Sexual assaults at WCU

In 2013, I co-wrote a story for the WCJ on campus safety. While most students interviewed for that story said they feel safe at WCU, one thing we noted was that according to the most recent annual safety report, between 2010 and 2012, there have been 12 ‘forcible sex violations’ on campus. According to documents obtained through a public records request for the WCJ, there were actually 15 different sexual assault cases on campus.

The Data

The reports, summarized in this table, show that five of the reports were for “Rape” with an additional two “2nd Degree Rape” charges as well. All but two of the incidents reported took place in residence halls, and nearly half of those incidents took place in Scott Hall.

Laura Ansley, Assistant Director for Residential Living, said that WCU is aware of the volume of sexual assault cases that come from those dorms and takes these cases very seriously.

“In the fall, during training, our RA [Residential Assistant] staff members (105 resident assistants) go through training with many different offices; including, Counseling and Psychological Services, University Police, and the Department of Student Community Ethics.”

Photo by Ceillie Simkiss

Photo by Ceillie Simkiss

January 2012 was by far the most reported month, with four incidents happening that month, and two on the same day, January 22. Across all reports however, all but two victims were under 20 years old. All of the victims except one were female, suggesting that the most at risk students would be first and second year students.

Ansley points out that WCU is not the only school with these figures.

“Unfortunately, I think the national trends also apply to WCU with respect to more freshmen and sophomores being victims of sexual violence than juniors, seniors and graduate students,” said Ansley.

At least four of the 15 reports WCJ got from the university mention drug or alcohol use.  Ansley in an email message said, “…the research is clear that in college most victims of sexual violence knew the person before the incident happened. Alcohol and drug use is often a factor in cases of sexual violence. Most students don’t realize what “consent” to sexual activity really means and that someone incapacitated by alcohol or drugs cannot give consent.”

The Law

According to police, under North Carolina law, the difference between ‘rape’ and ‘second-degree rape’ is found primarily in the circumstances surrounding the case. According to the law, both acts require “unwilling vaginal penetration,” however first-degree crimes typically involve, what one officer called, “extreme” circumstances, in which the person committing the crime either used a deadly weapon to coerce the victim, had help from another individual, or was responsible for the injury of the victim or another person. Second-degree cases generally involve victims who are mentally disabled or in helpless states (unconscious, too intoxicated to provide/deny consent, etc). Both are felonies.

The Procedure

According to WCU’s website, there are several steps to reporting and handling sexual offense complaints. The process for these types of investigations and others have been compiled into a simple flow chart.

Once a crime is committed and reported, the University begins an investigation, collecting evidence and interviews with victims and witnesses. For sexual assaults, the information collected is considered confidential and only given out on a need to know basis. Arrests, if necessary are made, and if an offender is indicted, the case will go to court.

When we spoke to WCU Police Chief Ernie Hudson last year,  he said that when handling a sexual assault case, one of the first priorities is to get medical and psychiatric help for the victims.

Residential Living also prepares RA’s to assist with assault cases, with their training program “Behind Closed Doors,” where new RA’s role-play through several scenarios in order to learn how to properly react to them.


WCU offers many programs to aid in the prevention of sexual assault on campus. Last year, Police Chief Ernie Hudson told WCJ that he wanted to add more Blue Phones around campus, and explained that his officers are willing and available to walk students to buildings from their cars at night if they feel threatened.

Another service at WCU is the Red Zone campaign, which hosts workshops and safety walks throughout the year aimed at educating about and providing awareness of sexual assault before it happens.

Sarah Carter, who works with the Red Zone about the campaign said, “The Red Zone refers to the period of time early in the first and second year at college during which students are more at-risk for unwanted sexual experiences on college campuses.”

Police Chief Hudson advises students to avoid situations that might lead to them being assaulted “All of us have to minimize risky behaviors…I don’t go to Asheville in the middle of the night and walk around the alleys, I just don’t do that.”

While it may sound like he’s blaming the victims, Hudson says that isn’t the case.

“So when you talk about prevention, not putting yourself in the position-lets prevent it! Let’s not put ourselves in a position to be victimized.”

Ansley suggests that new students review the University website on sexual assault awareness for tips on sexual assault prevention, as well as to learn what support systems the school has in place for victims.

In a report from the White House filed earlier this year focusing on sexual assaults on colleges across the country, a government task force highlights that a key strategy for prevention is getting bystanders involved in preventing potential assaults from occurring before they happen and changing the way schools respond to sexual assault claims.