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Being A Sexual Assault Survivor In College Often Comes With Huge Bills

Experts are noticing the Education Department is increasingly ordering colleges to include financial remedies for victims.
Sexual assaults against college students often come with unconsidered costs: missed classes, transferring or dropping out of
Sexual assaults against college students often come with unconsidered costs: missed classes, transferring or dropping out of college, missed work, counseling and medical bills, among other things.

During the spring semester of her freshman year at the University of Rochester, on April 17, 2010, Amber Bennett went to a party.

"I was under a lot of stress and I just wanted to have fun," said Bennett, now 24. "One cup of punch and everything went blurry."

Bennett believes someone drugged her drink that night, but when she went to the campus health center a couple days later, she said, a doctor told her that would be difficult to test. A male student at the university, Bennett said, sexually assaulted her that night. Bennett reported him to the school, and after a hearing in April, the school found him not responsible for sexual assault, but did give him probation for giving alcohol to a minor.

With the alleged assailant still on campus, Bennett said, she was afraid to walk around campus. She "constantly felt uncomfortable," and moved out of her dorm. Worse, Bennett said, was that admitting she was struggling emotionally could cost her scholarship.

As part of the Navy ROTC, Bennett was getting about $200,000 worth of tuition covered at the private university in New York. She had strict fitness and academic standards to maintain as part of ROTC, but said she struggled following the assault. She didn't return for the fall 2010 semester.

"I was struggling with not really sleeping and feeling depressed and losing interest in everything," Bennett recalled. "I tried to go back to school in the spring but even being in Rochester had been triggering. Even being on a campus is triggering."

In July 2011, Bennett moved to Arizona. Today she's finishing her degree at Arizona State University, but she has written off her dream of a Navy career, and expects to have $60,000 in student debt when she graduates.

"I was going to have no debt on top of being an officer in the Navy and having a career I'd wanted my whole life," Bennett said. "I did try to join again in March 2014, but when I went to bootcamp they discharged and diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder."

Go <a href="http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/costofsexualassault.png">here to enlarge</a> graphic.

The move across the country cost about $1,000, Bennett estimates. She also got hit with an $800 bill from her landlord around the same time when she had a nervous breakdown and had to move in with her mom.

She's tracked that she has spent around $4,000 on counseling since 2010, and accrued another $4,000 in various medical expenses after anxiety made her physically ill and sent her to the hospital multiple times. Her cost of being a sexual assault survivor, according to Bennett's calculations, is at least $200,000. That total includes counseling and medical bills, her debt to attend ASU, moving expenses and three years of lost ROTC scholarship at the University of Rochester. It doesn't count lost wages from changing career tracks and from graduating from college later. 

The costs come as no surprise to other survivors, who say they often fall behind academically, miss work and have medical bills pile up for them; these have been the foundation of civil lawsuits against colleges and universities that seek financial penalties. Yet experts are noticing the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has started to incorporate remedies to address expenses incurred by victims.

"The reality is that OCR is in a position that is very survivor-friendly from the perspective that it can get those kind of agreements much more quickly than if a survivor was to sue the institution," said John Wesley Lowery, chair of the Student Affairs in Higher Education Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "Not to mention OCR is employing a different standard than the courts would."

For example, when a federal investigation was completed in 2015, OCR ordered Princeton University to refund tuition to students whose sexual assault cases it determined the school mishandled. At the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, in order to avoid a similar federal investigation over apparent loopholes in a punishment for a sexual assault case, the school agreed in November to provide one year of free unlimited counseling for a victim in exchange for her withdrawal of the complaint, according to documents reviewed by The Huffington Post.

"You never get over it. It's a lifetime cost."

Having counseling sessions covered helps, said the survivor at UNLV, who requested anonymity. But covering counseling costs still doesn't cover time she takes off from work, the gas she uses traveling across town to get counseling, or her attorney fees.

"I'm on my own, I don't have a full-time job and I'm paying for grad school on my own," the UNLV survivor said. "I barely have money to spread out to get food. Counseling is definitely something I feel [the school] should pay because if they didn't put me through the whole thing, I wouldn't have that extra stress or anxiety."

Yet for all the national attention to sexual assault in college, we don't yet know how much each attack on campus costs.

Rape is considered the second most costly crime next to murder for individuals and for society, according to Justice Department statistics, though sexual assault is many times more common. 

Individually, an adult victim of sexual assault in Texas can expect to pay between $15,000 and $50,000 in medical services, lost work productivity, and mental health care, one 2006 study found, while a separate paper in Michigan deemed the personal cost of each sexual assault to be $108,447. But those figures don't include the ripple effect costs to society, such as a family member skipping work to assist a victim, or resources by law enforcement and medical professionals to address a rape report.

There's a social cost of $267,000 for each sexual assault, according to a recent study looking at attacks that occur during college football games, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper, which found an increase of rape reports during Division I college football games, estimated there's an annual social cost between $68 million and $205 million -- and that's just for assaults taking place on game days in the fall.

One woman said staying at the University of Rochester after a sexual assault was too difficult, so she transferred away, losi
One woman said staying at the University of Rochester after a sexual assault was too difficult, so she transferred away, losing her scholarship in the process. She went from having a $200,000 education covered to facing a student debt bill of $60,000. 

Researchers at the University of Texas are currently studying the economic impact of sexual assaults against college students, looking at angles such as victims falling behind in school or missing work and possibly changing majors, and how universities expend their resources responding.

"We're expecting to see a year off, what kinds of economic and productivity costs have accumulated for the victims," said Bruce Kellison, one of the researchers at UT. "They have to be incurred because they have to heal and recover, but the extent of those economic effects isn't well understood yet."

Yet researchers acknowledge there are still "intangible costs," such as pain and suffering, decreased quality of life and psychological distress.

"When you say, 'the cost of being a survivor,' it's a lifetime cost," the survivor from UNLV said. "You never get over it. It's a lifetime cost."

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Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

 

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