Sexual assault a major problem for colleges across nation

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Editor’s note: The following story was written with the victim’s permission. 

A prescription drug left Utah State student Tanisha McOmber in an ill stupor, unable to move, when a long-time friend came to her Logan apartment to help her to bed.

“I remember a really sharp pain, so I screamed, and all that brought me out of the drug-induced stupor I was in,” McOmber said.

Waking up, she turned to the man she had once trusted. “You just raped me.”

“He didn’t think I would wake up and was upset that I even confronted him,” McOmber said. “He said ‘if you get pregnant, just go and get an abortion.’”

Tanisha McOmber poses with her younger sister while traveling through London. McOmber was sexually assualted. (Tanisha McOmber)
Tanisha McOmber, on right, poses with her younger sister while traveling in London. (Tanisha McOmber)

Feeling “dirty” and “broken,” she bathed. The impact of the event didn’t hit her until the drugs started wearing off. Sobbing, she went to the emergency room to get medical attention.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, McOmber was hurting not only physically, but spiritually. She had been violated in a way that would alter her most basic perceptions of the world as a safe place, and men as friends and protectors.

Her case didn’t go to court for another three years, during which time she served a mission for the church in Texas. McOmber explained the emotional distress she experienced, and still faces, after being sexually assaulted. “I had to go home to testify while I was on my mission,” she said. “I was never emotionally able to get over everything, I would melt down if a guy I didn’t know touched me, or was even forward. I was terrified.”

According to McOmber, she was told that she would have to come home from her mission for trial but the case didn’t actually go to court until a year after she came home from her mission. Over the 18-month period, she talked with her attorney multiple times.

While the attacker was convicted, McOmber was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a chronic disease still affecting her.

McOmber was studying at Utah State University in Logan during the time of her the first sexual assault. Her experience was one of five recorded forcible sex offenses filed in the school’s annual safety and security report in 2011.

Sexual assault is a longtime problem on college campuses throughout the nation. Similar to McOmber’s story, one in five women are sexually assaulted while attending a university and up to 80 percent of the time the victim is well-acquainted with the attacker, according to “Encyclopedia of Sexual Offense in Law.”

Under the Clery Act, all colleges are required to submit an annual safety report — which includes the number of forcible sex offenses reported to the university — to the Education Department. Such sex offenses include forcible rape, forcible sodomy, forcible fondling and sexual assault with an object. There are nine universities in Utah that submit this annual report.

BYU’s most recent security report states that a total of 21 forcible sex offenses have been reported from 2013–2014; rape accounted for one of those instances and instances of fondling accounted for all others. Some of those numbers come from a case commonly referred to as the “BYU groper.” According to the same report, BYU does not categorize forcible sex offenses any differently than the definition provided by the FBI’s definition, filed in their National Incident–based reporting system which states that forcible rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object and forcible fondling are all reported under forcible sex offenses.

(Jessica Olsen)

The numbers recorded in this annual report are a combination of offenses reported to each collegiate police department and other on-campus services, such as counseling and women’s services. Anything that goes unreported also goes unrecorded.

Sgt. Elle Martin, the sergeant over Crime Prevention at BYU, said the report “is what it is,” but that many sex offenses go unreported.

“We know things are happening on campus, but (students) are not coming forth,” Martin said. “It’s heartbreaking and I want that to change so bad.”

Lauren Barnes, an assistant clinical professor and a marriage and family therapist at BYU, also expressed skepticism regarding BYU’s annual safety report.

“I don’t think all offenses are reported, judging by the school police reports,” Barnes said.

Over the span of about seven years working as a therapist, Barnes has helped students report sex offenses to the university from her personal office and helped other students try to recover from the after effects. Barnes stated that the aftermath of forcible sex offenses often includes traumatic emotional and physical damages, including “PTSD-related damages.”

Barnes said that above and beyond the memory of such an event, the human body has its own mechanism for remembering traumatic events, and will have automatic reactions in certain circumstances like “being alone in a room with a man.” A fear of, and physical reaction to such situations is a common manifestation of trauma after a sexual assault.

According to Barnes, other therapists have also helped students report forcible sex offenses from their office, but some students don’t feel comfortable reporting the crime to a higher authority. “They’re usually pretty hesitant because they think they’ll get in trouble with the Honor Code Office,” Barnes said.

Barnes referred to BYU’s conservative culture as an “interesting phenomenon,” which might relate directly to how people treat sex offenses on campus.

“I’m sure it is safer than many other schools, but I think the culture added to cictims’ intense shame might make it more difficult for students and other employees to be completely honest,” Barnes said. “They need a safe place to tell their story.”

Yet, BYU was ranked as the safest campus in the U.S., according to an article published by Business Insider on Jan. 12.

McOmber, who has family attending BYU, believes there is a “perpetuating idea that rape isn’t as common as people think” because “they expect their kids to hold a high moral standard.”

Tanisha McOmber (right) poses as a missionary for the LDS Church. While McOmber was serving in the Texas Houston East mission, she was also coordinating with Utah courts to convict the perpetrator of her sexual assault. (Tanisha McOmber)

Although McOmber didn’t blame church teachings, she attributed some of her emotional struggles and some of BYU’s cultural environment around the topic of sexual assault to lessons taught in the LDS Church’s Young Women organization, such as the idea of an unwanted, licked lollipop. The analogy is commonly used to describe a woman who has been involved in any form of sexual activity before marriage. “There’s a focus on fear instead of faith,” around such issues at BYU, she said, noting that about 95 percent of all enrolled students are members of the LDS Church.

There are seven crimes that are classified as index crimes, or higher profile crimes, including murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny (theft) and motor vehicle theft. According to the annual Crime in Utah Report, more than 92,000 index crimes were committed in 2013, signifying a 2.6 percent increase since 2012. More than 2,900 forcible sex offenses were reported in 2013. Their most recent report indicates almost 88,000 index crimes were reported, which was a five percent decrease. However, rape increased by almost eight percent. Utah isn’t the only state to see such an increase.

Earlier in his second term, President Barack Obama took note that forcible sex offenses were increasing, specifically near universities, so the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was established on Jan. 22, 2014. Four months later, the group released a 20-page-report outlying the program’s initiative with a mandate to “strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to help combat sexual assault on their campuses,” which includes exploring legislative and administrative options to “require schools to conduct a survey in 2016.” The Department of Education further clarified that on-campus counselors are able to maintain confidentiality.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert showed Utahns that Obama isn’t the only one fighting for this cause. The Republican leader signed a bill that became effective May 12, 2015, clarifying how the state defines “consent” in a sexual context. The new definition comes closer to the definition used by the FBI. Specific language defining the terms used by reporting agencies has given clarity to many of these safety reports; some even separate forcible sex offenses into several categories.

Similar to McOmber’s experience, many forcible sex offenses are committed by someone the victim knows and trusts. “Our reports aren’t stranger rapes, like when someone breaks in; it happens with someone they know,” USU Police Captain Steve Milne said. “They decide to go on a date and then they get in a one-on-one situation with someone and things go downhill.”

After her first sexual assault, McOmber reported the crime to the university. Since the effects of her experience inflicted so much trauma, she wasn’t able to finish the semester. McOmber didn’t think the school would reimburse her tuition, but the school’s assistance program designed to help victims of violence helped do just that. “They did a phenomenal job after I was raped and reported it,” McOmber said.

USU’s Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information service, SAAVI, provides advocacy, confidential counseling and information to students who have questions about sex offenses. According to Milne, they also help students sort out arrangements with their professors and assist victims in dealing with the emotional after effects of sexual trauma.

According to Milne, most cases go through services like SAAVI; many victims actually choose not to speak with law enforcement.

Regardless of how sex offenses are reported on the BYU campus, Barnes believes the university does a good job of providing preventive tools and services to help those in need.

BYU’s Women’s Services and Resources offers one-on-one consultations, distressed walk-ins and many other services to help those who have been sexually assaulted or abused. However, licensed clinicians are not employed at the Women’s Services and Resources; those employed are typically undergraduate students. The BYU Comprehensive Clinic located in the Taylor Building and the Counseling Center located in the basement of the Wilkinson center both employ licensed clinicians trained to work with trauma victims. The BYU Counseling Center offers a 24-hour confidential crisis hotline for full-time students and employees.

Pam Smith of BYU's Women's Services & Resources poses in front of her office in the Wilkinson Center.
Pam Smith is the manager of, BYU’s Women’s Services & Resources office, which advises women who have been sexually assaulted.(Universe photo)

Provo residents Taylor Rippy Monson and Taylor Jarman created an organization called “Honey” as a website “dedicated to stopping the silence on the subject of sexual assault,” according to the website‘s homepage. “We seek to change the public attitude through victim advocacy, education, media campaigns, community activism and truth telling.”

Monson and Jarman began their relationship as pen pals emailing back and forth while Monson lived in Hawaii and Jarman lived in Washington. They met up in Provo, and their email relationship transformed into a real-life friendship. They eventually confided in each other and discussed personal experiences involving sexual assault. Honey was created soon after.

Many women are beginning to speak up through organizations like Honey and BYU’s Women’s Services and Resources, where they receive support and validation.

“A large indication that someone is healing from the effects of rape, is when they are willing to talk about it and can feel that the experience is validated,” Barnes noted.

Martin explained that some are scared to give their perpetrator’s name, but she encourages students to report the assault even without the name. “It’s one step forward in the healing process,” she said.

McOmber, who “was never emotionally able to get over everything,” continues to deal with ramifications, but encourages people to speak up and help others facing similar struggles.

“You know somebody,” McOmber said. “Everyone knows somebody that’s been sexually assaulted. You may not know it, but you do (know someone). But if people remain voiceless, the culture will never change.”

See also BYU’s sexual misconduct policies scrutinized; online petition gaining steam by Whitney Hales. 

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