Why there are no rape kits at the George Washington University

Last December, students at the George Washington University made a disturbing discovery: Rape kits—the medical and forensic exam performed on a victim following a sexual assault—are not available on GW's campus. According to a study released by the Younger Women's Task Force that month, 62 percent of GW undergraduate and graduate students were under the impression that the school's student health center was capable of administering the exams (it's not). Eighty-nine percent of students thought they could find the kits at the adjacent—but unaffiliated—George Washington University Hospital (they can't).

Since the study broke, campus activists and journalists have rallied to reconcile those numbers by demanding that forensic exams become "immediately" accessible to GW students.

On March 8, a coalition of campus activists groups launched a campaign to "demand rape kits" at GW. At a Foggy Bottom vigil, students lit university-sanctioned electric candles and testified about the administration's lack of attention to the issue. "Given that we are on a university campus, at an age when people disproportionately report experiencing rape or attempted rape, we feel that this is something that should be a priority," says 22-year-old senior Rory Gerberg, who organized the vigil with student group GW Amnesty International. In an editorial on the subject in student newspaper the GW Hatchet, editors called the lack of rape kits on campus "a blatant disregard for student safety" and argued that GW students "deserve change immediately.”

Making sexual assault examinations more accessible to GW students is a worthy cause. But immediacy isn't exactly a reasonable time frame for arranging the complex network of services deployed when a rape kit is requested in the District of Columbia. Collecting evidence from a victim of rape requires the sophisticated coordination of highly trained forensic nurses, police officers, rape crisis counselors, hospital personnel, and local and federal governments. No District college currently provides those services; most D.C. hospitals lack them, too. By design, D.C.'s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program is hosted exclusively at the Washington Hospital Center, which receives federal funding for the program in exchange for successfully coordinating those services in full compliance with standards set by the Violence Against Women Act [PDF].

In light of the logistical barriers, some student activists have downgraded their expectations for university action. "We know this is not something that the school can necessarily fix right away," admits Emily Rasowsky, president of GW Students Against Sexual Assault, a student group that has lent support to the campaign. "The first step is to say, 'Hey, here’s what we want to do. Back us up.'"

The George Washington University says it "has met with" student activists "and will continue to meet with them" about the prospect of bringing rape kits to GW. But so far, the school's public statements on the rape kit issue have skirted student demands. "Obviously, the campaign itself is demanding something that we realize is a pretty large request," admits Gerberg. "But if there is a legitimate reason GW does not have this program, they have not made it public," Gerberg says. "We're left to believe it’s just not a priority for the university or the hospital."

When asked why the university does not provide rape kits,{}Michelle Sherrard, director of media relations for the university, told me this: “As you probably know, the Washington Hospital Center has been designated by the District of Columbia to distribute rape kits as part of its SANE program." In a statement, GW Hospital provided the same justification, explaining that the "city awarded grant funding to the Washington Hospital Center for the SANE program," and that victims interested in pressing charges should "have the evidence collected by the SANE nurse at The Washington Hospital Center as soon after the incident as possible."

Absent from these accounts is exactly how rape kit funding happened to come to the Washington Hospital Center. When the SANE program first secured funding a decade ago, D.C. Rape Crisis Center director Denise Snyder told me in an interview that she struggled to find any local hospital willing to host the program. Some District hospitals failed to return her calls; others voiced “economic concerns about how much of a drain it would be.” And “one hospital’s response literally was, ‘We don’t want to be the rape hospital.’” Though Howard University Hospital ultimately agreed to host the program, it decided to terminate its participation in 2008. That gave local hospitals another shot at the funding. Snyder says few bit. According to minutes from one SANE meeting on the issue, GW Hospital was said to be "historically resistant to providing [sexual assault] services outside the university community."

According to Pollitt Hill, the Washington Hospital Center program has now "tapped out all the federal funds available to support the current SANE program" in D.C. But the city is currently "working towards expanding services to additional District hospital locations in the future," if it can manage to scare up "the staff or funds" to do so. That means that an institution like the George Washington University Hospital could very well bring rape kits to Foggy Bottom down the line—but only if it's willing to pay up.

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