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Sexual Assault Task Force Releases Findings, Sweeping Recommendations

Last July, President Eric Barron created a sexual assault and harassment task force “to collect, review and provide an evaluation of Penn State’s activities relating to sexual assault and other forms of sexual or gender-based harassment.” The university, according to the report, hoped to enact sincere efforts to build and maintain a safe and secure environment at Penn State.

In addition to extensive research, the committee — made up of two faculty members, three students, and 12 staff members — met weekly as a group, spoke to community leaders, and hosted a roundtable discussion. The task force divided itself into five subcommittees: communications, education and training, enforcement, policies compliance, and victim services. Each subcommittee wrote individual summary reports, which served as the basis for the final task force report.

The task force was legally obligated to make sure that its deliberations complied with Title IX, which ensures that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of gender, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Additionally, the task force looked at local and federal reports and studies on sexual assault and harassment.

On Thursday at 11:15 a.m., the task force is set to present its findings at Old Main. The full report is 267 pages and attached at the end of the article. Below is a summary of the findings and recommendations moving forward.

In the introduction of the report, the task force states that “the group believes that this report is less an end than a beginning. And it hopes that the University community and others will give the report the additional consideration required to ensure an even more civil, caring, and safe University community.”

By The Numbers

The following statistics were presented and further explained in the task force report, following the introduction.

  • One in five U.S. women will be raped in her lifetime
  • 63 percent of American women have experienced some form of sexual violence
    • The majority of these were committed by someone the victim knew
  • 10 percent of all sexual assaults are male victims
  • 13 students reported sexual misconduct at UP in the first four months of school
  • Four reports were received at other campuses
  • Last year, 24 cases were reported at UP (only one at other campuses)
  • Out of the 2,052 students that responded to a question about sexual assault for CAPS intake paperwork, 195 said that they have experienced sexual contact without consent
    • Out of these 195, 148 said they occurred within the last five years
  • 80 percent of college students who were sexually assaulted were under the influence of alcohol
  • At UP, 714 students went to the ER for alcohol-related problems last year
    • Their average BAC was .258 (three times the legal driving limit)
  • 1,100+ were charged with alcohol/drug violations
  • Almost 50 percent of surveyed students engaged in high-risk drinking at least once in the past two weeks
    • One-sixth of the students said they had done it three to five times in the past two weeks

Current Services, Resources, and Procedures

Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) has a group of specialized clinicians, called the Purple Team, that focuses on helping student victims. Sexual assault victims bypass the typical CAPS process, and the sessions are provided free of charge and can be long term. In addition to CAPS, students can meet with a licensed counselor at the Center for Women Students.

Advocacy and support groups are available to victims, including 24-hour support from the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

Following a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency received by the Centre County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force, University and State College Police receive annual training on sexual assault victim support. Auxiliary University Police Officers provide a free, 24/7 Safe Walk Service for students and faculty.

Incoming students must complete mandatory online modules on sexual assault (AWARE) and alcohol (SAFE). At the roundtable discussion, the task force found that most students “said the online modules have little impact. Some described them as too long or uninteresting; others complained that they were neither interactive, nor relatable. And more than a few expressed the belief that these topics simply do not apply to them; their attention to these educational offerings was limited at best.”

Enforcement Efforts

The Student Conduct staff determines responsibility for alleged violations and handles the assigning of appropriate sanctions. In the report, the task force noted “these professionals pursue the behavior changes required of students by encouraging reflection and learning. Punishment is not their principal tool.” The report added that this process “may not be particularly well-suited to adjudicate claims linked to serious felonies—at least not without concurrent action on these cases from the criminal justice system.”

Later in the report, the task force noted that by all accounts, the relationship between the Office of Student Conduct and local law enforcement is exceptional.

In looking at current federal enforcement efforts, the task force did not find any “fundamental due process or fairness insufficiencies in the existing procedures, including any bias toward either accusers or those accused.” It further noted that “the procedures are wholly consistent with those utilized by most peer institutions.”

The enforcement subcommittee cited concerns about the current hearing process. “Inappropriate and inflammatory statements about students’ prior sexual histories, emotional and psychological difficulties, or reputations may be made in a hearing before they can be stopped, thereby prejudicing decision-makers and inflicting more harm on the parties,” the report said.

Amongst the vast number of people the task force consulted, not all believed the university’s consequences for sexual misconduct were appropriate. “Some suggested that the consequence for plagiarism, for example, was often more severe than the consequence for sexual assault, and they could not understand why,” it reads. The report went on to say some members of the task force disputed this belief, and that a deeper analysis of sanctioning outcomes would be beneficial.

Moving Forward

Based on its research and findings, the task force laid out 18 recommendations in its report. For further explanation on each initiative, see the report in full below.

  1. The appointment of a full time Title IX Coordinator for the university, with accompanying staff, including an investigator, a prevention and education coordinator, and a deputy coordinator for the Commonwealth campuses, as well as other staff and funding sufficient to effectively coordinate these many obligations at all Penn State locations and ensure the University’s national leadership on this front.
  2. Each employee at the university be designated either “confidential” or “responsible” in relation to their obligations to respond to disclosures of sexual misconduct. This recommendation would impose upon the majority of Penn State employees the obligation to report sexual misconduct when they become aware of it.
  3. All employees, whether designated as responsible or confidential, be required to complete training on an annual basis, so that they understand the issues involved in sexual misconduct, know the available campus and community resources, and honor their reporting responsibilities.
  4. The current sexual assault hotline be replaced by a more effective and efficient means for receiving reports and requests for information or services.
  5. The student conduct process move away from the traditional hearing process and embrace instead an investigative model for resolving sexual misconduct cases.
  6. Establishing a Title IX review panel and written guidelines to assist university authorities in determining the proper course of action when a victim or reporter requests confidentiality, does not want a case investigated, or chooses to withdraw from participation in the process after a report has been made.
  7. The university pursue memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with police departments serving Penn State campuses other than University Park, where such MOUs may not already exist, and review any MOUs that do exist to ensure that they include appropriate references to the respective responsibilities of law enforcement agencies in the management of sexual misconduct cases. The Task Force also recommends consideration of similar MOUs between relevant university administrative entities and sexual assault service providers in the communities in which the university’s campuses are located.
  8. The Task Force recommends that the University administer a climate survey this spring to better understand the scope and nature of the problem at Penn State, and that it conduct regular surveys on sexual assault in succeeding years to give it the knowledge required to create and sustain effective programs, services, and policies.
  9. The allocation of the resources required at the campuses other than University Park to establish the full complement of victim support services necessary for a model response to these issues across the institution.
  10. A careful analysis of sanctions for sexual misconduct issued by the student conduct process to determine whether the consequences match the offenses, and, if possible, how many of these cases might benefit from the use of a restorative justice approach.
  11. All advocates, clinicians, and other University employees working directly with victims of sexual assault receive training on services for male victims, international students, students victimized in same-sex interactions, and students of color, and that particular attention be given to educational and prevention programs aimed at particular populations, such as fraternity and sorority members and athletes.
  12. Coalition to Address Relationship and Sexual Violence (CARSV) has served a significant purpose, and recommends that it be convened more often than it has been in recent years and that every reasonable effort be pursued to increase or strengthen the various partnerships between University Park services and local providers in the State College area, as well as similar relationships between the Commonwealth campuses and services in the communities they inhabit.
  13. The creation and implementation of various educational experiences for students that reflect their evolving developmental needs during the course of their college experience, including a required course for all first-year students that explores issues of student wellbeing and safety, with an emphasis on building positive relationships and preventing sexual misconduct and alcohol misuse
  14. The development of an initiative designed to encourage members of the University community to effectively intervene whenever they witness actions that undermine the community of care and concern required in response to sexual and other misconduct.
  15. The university consider the annual or semiannual release of aggregate data on sexual misconduct at the University, beyond merely data included in the annual Clery report, including information about student conduct sanctions, so that the University community is better informed about disciplinary and other actions taken in the interest of safety and civility.
  16. The university undertake a comprehensive review of all policies and procedures that are relevant to the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment, updating those that require update, clarifying any that require clarification, and incorporating any elements of the Task Force recommendations that may require the establishment of new policies or procedures.
  17. Resources be allocated for the purpose of assessing all programs and services that target the issue of sexual misconduct within the University community for their effectiveness, compliance, relevance, and efficiency.
  18. That the university’s commitment to being a national leader in addressing these issues and ensuring that its students and employees are fully engaged in this effort be noted and celebrated by a day designated for that purpose.

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