Navigating a Title IX claim at the University of Michigan is practically a trade secret. It takes nightly Reddit deep dives, multiple attempts at scouring the Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office (ECRT) website and several instances of re-trauma to even begin to understand the difference between filing a civil suit, a criminal suit and a Title IX complaint, let alone which one to file. And by then, most survivors have decided that the trouble just isn’t worth it for an accusation that probably won’t even stick, as only 18% of all sexual assault cases lead to an arrest.
This is the “hellish experience” LSA alum Lorraine Furtado described as the beginning of her search for justice. After deciding against working with the police, process of elimination led Furtado to land on a Title IX complaint — one that would end up spanning an entire year and would only close after her graduation.
Furtado recalls reviewing logistics with a staff member at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) office, stating that she was “extremely grateful that someone was in (her) corner.” It was not smooth sailing from there on out. When looking back on her experience during the evidence collection process, Furtado discusses her frustrations with the lack of trauma-informed care: “The people I interacted with didn’t understand the amount of strength it takes to go through the process because (they think) you made the decision to go through with the complaint, but that choice was made for me when he did what he did. I would’ve loved to not have anything to report.”
“The process of gathering evidence is far more difficult for the survivor than the perpetrator,” Furtado continues. “I wasn’t able to properly look through my camera roll for evidence and later felt like I had failed myself. … Opening emails related to my case made me want to die and so many elements of the process were just so flattening.”
“The perpetrator had a lawyer who pulled every text, every detail from his phone and I didn’t have the financial resources to have the same done. … I really struggled with acceptable ways to display the ‘right’ amount of emotion: I had to show that I was affected, but not irrational.” Without the emotional support and legal information Furtado needed, the process became a series of re-traumatizing events and constant dread.
While Furtado accurately assessed that to “make it right would require an entire upheaval of the system,” short of a systemic upheaval, there are certainly ways to improve on the current structure of reporting at the university, and SAPAC [ is the key to unlocking an approachable process.
When asked about the legal aid SAPAC is able to provide to students, Jim McEvilly, assistant director for survivor support and advocacy at SAPAC, stated that “SAPAC tends to focus on holistic human needs while other campus resources provide more procedural options and legal aid.” The issue here is that students like Furtado have historically felt more comfortable approaching SAPAC for advice and counseling as opposed to the ECRT office, which may be able to provide more thorough legal advice. SAPAC’s inclusion in the University community through annual events like “Survivor Speak Out” and a long legacy of student involvement have built a strong trust between survivors and the SAPAC office. And now to address the lack of clarity in the legal procedure while considering students’ reliance on SAPAC’s services, it is time to consider adding a legal branch to SAPAC’s growing list of services.
McEvilly reports a fully staffed SAPAC care team with “three full-time case managers, three interns and myself” with several projects in the works, but Associate Director Anne Huhman recognizes the limited capacity of the team and their inability to take on every student’s case. The solution to this issue could very well come from the student body itself. Following SAPAC’s model of volunteer groups (which grapple with consent and relationship education, bystander intervention, survivor allyship and toxic masculinity), a student group trained in legal affairs might not be able to give specific legal advice, but they could redirect students to campus resources or the pro bono network after providing brief explanations on different legal approaches to any sexual assault case.
While a new volunteer group may help increase SAPAC’s capacity, the issue of insensitivity during the legal procedure remains. Care advocacy and survivor support are where SAPAC shines through. As was with Furtado’s case, SAPAC “honors and acknowledges the different places survivors might be in when they approach SAPAC” to provide free support throughout the Title IX process and advice in the form of “trauma-informed care, grounding techniques, coping mechanisms, academic advocacy, which could take the form of extended deadlines or ordering transcripts, and more,” McEvily says. Furtado confirmed the quality of SAPAC’s tailored approach and survivor understanding when she sat down with me to discuss her story. These services are available, but passed over by the U-M students due to a lack of communication from the University about resources offered to students.
While expanding SAPAC’s programs to make them accessible to more students would do a great deal of good, those who deal with sexual assault cases outside of SAPAC need more training as well. Although it seems obvious, every staff member involved in the Title IX process in any capacity should be required to undergo trauma-informed care training. Distrust of the legal system and its ability to provide trauma-sensitive care to survivors is a large reason for the severe underreporting of sexual assault we see on college campuses. The only way to increase reporting and get survivors the care they need is for the University to regain the student body’s trust and commit to prioritizing the physiological, emotional and physical well-being of their students.
This can be done through a combination of trauma-informed care and accountability. The multiple transgressions within the sphere of sexual misconduct in the past couple years are slowly being recognized, but the University has only just begun exploring administrative change and the longevity of these potential projects remains to be seen.
It can be so easy for a survivor to get wrapped up in guilt and shame during the exposing Title IX process. It is our collective responsibility to reform a broken, unapproachable system that expects inhuman strength in dehumanizing times. Only then will sexual assault survivors receive the respectful, caring treatment that they deserve.
Reva Lalwani is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.
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