The Minnesota Office of Higher Education is sounding an alarm after learning that a company that makes self-administered sexual-assault examination kits is marketing those kits to colleges and universities.

The OHE reports that a number of Minnesota campuses have been approached by the New York-based makers of the MeToo Kit, which promises a way for victims and survivors to collect DNA evidence on their own after an assault.

“For the thousands of survivors that choose not to report or go to the hospital, MeToo Kit aims to provide an alternative solution,” reads the company’s website.

The MeToo Kit had been available for preorder online, but as of Thursday, the website had been greatly scaled back from how it appeared two weeks earlier, with only a message that the kits would be launching soon.

A now-archived snapshot of the website from Sept. 4 details how the kits work, with patients being instructed to swab themselves for evidence, spit into a container and seal those items along with any clothing worn during the assault into the provided packaging for mailing.

The Sept. 4 website snapshot also advertised a mobile app to be used during the process. As of Thursday, the app is not available from the iTunes or Google Play stores.

A second product, the PRESERVEkit, had been available for purchase on Amazon until last week, when production was suspended, the OHE reported. A message on the maker's website cited cease-and-desist orders, "untruths all over the media … and the hostile and threatening atmosphere this has created" as reasons why sales have been suspended.

Kits heavily criticized

The at-home kits have drawn national concern and condemnation from advocates and health care professionals, who say the effort could do far more harm than good. By using a MeToo Kit or similar service, victims and survivors might not be aware of related resources, and experts have warned that evidence collected with at-home kits might not hold up in court.

“These at-home forensic exam kits are concerning both ethically and in their high potential for harm within a Title IX and/or criminal justice process,” the OHE reported, referring to the federal law that requires campuses to investigate an assault allegation as soon as it’s made aware and take steps to protect students.

“While we agree with the premise that victim-survivors should be empowered with options and choices as they navigate their own path of healing and justice, we are concerned that these kits are misleading and exploitative in their efforts to offer victim-survivors a different option to gain control after a traumatizing experience such as sexual assault.”

The kits and the companies that produce them are under investigation by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office. Attorneys general in Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Oklahoma have sent cease-and-desist letters to kit makers, according to the OHE.

Exams free in Minnesota, Wisconsin

By law in Minnesota, a forensic medical exam is available at no cost to any victim or survivor and can be conducted up to 10 days after an assault. Exams are provided by a SANE nurse — short for “sexual assault nurse examiner” in a hospital setting.

Victims may choose whether they report an assault to police regardless of whether they are examined by a SANE nurse.

If a victim does choose to report, the SANE exam also functions to ensure that any evidence collected is preserved and tracked using protocols to ensure the admissibility of that evidence in court.

Sara Niemi, executive director of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, reiterated the importance of SANE exams and her organization’s efforts toward supporting a survivor’s holistic well-being after a sexual assault.

“Whether or not someone decides to report to law enforcement, a SANE exam is done by a trained professional, if a survivor chooses, to assess the immediate needs,” Niemi said. “The exam includes a head-to-toe examination, preventative medications offered for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, assessment for acute injuries, forensic evidence collected and preserved with a chain of custody, photographs taken (and) history documented.”

PAVSA also has advocates available who can accompany victims and survivors during an exam and assess whether there are any immediate safety needs or planning needed, Niemi said, as well as help connect people to mental-health care providers and other services.

In a news release earlier this month, the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MnCASA) noted that with eight in 10 rapes committed by someone known to the victim, DNA evidence collection isn’t the sole crucial focus of a forensic exam.

“We want to send a clear message to the public that these kits are not a reasonable alternative to a forensic medical exam, nor do they provide access to the confidential resources and support provided by a sexual-assault advocate,” Jude Foster, MnCASA’s statewide medical forensic policy program coordinator, said in the release.

No kits on local campuses

Colleges and universities in the Twin Ports do not plan to offer the MeToo Kit or similar products.

The archived snapshot of the MeToo Kit website contains a page on the company’s University Pilot Program, on which the company says it believes an arduous documentation process deters students from reporting sexual assaults.

“Every campus must have a plan,” the page reads. “Every campus must have resources for sexual assault survivors. Every campus needs MeToo Kit.”

Campuses in Duluth and Superior do have a plan, administrators say, and they readily highlight the resources and partnerships available on campus.

  • The University of Minnesota Duluth was approached by one of the companies offering the kits, said Lisa Erwin, UMD’s vice chancellor for student life and dean of students.

    “We have not pursued this as an option and don’t plan to at this point,” she said.

    UMD provides victims and survivors with access to confidential services, support and referrals, as well as help contacting law enforcement if a victim chooses to do so. The school lists resources on its website, including PAVSA and the university’s Women’s Resource and Action Center, as well as counseling services offered on campus.
  • At the College of St. Scholastica, Michelle Ruszat, the school’s violence intervention and prevention coordinator, first became aware of the kits through a professional organization’s mailing list.

    “Many of the larger colleges and universities had received a donation email from the MeToo Kit company,” Ruszat said. “St. Scholastica, to my knowledge, was not sent any kits, nor were we contacted directly by the company.”

    St. Scholastica offers advocacy for victims and survivors through its Gender Equity and Anti-Violence Allies (GEVA) team, she said. The school also has a partnership with PAVSA.

    “Ongoing support includes our professional counselors in Counseling Services, Student Health Services and through our Title IX office,” Ruszat said. “We provide prevention education in the Violence Intervention and Prevention Program, including education on consent, healthy relationships and personal safety.”
  • The University of Wisconsin-Superior has not been approached by MeToo Kit or similar companies, said Jordan Milan, UW-Superior’s director of strategic communications.

    The school refers victims and survivors to the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse (CASDA) in Superior and to student health and counseling services if desired. Brochures can be found in restrooms across campus that contain information about how to file a report, where to go for medical attention and other resources, Milan said.

    A sexual assault victim advocate holds office hours at UW-Superior’s Gender Equity Resource Center each week. Student victims and survivors can also meet with the school’s Title IX coordinator.

    UWS also has an anonymous form online to report sexual assaults to the dean of students.
  • Lake Superior College spokesman Daniel Fanning said the school’s Student Life team has not heard of the at-home exam kit and that nothing like it is offered on campus.

    On its website, the school refers victims and survivors to its Counseling Services department. There also is a link to a free app for reporting sexual assault.