Rape in College: What Parents Need to Know

“I received a call from my daughter on Saturday afternoon. One of her high school friends had suffered a rape in college in California,” a Grown and Flown reader wrote to us. “It was not a student from the campus – she was not drugged, nor was she drunk. She met for a date and was assaulted and raped. At 4 am the phone calls to all of the high school friends began.

The girls are at colleges all over the country. These are smart, good girls. They all discussed what to do. The girl was worried about telling her mom and dad. Finally, about 10 hours later, my daughter called me to ask what they should do. Besides being completely heartbroken, I was horrified that our girls did not know what to do if they were victims of sexual assault or rape in college. Girls and boys should know how to help someone in this situation. I realized that I had all the safety conversations with my daughter – but never this conversation.”What parents need to know about rape in college

These words, sent to us this month, stopped me in my tracks. Sexual assault on college campuses is a very real, and until recently, a somewhat hidden problem. It is often hidden from parents, the police and school authorities as so many victims are reluctant to report the crime. But sexual assaults or rapes in college are not a secret and, as in this very painful story from one of our readers, friends or roommates may be the first and only people who know that a crime has occurred.

A report by the Department of Justice indicates that, “…about two-thirds of the victims tell someone, often a friend (but usually not a family member or college official).” So the situation posed by our reader, that your student calls from school to say they need advice for friend who has been the victim of sexual assault or rape in college, or that they themselves have been a victim, is one that parents should know how to face and what to advise.

I have two sons in college now and if either called me as this young woman did her mother, asking me how to care for a friend, I would not have known where to begin. What should a parent suggest? Call 911, the victim’s gynecologist, resident advisor or the campus health center? Tell the town police right away, or the campus police right away, or not? Take the victim to the local ER immediately or wait until morning or the next day when she might be feeling stronger? Find the University’s policy and follow that? And where would that policy be? Does it change anything if the victim is still 17? What steps can a friend or parent suggest that, taken early, will lead to the best emotional, physical, and legal outcomes? And what, if any, decisions need to be made immediately?

After long conversations with a gynecologist, a detective in a special victims unit and the head of a large rape counseling service, we have gathered their knowledge and experience. We are not experts in any of these fields. We are moms who asked questions and are sharing the results of what we found. This should not be construed as medical, legal or psychological advice but rather food for thought and possible first steps if you should find your college student seeking your advice or your care. Each expert reminded us that at times of crisis, as in the aftermath of a sexual assault or rape on a college campus, that parents can play an important role as a calming and reassuring voice with knowledgeable suggestions of steps to take.

Each woman is different, each situation varies and there is no cookie cutter answer. What follows is some advice from three experts familiar with women’s bodies, their minds, hearts and legal rights. It would be impossible to suggest the best action for every woman who has been the victim of sexual assault or rape in college, but here are a few things parents might want to think of if they get a plea for advice or help from their college students.

Give Support

All the experts we spoke to emphasized the same starting point. Whether a parent is speaking to a victim, or advising their own child as a friend of the victim, our experts said it is paramount to let the victim know that you believe her, will support her and that all of the options are hers. Tell her that you will respect her privacy and discuss this with no one without her explicit permission. Tell her you will stick by her and help her in whatever way she feels is best for her. Tell her that only she can decide what steps to take but that there are experts (medical, legal, counseling) with whom she can consult to make these decisions and that she is not alone or without resources. Try to understand that she may be in a very complicated situation and more than likely knows her assailant. According to the US Department of Justice, “Stranger rape of college students is less common than acquaintance rape. Ninety percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape know their assailant.“

College Policy and Resources

Most colleges have a protocol and an online list of services (counseling, health and legal) that a parent or student can quickly familiarize themselves with. Universities are required to have a Title IX coordinator and if you search on the college’s name and the word Title IX (or sometimes, “sexual assault”) it will often lead you to the right site. College Title IX sites often have numbers to contact for medical and legal help as well as confidential counseling services that are usually available to students around the clock. Many have extensive FAQs that can offer first steps and important contacts for dealing with a rape in college. Students may well have been made aware of these online resources and parents can find them through a quick search. It is ideal if both parents and students were familiar with this site before it is needed (something parents might suggest to any college student) as the sites are not in a standard place on University websites and by looking up a campus name and the word “rape” will not immediately lead you there.

Find Information

One place to start is the National Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network or the National Sexual Assault Hotline – 1.800.656.HOPE where callers can get their questions answered 24 hours a day. Calls to this number are automatically rerouted to a local affiliated rape counseling center but the phone number of the caller is not stored. This allows victims, friends or family to ask questions about resources, laws and procedures in their immediate area and at their local hospital. The one caveat is callers who are under 18 and share personally identifying information; in this situation there is a requirement to report the call to authorities. The counseling center we spoke to is happy to consult by phone anonymously to answer any questions and offer guidance and will meet with victims at the emergency room, their offices or other locale.

Seek Medical Attention

In cases of sexual assault or rape in college there are a number of issues to consider surrounding medical attention. Here are some of the questions a parent might ask. Has the rape been violent and does the victim need urgent emergency medical attention for any physical injuries that might require x-rays, stitches or wound care? Is there a fear of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases? Our physician experts suggested that victims visit the emergency room for treatment. They said that hospitals are equipped to provide 24 hour care, morning after pills, antibiotic injections, STD testing and any medical care for injuries.

While a call to a personal physician might provide direction, our experts agreed that most physicians are not as well equipped as the emergency room. Not all emergency rooms are the same, of course, but many are equipped to provide 1) an expert nurse specifically trained at medical treatment and evidence collection in cases of sexual assault 2) specialized evidence collection materials, otherwise known as a “rape kit” 3) rape or assault counseling services from a local counseling center with specially trained counselors who will remain with the victim throughout their medical care and 4) psychological services.

One gynecologist we spoke with emphasized that she would happily speak to her patients, advise them and examine them but that an emergency room had access to experts and resources and it is common practice for private physicians to refer their patients to the hospital. A second physician said that many physicians in private practice do not see rape or assault cases in their office often enough (or indeed ever) in order to maintain the expertise needed for such cases and that emergency rooms could provide better care.

Doctors and the detective we spoke to emphasized that immediate medical care is desirable, but the victim should understand (and this is a point that parents can make) that she can stop the process, even in the midst of the physical exam, at any point she wishes. Those caring for her should stress that no one will do anything that she does not want done and that she can change her mind at any point and call a halt to the medical, legal or counseling process.

The experts all made the point that the earlier that medical attention is sought the better, the quality of evidence collected, and the more likely the effectiveness of the morning after pill. The detective we spoke to explained that evidence can be collected (in some states/hospitals) without the victim’s name. The hospital will forward the collected evidence kit to their local police department with only the name “Jane Doe,” date and hospital identification number. These kits are stored for many years (varied by state and police protocols). If or when the victim wants to pursue legal channels then the evidence is made available. “Jane Doe” rape kits preserve the victim’s confidentiality and options for later prosecution should she so choose.

All the experts we spoke to felt it was important that someone accompany the victim to the hospital and stay with her for the duration of the visit. Rape counselors will often accompany a victim, and the hospital usually calls them to be of assistance. They are trained in hospital procedure and can be helpful in explaining to the victim what the examination will entail, the reason for each procedure and, importantly, that at any point the victim can terminate the process.

The guidelines suggested by all of our experts for visiting the emergency room and receiving medical care included the following:

  • Do not wash in any way, including showering, shampooing, brushing teeth or, if it can be helped, going to the bathroom.
  • Wear the clothing in which the rape occurred, or if that is not possible, bring every item of clothing in a plastic bag. If the victim is still wearing the clothes she had on during the attack, she should bring a second set of clothing to change into after the examination.
  • If the victim has showered and changed and a day or even a few days have passed, while not ideal, there is still value in visiting an emergency room, seeking care and providing any physical evidence that might still be available. All experts pointed out that the value of evidence degrades and the window of opportunity for treatment like the morning after pill closes as time elapses.
  • Victims should bring with them any physical evidence they can might have including sheets, a condom, or clothing items.
  • If the victim knew her attacker, and has had any communication with him leading up to the attack, she should preserve an electronic trail including but not limited to texts, Facebook postings; any voice recordings before or after the assault might be valuable to law enforcement. One expert said that, sometimes in the case of acquaintance rape, the accused may reach out to the victim with a phone call or message trying to smooth things over or offer his view of events, and victims should electronically preserve this communication with screen shots or saving voice messages.
  • In many states the victim can agree to have evidence collected without making any decisions on next steps and later, days, weeks or even years, make a decision as to how they want to proceed. In many states, our experts stressed, a victim can have all of the evidence collected and then, if she chooses, not proceed any further with investigation or prosecution.
  • In some states, victims identities are further protected because emergency room costs for sexual assaults are covered by the state so the victim does not need to have her parents, health insurance company or university health insurance contacted for payment. In these states the emergency room will not come to the victim seeking payment for medical services which can include an examination, evidence collection, morning after pill, antibiotics and any treatment of injuries

Laws Vary

One challenge in knowing what to do first is that the laws surrounding rape vary from state to state. Each state has different laws and regulations regarding confidentiality, privacy, who are mandatory reporters and what their obligations are, the statute of limitations and even the definition of sexual violence. Even knowing the laws of a particular state can be confusing. For example, in CT if a student were to tell her psychology professor that she had been raped in college, there would be mandatory reporting. If that same student told that same professor, yet instead of standing in the classroom, she was telling him during his office hours at the student health clinic in his capacity as a University psychologist, he is not required to report. No website can remain entirely current and universities and rape counseling centers should be knowledgeable about the laws in their own state.

The detective in special crimes that we spoke to said that one of the main reasons victims do not want to involve law enforcement is that they feel that they will not be believed. A victim who is seeking counseling and has questions about the law, or police involvement, can call a counseling center and, without revealing her identity, ask any questions she might have. “The rape counseling center will call me and say. “I have a young lady and we won’t tell you her name and she has some questions to ask you. They put me on speaker phone and I answer anything she might need to know. I will also meet her anyplace. A police station can be intimidating so I will go whenever she wants to talk. I will go to Starbucks, I will go to the library I will go to their house, their friend’s house or anyplace they feel comfortable.”

A second reason victims of sexual assault do not want to come forward is the fear of social ostracization. Because what is known as “acquaintance rape” is more common than a sexual assault by a stranger, victims may fear social reprisal from their peers. Rape in college is made even more painful as victims may cross paths with their attackers in their daily lives. The law enforcement officer made it clear that women should understand that they have a very long time, even years, in which to make any decision on legal action.

Seek Support Services

Our experts stressed over and over again that friends and/or family can play a crucial role in giving support but that victims of a rape in college should seek out professional help from either a rape counseling center, a student health center or a psychological professional. The emotional scars of rape can be long-lasting and people trained to help victims can help ease the pain.

In many places a visit to an Emergency Room will trigger a call to a rape counseling center and the victim will be given an advocate or advisor who can help and explain her medical and legal options. An advocate from a rape counseling center can refer the victim to specialized counseling service with a professional trained to deal with trauma. College campuses also have counseling services in their health centers or in their Title IX offices that provide confidential support and advice. Friends should offer to accompany the victim to any legal or psychological services if she does not want to be left alone.

If your child is the carer, rather than the victim, do not underestimate how much this experience might shake them. Continue to keep in touch by phone, or visit, if this is possible, or what your child wants, and make sure they have someone to talk to about their own concern for their friend or fears for themselves.

As a parent, you might wish that the victim would tell her own parents and even feel that she might be better off with the support of her parents. But that is an almost impossible issue to judge from the outside and experts suggest that is a very personal decision and that friends should just help make the victim aware of the resources available to them and show their continued support.

For further information about Rape in College from the Department of Justice


Daughter in College: What Keeps me Up at Night 





About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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