Our View | Sexual assault levels demand greater focus across the county

October 5, 2013 

The headlines posted to our website in recent weeks tell the story of a region battling a sexual assault epidemic, but a region where victims now feel more empowered to fight back.

Here’s a sampling of what we’ve reported …

•  Aug. 18: “State College police investigating sexual assault”

•  Aug. 23: “Penn State student reportedly raped early Friday in downtown State College”

•  Sept. 3: “Police investigating 3 separate sexual assault reports over long weekend”

•  Sept. 7: “State College police urge vigilance after series of alleged sexual assaults”

•  Sept. 18: “Police investigating reported sexual assault in downtown State College”

•  Sept. 25: “Penn State police see increase in reports of sexual offenses”

On that latest date, Penn State police confirmed that reports of sexual assaults have jumped in recent years. The university department investigated five such reports in 2010, but 63 in 2012.

“I don’t know if there’s been an actual increase in sexual assaults, or if people’s reporting of sexual assault has increased because of the attention we’ve been paying to it over the past several years,” said Anne Ard, executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

Ard said calls from victims of sexual assault to the women’s center were down this year from last for the six-week period running Aug. 23 through the end of September. But the volume is still high, 33 calls in 2013 compared with 48 for that period in 2012.

The figures include sexual assaults reported to police and hospital staff and incidents that were not, and some victims who came forward months after their attacks.

Ard called the activity at the women’s center this fall “a really mixed bag.”

She said such crimes continue to happen at an alarming rate, but notes that an increase in reports to police likely reflects a greater willingness among victims to risk coming forward.

She pointed to publicity for sex crimes generated by the Jerry Sandusky scandal, efforts to educate the community and improvements in reporting procedures as enticing more victims to tell their stories to police and health professionals.

Bottom line: We still have a shockingly high number of such crimes in our region.

But we applaud the efforts of organizations such as Ard’s for their work in helping remove the stigma from these assaults and opening the door for victims to seek justice.

Supporting that notion is Penn State’s revelation that many of the incidents reported recently actually occurred many years earlier.

Ard said education about what constitutes consent for sex, and about the rights of victims who may have been intoxicated, has helped bring individuals forward.

“When people feel like they’re going to be responded to positively, they’re more likely to report,” Ard said. “People won’t be so rushed to blame the victim.”

She said reporting processes have “improved significantly at Penn State,” and she credited State College with a long commitment to handling such crimes discreetly but thoroughly. The borough has a detective dedicated to rape and sexual assault cases.

But Ard said there is considerable room for improvement in many areas of Centre County, and that there is a mistaken belief that the bulk of such crimes in our region occur at or around Penn State.

In fact, Ard said, only about a third of sexual assault calls made to the women’s center this fall have come from students.

“Although there’s a perception that the vast majority of our sexual assault clients are university students, the numbers don’t bear that out,” she said.

Which means we continue to have a serious countywide problem, and there is a need for more education and greater emphasis on making the process of reporting a sexual assault safe and free of added emotional discomfort.

There has been progress, but there remains much work to be done.

Sadly, Ard said, “The demand never gets any less.”

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