that many people, even well-meaning ones, don’t know how to deal with victims in a way that is supportive and makes them feel safe in reporting.
“The resource officers were awesome but everyone else just didn’t really know how to address the issue or talk to someone who has been through this issue… even just in the way they said things and the tone everyone said things in made it feel like a hostile environment,” the source said.
But while reporting is difficult, the source and others agree it is the only way for students who have experienced a sexual assault to start healing and empowering themselves while getting the help they need.
“Reporting gave me some power back in a situation where I didn’t have a lot of power,” said the source. “Even though it didn’t go the way I wanted it to, It still felt reassuring to talk about it and say: ‘It’s not OK.’”
Help center number (406)-586-3333 and the voice center are available as resources and the counseling office