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March 30, 2006


“There is no difference between being raped and going headfirst through a windshield. Except afterward you are afraid not of cars but half the human race.”

—Marge Piercy, author

Did you know that, according to a National Institute of Justice study, there are 35 rapes for every 1,000 female students in a nine-month academic year? Many of those student victims never tell anyone about being sexually victimized. They struggle emotionally and academically in silence, sometimes even forfeiting financial aid monies rather than expose themselves and risk not being believed.

Perhaps one of the students who withdrew from your course last year did so after being raped. But if no one tells you, how can you possibly know if a student, female or male, has been sexually traumatized?

Possible classroom behaviors of student victims

While rape creates traumatic psychological aftereffects, these aftereffects may be manifested in the classroom in any of the following ways:

• An abrupt stop in attendance or inconsistent attendance.

• A sudden decline in class performance.

• Failure to be present for an exam or complete a written assignment (behavior not seen previously).

• Inability to make eye contact when speaking with you.

• Becoming teary or leaving the classroom when sexual victimization and violence are discussed.

• Appearing unusually tired in class due to difficulty sleeping caused by nightmares, fears and sleep disturbance.

• A change in mood and appearance.

• An inability to focus in class.

Of course, these behaviors might not result from sexual trauma. How can the faculty member know what, if anything, has happened?

If you suspect that a student is having difficulty coping, approach the student and gently ask how she or he is faring. With a concerned but not a direct, inquisitive approach, you are allowing the student to choose or refrain from disclosing a possible rape or some other problem. If there is a disclosure of some sort, refer the student to the Counseling Center.

Assisting a student victim academically

As faculty and staff members at Pitt, there may be occasions when a student will come forward and disclose to you that she or he has been raped. What do you say to that student? It is not uncommon for the recipient of such information to feel uncomfortable and struggle with a response. Following are some guidelines to keep in mind when responding to a victim of a recent rape:

• Listen. Let the student express her or his emotions and difficulties relating to academic work.

• Acknowledge emotions and difficulties the student is facing without forcing a discussion of the incident.

• Respond nonjudgmentally.

• Assist the student with available academic options in accordance with your own classroom policies and/or your own volition.

• Encourage the student to contact Pitt’s Sexual Assault Services’ coordinator (8-7930).

• To help the student rape victim get academic assistance and avoid the difficulty of having to talk directly about the incident, Counseling Center staff sometimes write a letter explaining the student’s situation. If a student presents such a letter from a Counseling Center staff member, acknowledge the letter and explore academic options with the student.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Since 1994, Pitt has designated the first week in April as Sexual Assault Awareness Week. Throughout this week, events are held to educate the campus community about sexual assault dynamics and prevention and to increase the awareness of this issue.

Events planned for March 31-April 7 include a Rock Against Rape concert; a showing of “Bully” followed by a discussion; a self-defense seminar, and a play performed by Sexual Assault Services peer educators called “Sex at 7: How to Get What You Want but Not More Than You Bargained for.” For more information, see

Mary Koch Ruiz has been Pitt’s coordinator for Sexual Assault Services since 1994. Sexual Assault Services is located in the University Counseling Center, 334 William Pitt Union.

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