More students seek help for sexual assault last semester

More students seek help for sexual...

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - As sexual misconduct was put into the national spotlight, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse heard from more students seeking help for sexual harassment or assault during the past fall semester.

In all of the 2016-17 school year, 51 students sought help through the student life office after some sort of sexual misconduct occurred.

In the fall semester of this school year alone, that number was already at 38 -- well on its way to surpassing the previous year.

UW-L Detective Chris Schuster explained there were only two or three sexual assaults reported to the department itself, because many students choose to turn elsewhere.

"That's one of the biggest issues is just getting to that comfort level,” he said. “I think now that more resources are put out there, it makes it easier for victims to report."

Schuster collaborates with UW-L violence prevention specialist Ingrid Peterson, who works in the student life office.

"All the publicity last fall around the #MeToo (movement) and things that are coming out with prominent people has also just brought attention to the issue and has more people thinking, 'Maybe I should come forward, too,’” she said.

Peterson's job is to offer victims resources and help if they make the choice to involve police.

"It's really difficult. This is a traumatizing crime to begin with,” she said. “If they want to do that, I make a call with them. I sit through police interviews with them. I go to court with them."

Schuster said the UW-L Police Department doors are always open for victims, and there's no pressure to press charges.

"It's great when a victim can come in and we can get evidence right up front, so we can do something with it, in case down the road, whether it's a week, two weeks or a month, the victim decides they want to pursue charges,” he said.

Peterson said while she can never know for sure whether the uptick in sexual assault reports means it's happening more or it's being reported more, she believes the culture is changing.

"Hopefully what we've reached is a point where people are feeling more free to come forward and get assistance and help and call out people who do these behaviors,” she said.

Students, staff and faculty are required to take an online course on sexual assault at UW-L.

Staff and faculty members are also required to notify the university if they know about any students being sexually assaulted, and Peterson said that's becoming more common.

Both Peterson and Detective Schuster spoke about restorative justice, which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community, for perpetrators of sexual misconduct that may not be criminal but still isn't OK.

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