Every 98 seconds, another person is sexually assaulted in the United States.
According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), college-aged women aged 18 through 24 are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence than women of all other ages. College women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed. Male college-aged students are 78 percent more likely than non-students of the same age to be victims of sexual assault or rape.
Now, Tuscaloosa is making a greater effort to support sexual assault survivors with the opening of a nonprofit Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) Center, set to open Nov. 1.
Sara Massey, a junior majoring in human development and family studies and president of Not On My Campus (NOMC) at The University of Alabama, said students did not have access to rape kits until last fall. Before the opening of the SAFE Center in Tuscaloosa, victims of sexual assault in West Alabama had to travel to Birmingham to receive forensic exams from specially-trained sexual assault nurse examiners.
With the SAFE Center opening in Tuscaloosa, Massey said students will feel more secure about the treatment they receive after experiencing sexual assault.
According to its website, the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center aims to provide a compassionate, patient-centered environment for sexual assault forensic examinations and to meet the emotional, medical and forensic needs of survivors. The University of Alabama is one of the last universities in the SEC to open a sexual assault service center.
The SAFE Center will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year for residents of the nine counties in West Alabama. The Center will serve patients ages 14 and up, regardless of gender, at no charge.
“I think having the Center will provide a better sense of security for students now that they know that if something happens, there is somewhere that they can go, and things will be done properly,” Massey said. “They can completely rely on everyone there and the training that they had, and they don’t have to worry about people not believing them. It’ll just help students feel safer here.”
Patients will have access to birth control, checkups, forensic exams and the choice to press charges with law enforcement in the event of sexual assault or rape. There will be a back entrance for patients and a separate entrance for law enforcement.
Pam Jones, executive director of the SAFE Center in Tuscaloosa, said the Center will never force a patient to undergo a forensic exam or press charges. If a patient chooses to complete a forensic exam, the evidence will be processed under a confidential number only the patient and the SAFE Center will know. Patients will always have the option to send their evidence to a crime lab, regardless of how much time has passed since their assault.
“We are trying our best to make it as convenient as possible for people who need our services,” Jones said. “The Center is a much-needed resource, and we are looking forward to the good that will come from having a facility like this.”
While the Center is partnered with The University of Alabama and DCH Regional Medical Center, it is not inside a hospital. Jones said the SAFE Center is different for survivors because it is an independent facility.
The Center’s office will be open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, those in need of the Center’s services can call at any time of day or night and receive help at 205-860-SAFE. People who call during the Center’s office hours will be asked their name, age and if they are a student at a local high school, college or university.
Students at The University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College can also access resources at the UA Women and Gender Resource Center. Students of Stillman College and other colleges and high schools in West Alabama will have access to resource advocates at Turning Point, which offers services to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors throughout West Alabama.
President Stuart R. Bell said in an email that The University of Alabama is committed to promoting and maintaining a safe and respectful campus environment and is committed to its partnership with DCH Regional Medical Center and other local entities that have been working to establish the SAFE Center.
Not On My Campus is a student-led organization at the University that advocates for students and raises money for the SAFE Center. In addition to monthly general meetings, NOMC volunteers with Turning Point every two weeks. NOMC and the Student Government Association (SGA) raised $20,000 for the Center through a banquet held in April during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Fundraising and legislation efforts to bring a SAFE Center to Tuscaloosa first began through a GoFundMe page following the death of Megan Rondini in February 2016, a former student at the University who died by suicide after she was allegedly raped by T.J. Bunn Jr., a member of a prominent family in Tuscaloosa.
According to The Tuscaloosa News and AL.com, the University donated $400,000 toward the Center as a part of an out-of-court settlement with the Rondini family following a wrongful death civil suit against the Tuscaloosa County sheriff and two investigators.
Baylee Clark, a senior majoring in public relations, promoted the SAFE Center as her platform when she ran for homecoming queen.
Clark said the SAFE Center is something that Tuscaloosa has needed for a long time.
“I think it’s so important, because a lot of the time people that have been sexually assaulted feel like they’ve lost their voice,” Clark said. “Just because it’s something that’s hard to talk about doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. It’s long overdue, and it’s an exciting time for Tuscaloosa because we’re finally getting to where we need to be.”