USF and UT students get resources to overcome sexual assault from a private company
Leda Health provides services for college students who are victims of sexual assault at the University of South Florida, University of Tampa and two universities in Jacksonville.
Every 68 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in America, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN.
And on college campuses, 13% of students will experience rape or sexual assault, a 2020 report from the Association of American Universities (AAU) says.
A company called Leda Health formed to help victims of sexual assault on college campuses process the trauma and heal. It recently opened a center in Tampa to provide services to students at the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.
“We've always looked at where's the highest sexual violence occurring, where’s that access gap, and how can we start to address that gap,” said Drew Englander, chief operating officer of Leda Health. “That's how we came up with our regions and where we started to launch to show how this idea would impact survivors and give them a different option of care.”
It also opened a center in the Jacksonville area to serve students at the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University.
Florida has a high rate of sexual violence and human trafficking compared to other states, Englander said. And there is a lack of resources for people who need care in the state, he said.
“We started before COVID-19, but we've seen unfortunately sexual assault get worse during COVID-19 and seeking resources going down during COVID-19,” Englander said. “That's the real gap that we were trying to address and really make sure we're supporting.”
The AAU report also found that among undergraduates, 26.4% of females, 6.8% of males and 23.1% of transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming students experience sexual assault.
And evidence shows there’s likely many more that go unreported.
The Department of Justice found that only 20% of female student victims, age 18-24 and 32% of non-student females the same age report an assault to law enforcement.
Experts say that could be due to the fact that many survivors face PTSD after sexual assault and don’t trust anyone with something so stigmatized.
Rates are especially high during the “Red Zone,” which is a period between August and November when more than 50% of college sexual assaults occur, according to a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study.
Brooke Haldeman, director of survivor support for Leda Health, said that sexual assault happens during those times potentially because new students could be unaware of the risks and there’s a lack of education about them.
“Having these new freshmen, these newish sophomores coming in, they don't understand this new culture, they don't understand this new campus. They're still trying to figure it out and that can leave some room for not knowing what to do. With not knowing what your resources are,” said Haldeman. “So lack of education about consent. You're starting and it's probably your first time away from home that you're partying or drinking or things like that.”
Leda Health provides a variety of resources for those who need help. They operate a 24/7 crisis center that provides a hotline where survivors can call for guidance and help.
They deliver early evidence kits to survivors so they can collect DNA in the comfort of their own homes.
Their website has additional resources, like hospital location maps that help survivors to find the closest hospital to get the care they need from sexual assault nurse examiners.
And they provide trauma support to help survivors begin healing. Their healing circles focus on different modalities of care and they also offer support groups.
Finally, they run transformative justice support groups that address those who have caused harm and help survivors reach another level of healing.
“When we started at Leda, we always said that healing doesn't look normal, or healing looks different for every survivor. We as a company will never define a survivor’s feeling or healing journey,” said Englander. “Instead, what we'll do is provide a holistic suite of services to meet that survivor wherever they're at in that healing journey.”
The company is funded by colleges and corporations that Englander says have the responsibility to protect the population that they are serving, be it students or employees.
“They should be the ones making sure that they create a safe space in that community, and that they should be the ones basically funding that,” said Englander.
Many colleges have centers to support victims of sexual assault on campus. For example, USF’s Center for Victim Advocacy provides survivors with a helpline, assistance filing police reports, court accompaniment, emotional support, information and referrals.
And the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay offers similar services to anyone in need. As the certified rape crisis center for Hillsborough County, the agency provides free services including advocacy, forensic medical exams and financial and relocation assistance.
Leda Health's model is about providing students with another option in hopes of getting more survivors to report sexual assaults, Englander said. For example, some students might not feel comfortable getting help through the campus. And having multiple options can benefit victims, he said.
Victim support services like Leda Health have made strides in breaking the stigma around sexual assault on college campuses, Englander said.
“The biggest thing that's starting to change on campuses is that we're starting to believe survivors,” Englander said. “And we're starting with that idea of as we go into these, as we hear about these stories, believing them, and actually ensuring that we're supporting them on campus.
“And we're starting to see a shift across campuses of survivors also speaking up and demanding more of their universities. And that's always happened, it's happened five years ago, it's happened 10 years ago, it's been happening forever. There's been tons of work that's been put into stopping sexual violence way before it existed and it's the reason we could exist today.”
Colleges are getting safer, he said, but there is still a long way to go.
“As a company, as survivors and people who believe in advocacy, we have to push to always do better. We hope that the tools and resources provided are able to create a safer campus,” said Englander. “If 13% of people are being sexually assaulted, that number is not good enough and so there's a long way to go.”