Campus Life

Punting sexual assault response

Getting support from S^3 was harder than expected

“MIT stands with survivors of sexual assault.” How many times have I heard that in the last year? Too many to count. Every time I hear it or read it, I feel the physicalized anxiety that I carry inside me from my past abusive relationship rise to the surface. My hands begin to sweat, the lump in my throat swells, and one time I threw up in a bathroom in my dorm.

This may seem strange — after all, I should be happy the Institute is standing behind people who are raped, harassed, abused, and/or stalked.

Perhaps it is because I know it to be untrue, at least in the recent past, from experience.

You see, this past summer I went to Student Support Services (S^3) to inquire about getting academic accommodations. My ex-boyfriend had been repeatedly sexually assaulting me and harassing me, and had once escalated to physical violence. A kiss with a fist, shall we say. I thought my trouble would be over when we broke up.

But I was wrong.

I wrote my advisor an email saying I had recently been sexually assaulted. I wanted to know that I could get academic accommodations if I found I needed them because many rape victims get PTSD or other health complications. I thought this would be easy. Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act ensured me that I would not have a weird battle with the administration like so many of my friends at other schools had.

Nevertheless, I was slightly nervous that it wasn’t going to be easy — those laws supposedly protected my friends as well but, to our horror, didn’t seem to have any effect. So when my advisor suggested I go to S^3, I asked him to come along.

I am glad I did. It was a pretty strange meeting. For whatever reason, the phrase “sexual assault” seemed to terrify the dean, so rather than using it he used the euphemisms “these matters” and “these issues.” I guess he thought that if he didn’t use the phrase “sexual assault” he felt he wouldn’t be obligated to offer me a room change nor academic accommodations as he is legally required to do. Instead he offered me advice: “Just so you know, I can’t keep your confidentiality, I could get subpoenaed,” and “You should go to the VPR [Violence Prevention and Response].”

However, rather than saying it once, he said it over and over. He told me he was going to call several offices on my behalf, including the VPR staff members who I was very clearly not comfortable going to see. My advisor spoke up, trying to get the dean to leave me alone and stop badgering me, but he didn’t drop the subject.

Two days later, I got a call from a number I didn’t know. I was being informed by the same dean that it was a “conflict of interest” for me to be speaking to my advisor about “these matters” and that I was henceforth forbidden from discussing them with him. When I asked why, asking, “Are there mandatory reporting laws?” he responded, “Well, yes, but more than that, we think that it is a conflict of interest to have the person who is advising you on your classes know about this. We think you should go to the VPR for these issues. We will be contacting [advisor] and letting him know the same.”

I didn’t want to go to the VPR; it was being shoved down my throat. I wanted to speak to my advisor, which shouldn’t have been such a problem. A survivor has the right to seek support or not seek support from anyone they/she/he chooses and the school cannot legally prevent a student-survivor from speaking to a mandatory reporter, if that is what they, she or he desires. There is no “right way” to heal, despite the dean telling me, “In my experience there are ups and downs with this kind of thing and it is best to have pre-established contact with the VPR.”

At this point, I turned to the only way I had left to take some kind of control of my life: becoming a survivor-activist with survivor-activist friends. I discuss rape culture and the abuse I had suffered both at the hands of the my ex boyfriend and at the hands of the school. I study harder than I ever have, laughing at those who don’t expect great things from me.

I help my friends with their projects and articles and poured my heart and soul into becoming the hard-faced woman who stands before you somewhere in these halls, among many other such hard-faced people. It became my passion to prove that in spite of what was at best negligence by those I should have been able to trust, I could stand on my own even as the waves crashed over me, physically and emotionally. That MIT supports sexual assault survivors is, at least in my case, a lie, but I learned something more powerful — other survivors stand with survivors of sexual violence.

Happy, sad, anxious, healing, everything and nothing, sexual assault awareness month.

This account is anonymous to protect the identity of the author.

J almost 4 years ago

So I've been reading all of the articles on sexual assault at Harvard, at Dartmouth, and now at MIT. And I have to say, this one is the most difficult to read because I can't help but feel that MIT acted as they should have in this situation.

The student approaches their adviser for academic extensions for their school work following a sexual assault, so refers them to S3. S3 handles moving exams and psets, and they do not have client-patient privilege with the students and are not trained to handle sexual assault and sexual violence. This means that if a student comes to them with information on a sexual assault, they can be subpoenaed in the case a legal suite is filed against MIT or against themselves. They should not be giving any mental health advice, as they arent trained professionals. Not only that, they could be held legally liable for not reporting the sexual assault.

So the S3 dean refers the student to the VPR. For some reason, this article doesn't illuminate what the VPR is. The VPR is the Violence and Prevention Response unit at MIT, who is trained to handle this kind of situation. Their mission is to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus, sexual harassment and unhealthy relationships, and are the people on campus trained to properly handle this from a mental health and legal perspective. It is very unclear to me why the student didnt go to the VPR, and why they continued to push S3 to give them academic accommodations without talking to anyone to assess their mental health or PTSD. Frankly, I think it would have been negligent of S3 to hear that a student is going through PTSD from sexual assault and give them academic accommodations so they can continue working at the pressure cooker that is MIT.

From previous experience, MIT is very supportive of sexual assault survivors and does a lot to support them. The only caveat is that the survivor needs to be willing to work with the professionals hired to handle these situations.

Anonymous almost 4 years ago

Yes, but you don't pressure the girl to talk to VPR. You encourage her to reach out and let her know where she can get support without making it feel mandatory. I've dealt with S3 for other mental health issues. Just because I need an extension doesn't mean I need a semester off ( like the end of your comment seems to suggest). I agree the dean did need to inform her of legal obligations but it also sounds like he just wasn't comfortable and could have been more tactful. And the deans in S3 are actually supposed to know how to handle sensitive situations so they can, you know, support students...

MIT '13 Alum almost 4 years ago

First, thank you SO much for writing this article someone had to say it. MITs S3 has long been pretty useless at actually helping students the whole red-tape dependent system has to be removed asap and some drastic changes really need to be made.

This story is pretty horrifying, all the more so because I've had VERY similar experiences with S3. Granted, I went to them because I was seriously ill during finals week - which is nowhere near the kind of problem you've been dealing with, which is why Im shocked that they did this to people like you too. S3 was horribly apathetic I dragged myself to their office with serious bronchitis, I was coughing my lungs out, and all the lady could ask me was are you sure youre sick?, Really?, and then said Im sorry, but I need a medical certificate for proof, and I really cant postpone your final anyways theres nothing I can do. Whoops.

I made it a point to never again go to S3 after this. I did encounter subsequent issues at MIT, such as severe stress and depression, but, like you, I had resolved to deal with them on my own. Whats more, I made it through successfully, thanks to my friends.

My point is this: S3 is worse than useless for anything ranging from minor to major issues. The only solution they ever seem to offer anyone is to take a term (or year) off from MIT. They dont realize that most of us arent in those kinds of dire straits academically, or that unable to deal with our problems. All we need are some official academic or scheduling accommodations given the contexts of our crazy troubles. Well handle the rest after all, were MIT students. We dont need to be sent away we just need a little understanding. Thats all were asking for. Not even sympathy.

And for gods sake, MIT, dont ban us from speaking to our advisors, who are usually sane, unlike S3. Theres no way you can take away the fundamental right to seek help from anyone, from any human on earth. That is beyond wrong.

MIT, get rid of S3 and replace it with something thats actually functional and actually helps students. If you want to prevent further cases of trauma and suicide, that is.

MIT '13 Alum almost 4 years ago

Whoops. The punctuation in Comment 3 got screwed up, thanks to the HTML formatting. Sorry, guys!

Mary almost 4 years ago

And what has happened to the abusers? Is this guy doing this to others on campus and are others aware of his behavior? Has this been reported as a crime to the police?

Anonymous almost 4 years ago

There's something very important missing from this story: why did the author refuse to go to the VPR, the proper organization for handling this sort of thing? Maybe there's a real reason, but until that's explained, this whole thing reads like the author was willfully using the wrong resources and then trying to blame the system for it.

Cory almost 4 years ago

6: the author clearly states

"including the VPR staff members who I was very clearly not comfortable going to see."

Clearly, the author just didn't feel comfortable going to VPR. The author decided not to disclose why, and that's her choice. You don't have any right to expect her to tell you.

The point of the article was that, of the available resources, the one that she felt most comfortable going to, her adviser, was not available because of how fucked up S3 is.

Anonymous almost 4 years ago

Well S3 may be messed up. However a vital thing for this woman to know is that she absolutely MUST stay away from this guy forever. This is not a problem that can be solved by collaboration with him. She needs to never be around him again, and never alone with him.

So to this woman, get some decent friends to keep you away from him and keep you busy. Never be alone and tell him to get lost when other these other people are with you, and together make sure it happens. You can go to the police, you can have them start a file on him, file a report, or press charges...get a restraining order... This is extremely extremely important.

Anonymous almost 4 years ago

Bravo to commenter #3.

The support system will only work if students believe that it will make their lives better. Students seek practical help, empathetic advice, and options -- not unpleasant surprises. To S3: be professional, for God's sake.

To commenter #8: "never be alone" -- I know this advice is practical and well-intentioned, but we need to go further in order to address the dysfunctional environment. Where the hell are we, a war zone? It's every human being's right to move across public and our personal spaces freely.

MIT: Educate would-be assailants that human rights violations (rape, including non-consensual sex or whatever the legal team calls it) will carry consequences, and have the integrity to follow through.

Finally, MIT: have the guts to report stats accurately and honestly. Cover-ups and massaging the statistics are a shame and are not MIT-worthy behavior.

J.K. Herms 87 almost 4 years ago

According to the statistics published by MIT, 6 rapes are reported during an average year.

"I wrote my advisor an email saying I had recently been sexually assaulted" - would get counted as 1 more rape reported.

"[The offender] had been repeatedly sexually assaulting me" - would get counted as several (4?) more rapes reported ...

J.K. Herms 87 almost 4 years ago

"Every institution wants its campus community to report criminal incidents to law enforcement." -- U.S. Deptartment of Education.

"If you are uncertain as to whether a situation constitutes a sexual assault ... please consult with the MIT Police, a dean, or other resources to get support and information.... The MIT Police have specially trained men and women officers who investigate sexual assaults."

According to the MIT Campus Police union, the officers don't mind getting subpoenaed.

Anonymous almost 4 years ago

S3 deans are first and foremost people, too. I dont think its unreasonable for a particular dean (with their own personal life and issues) to want to help students without being dragged into a deep legal morass for doing their job. There is probably a better way to handle it, though, like finding one S3 dean who agrees to be the go-to gal (or guy) for these kinds of issues and sending people to her.

But, honestly, I would probably have done the same thing. Ive never been subpoenaed, and Id like to keep it that way. This is especially true considering the fact that there is an entire office (VPR) completely devoted to these issues. Yes, maybe in this case the student didnt feel comfortable going there, but if were going all subjective, it sounds like the dean didnt feel comfortable putting their legal status in jeopardy, either.

I doubt that very many deans wake up in the morning and say to themselves, I hope I have to deal with serious sexual assault issues today! Im sure they recognize that they may have to, but you can hardly blame them for balking when it happens. As someone in a glass house, I wont be throwing any stones.