11 reported forcible sex offenses in 40 days: Penn State leaders, students respond

Top Stories

CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — 11 forcible sex offenses have been reported at Penn State University Park since the semester began just over a month ago.

Students said it’s a wake up call to something that has unfortunately been happening for years, and there is work to be done.

“I am sad, but mostly I’m not surprised,” said Sonika Kohli chair of the Penn State Schreyer Honors College Gender Equity Coalition.

9 of the 11 forcible sex offenses reported were between people who knew each other.

“That is something that kind of gets lost,” said Kohli. “It happens, you know, the perpetrator is someone you know and trust.” 

Those cases primarily occurred inside freshman residence halls. The two unknown cases occurred in Beaver Stadium.

“National studies will estimate that between 90% and 95% of survivors will not report to their institutions, so the fact that 11 have been reported bodes poorly,” said Ari Fromm, Pennsylvania state director for The Every Voice Coalition.

Kohli and Fromm said the data is pivotal, but isn’t always an accurate reflection of what’s happening.

“Increased reporting does not mean increased rates of sexual violence, it just means increased reporting,” said Kohli.

“There are a lot of barriers to reporting institutionally and there’s a lot of things that could come out of reporting that survivors don’t necessarily want,” said Fromm.

The latest data is from a 2018 survey on Penn State’s Sexual Misconduct Climate. It was released in late September of 2021 after a push from student groups.

About 4,000 responses showed about 50% confidence that the university would take action to address factors that led to the sexual misconduct. About 65% of women and 80% of men said they believe the report would be taken seriously.

“But when you think about it, that’s one in three students that don’t feel the university is equipped to handle their traumas,” said Kohli. “Which is horrifying.”

The Every Voice Coalition has introduced bills in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. Some ask for an investigation into the need for more campus surveys.

“It’s a responsibility we’re taking on as students because it’s impacting us so much,” said Fromm.

Students are said to host an “Untimely Warning Rally” at 5 p.m. Friday evening, October 1, outside the Allen Street gates.

On Tuesday, October 5, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Kohli and Fromm will be joined by peers and professors for the discussion panel, “Lets Talk About Sexual Violence on Campus.” A viewing party will be held in the Willard Building (360), or viewers can join on Zoom.

“I think it’s also really important to talk about that it’s not just a problem with how we deal with sexual and gendered violence after the fact, I think that we need to be doing more in terms of institutional resources to be able to help educate folks about how we deal with this large scale problem,” said Dr. Jill Wood, Penn State professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and discussion panelist.

In a statement to WTAJ, Damon Sims, Penn State vice president for student affairs, responded:

As we expressed in a statement earlier this month, the University is deeply committed to creating and sustaining a safe and supportive campus climate that leaves no room for sexual assault or harassment and holds accountable those who violate this fundamental expectation.  We are determined to establish and maintain a safe and supportive environment in concert with the students, faculty, and staff of Penn State, each of whom must share our commitment to this purpose if we are to find the tangible and enduring success we seek.

To that end, Penn State’s efforts to create an environment focused on safety and accountability include a wide array of measures and resources. Although difficult to define the full scope of the problem here and across the nation as it relates to sexual misconduct, the University remains committed to combatting the deeply troubling issues of sexual assault and sexual violence. This commitment requires collective, concerted action by many within our community and universal understanding of our expectations and the consequences for violating them. We have established a standing student advisory group to work closely with our Title IX and Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response offices, offering advice and counsel to these colleagues, as well as the Student Affairs Research and Assessment office, which administers the sexual misconduct climate survey at Penn State. And I have reached out to leaders of the Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition to invite conversations between us about our shared interest in this important concern.

We know that for too long, sexual misconduct offenses have been underreported and we must continue to encourage those harmed in these ways to report these offenses. But we also must expect the number of reported offenses to decline. Our many efforts to mitigate and prevent sexual misconduct in our community should result in a decline in the number of reported incidents and timely warnings, and anything short of that outcome must remain unacceptable to us.

Keep in mind that Timely Warnings are not considered an official source of data when calculating the number of sexual assaults that occur at a campus. Timely Warnings are issued when an incident meets a particular set of circumstances as outlined by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.

We sometimes worry that our institutional obligation under federal law to issue timely warnings may mislead students into thinking that these emailed warnings are the sum of our efforts to combat sexual misconduct.  The formality and uniformity of each timely warning can belie the earnestness, persistence, and sincerity of the University’s commitment to this purpose. Our determination to change these outcomes by compelling those who join our community to both appreciate and live out our expectation for creating and sustaining a safe and mutually supportive community cannot be made evident by timely warnings. But our  commitment is there.

For example, we have in place numerous programs and processes designed to educate and inform our community:

  • Penn State prioritizes prevention, and for new and returning students shares tips for staying safe at Penn State (click here which can take you to much more information you can research), as well as options for seeking care and making a report of sexual assault or misconduct.  
  • University Police offers a free Community Education Program about Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention, which student groups and employees can request any time using an online form
  • University Police offers Safe Walk, which is a free service in which students and employees can request an escort to their on-campus destination from dusk to dawn.
  • Knowing that new students may not be familiar with campus resources or with living on their own, there is a component within Penn State’s New Student Orientation – which is required for first-year students before class enrollment – that includes curriculum around sexual assault education, prevention and response – along with resources. In addition, prior to arrival, all first-year students also are required to complete Penn State Safe and Aware, designed to help students learn facts about relationship violence, sexual violence, stalking and sexual harassment; and helps students develop practical skills to stay safe.
  • Along with police, the Gender Equity Center, the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response (OSMPR), and other campus groups and units, offer prevention education, awareness and other events throughout the year to address these issues. The University works to make these resources top of mind, providing frequent reminders  throughout the year.
  • Included in this is bystander intervention, which remains a critical aspect of prevention. Stand for State, our bystander intervention program, teaches students how to recognize high-risk situations and take action when they witness something concerning.  
  • As you also may have seen in the release earlier this week, we are seeking input from student representatives for the 2022 survey as it is developed, in an effort to enhance data gathering and presentation of the results.

We continue to urge individuals to report these crimes, however, we know that no matter what step a survivor takes — it’s never easy and reporting can be extremely difficult. Penn State’s reporting system is varied and offers multiple resources and ways to report misconduct via phone or online to the University’s Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, as well as to police or anonymously. It is up to the reporter on what information they want to share, and how much.

  • The Gender Equity Center offers confidential counseling and advocacy, and can help survivors navigate the reporting and criminal justice process if they choose to do so. 
  • Victims are able to have an advisor/advocate assist them or accompany them in this process if they choose. 
  • In addition, all investigators in OSMPR and campus officers who handle these cases are trained in trauma-informed practices.

There is no single solution to this vexing issue and we need interventions on the individual level, the social level and the institutional level – all areas we examine regularly and for which we require student and community assistance. We continually ask ourselves, what can we change about campus climates, the physical and social environment, to create a sea change in behaviors and level of involvement.  

However, when it comes down to it, the only person responsible for a sexual assault or rape is the perpetrator. Students that are found responsible for these offenses, face a range of sanctions, up to and including expulsion

Survivors of sexual assault are entitled to receive the full range of resources and support services the University has to offer, and each of us is responsible for creating a safe environment for our campus community — one that is built on a culture of respect, free from the threat of sexual violence. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories

Don't Miss