The prosecutors for the Calhoun County District Attorney’s Office, school administrators and victims’ advocates assured victims who might be listening that help is available, and that they are ready to provide it.
“My primary concern is the safety of the victim,” JSU police investigator Sgt. Carl Preuninger said.
“I'm available if they need someone to talk to about those events if they happen to them,” said Tim King, JSU’s associate vice president for student affairs. “I just want students to talk to somebody.”
The group had gathered for the live radio discussion Thursday because of an earlier conversation in the studio between Jade Wagner — JSU’s student government president — and a radio host. In that discussion, held Sept. 22, Wagner, 21, told the host and audience that she was raped in 2012 by an acquaintance at a house on Lake Logan Martin. She also wrote an account of the incident — which she says she reported to police but which she chose not to pursue further — that has been widely circulated on Facebook.
“It was fear that made me write my story,” Wagner said to an Anniston Star reporter Wednesday. “It was fear that pushed me because I don’t want anyone else to feel this way.”
In response, local authorities and victims’ advocates came forward for Thursday’s discussion, hoping that students and others might learn how they can respond if they’ve been or become the victim of sexual abuse.
“Victims don’t have a handbook,” said Susan Shipman, executive director of 2nd Chance. “It’s a very complicated issue, and it’s a very personal issue.”
Almost 18 million American women have endured rape or attempted rape and 80 percent of those are under the age of 30, according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. And almost 3 million American men have been raped or escaped would-be rapists’ attacks.
Of the rapes that occur in the United States, just 46 percent are reported to police, according the statistics compiled by the network.
Speaking to the college audience, Trace Fleming-Smith of 2nd Chance warned college students against blaming victims for the attacks based on their clothing, their actions or their location.
“Nothing a victim does warrants rape,” Fleming-Smith said. “Rape is rape is rape, and it’s never their fault.”
The immediate response
Advocates and prosecutors emphasized that each sexual abuse case is different, but added there are general steps all victims can take to get help.
“It’s up to the survivor what they want to do,” Fleming-Smith said. “They should do whatever is best for them.”
The first step victims should take is to share what happened as soon as possible so they can get proper medical and emotional attention.
They can go to police and say they need to file a police report. Or, they can go to the hospital to get a rape kit and decide to wait to go to police, or decide not to go to police at all.
In Calhoun County, victims can go to a room at Regional Medical Center, where specially trained nurses can help victims. But any emergency room should be able to help, Fleming-Smith said.
Fleming-Smith said law enforcement officials prefer that victims wait to shower, smoke, eat or go to the bathroom before undergoing a rape exam. But victims can go to the hospital for up to 72 hours after the attack because there is still a possibility that medical officials could collect evidence, she said.
Victims also have the right to have a sexual-assault advocate with them, she said.
“It can really be overwhelming and we recommend having an advocate from 2nd Chance there,” Fleming-Smith said.
The exams are slow and can take two hours, she said.
“You want to make sure they’re treated well and they can start or stop any time they want,” Fleming Smith said.
The choice about whether to prosecute is the victim’s, said Jennifer Weems, an assistant district attorney who prosecutes sex crimes. A victim can come forward and share her story with the police and still decide not to press charges.
“They can make the prosecution decision as they go,” Weems said.
People who commit sexual crimes in Alabama can face a variety of charges, including rape, which is forcible intercourse; sodomy, which is oral or anal intercourse; and sexual abuse, which is inappropriate touching.
Convicting offenders for sexual crimes can be difficult, but it happens, Weems said.
The cases are challenging because sexual crimes often occur in isolation where there are no witnesses, she said. Still, forensic evidence, such as DNA found on clothes and other items, can help prosecutors secure guilty verdicts.
So can multiple victims, Weems said. When one victim speaks out against a perpetrator other victims sometimes surface, as has happened in highly publicized cases.
Weems’ boss, Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh, said whether or not a victim comes forward is a personal choice. Sex offenders are likely to repeat their crimes and when victims come forward the perpetrators are less likely to hurt other people, he said.
McVeigh said one of the most important things a victim can do is to come forward. But, he said, prosecution isn’t a victim’s only option or the only reason they should share their stories.
“Just because you don’t want to go through the legal system, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek counseling,” McVeigh said.
Shipman’s and Fleming-Smith’s group, 2nd Chance, is a Calhoun County organization that provides shelter and support to victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. The group also works to educate the community and to end sexual and domestic violence.
The group offers a 24-hour crisis hotline, shelter, food, clothing, legal support, counseling, support groups and transportation to individuals suffering from sexual abuse or domestic violence. For the community, 2nd Chance provides court advocacy and support, counseling, public awareness education, training, support groups and provides representatives who accompany victims to doctors’ offices. The group’s services are free.
Jacksonville State University, meanwhile, offers counseling services to students and the school’s counselors assist sexual assault survivors.
Victims at public colleges and universities can also report abuse to their schools, which are required by law to investigate such cases. At JSU that responsibility falls to King.
“I’m an alternative,” King said, adding that he can help students through the investigation process.
Perpetrators who work for or attend the university can face a range of punishments for sexual abuse, up to and including expulsion from campus.
2nd Chance’s local crisis line is 256-236-7233 and the 2nd Chance daily office number is 256-236-7381.
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.