As sexual assault reports continue to climb, off-campus safety net aiding more victims

lfalce@centredaily.comMay 24, 2014 

  • REPORTING AN ASSAULT

    • Get to a safe place.

    • Try to preserve evidence. Police advise not to bathe, shower, brush teeth, use the bathroom or change clothes until after a medical exam.

    • Get support from a close friend or relative, or contact Centre County Women’s Resource Center to speak with an advocate.

    • Get medical attention as soon as possible.

    • Contact police. Reporting the crime is not the same as deciding to press charges or following through to prosecution. Those are decisions to be made later, but can only happen after the crime is reported.

    • Consider counseling.

    Information provided by Penn State police.

Sexual assault on college campuses is an ugly topic, but it’s one that has been getting more and more headlines in recent years. From the Jerry Sandusky scandal to the White House’s Not Alone initiative, more students are hearing about it, and the more it is brought into the light, the more reports are being made.

But not all of them are made on campus.

At Penn State, the numbers in the university’s released data show a misleading increase — the majority of on-campus sexual assaults reported in 2012 actually happened in prior years — while off-campus advocates say the numbers of reports by students who don’t want to say anything on campus are growing.

The most recent Clery Act data reported by the university show that 56 on-campus sexual assaults were reported in 2012, up from 24 reported in 2011 and just four reported in 2010. The federal Clery Act requires universities to report safety statistics.

The 2012 data include 36 instances that occurred in prior years but were reported in 2012, leaving just 20 occurring and being reported that year. University spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the numbers at the Center for Women Students have been holding steady.

The Centre County Women’s Resource Center, just a few blocks from campus, receives about 50 sexual assault reports from Penn State students per year, on average.

But from the 2011-12 school year to 2012-13, the center saw reports almost double.

‘The more you talk about it’

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, is not surprised. She is just glad the issues are being addressed somewhere.

“The more you talk about it, the more people are going to report it,” she said.

Few universities have seen the focus on sexual assault that the past two years have brought at Penn State, with the swirl of controversy, repercussions, lawsuits and increased awareness of crimes against children in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

In April, the university and various on-campus groups highlighted Sexual Assault Awareness Month with a steady stream of roundtable discussions, marches and activities.

“Faculty and staff are receiving training about these issues in ways that didn’t happen before,” Powers said.

“Now (resident assistants), instructors and others are reporting in ways they wouldn’t have been aware of doing before — such as through the Women’s Resource Center, CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), police, University Health Services and elsewhere,” she said. “People are now aware of being able to report everywhere — and that’s a good thing.”

Anne Ard, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, said that although she is always glad to be a part of the process — and more than happy to have her team there to help the women, and men, who are victimized — her staffers are feeling a little overwhelmed with 40 more cases each year.

“We know that this is a risk with any kind of mandated reporting,” she said.

‘The victim’s confidentiality’

When someone reports a sexual assault on a college campus, there are requirements for how that information has to be passed on, and to whom. Kiss said that Clery Act regulations mandate that student data be reported with few exceptions.

“You can’t be promised confidentiality unless you go to a counselor,” she said.

Powers said the mission of Penn State’s Center for Women Students is to advocate, protect and help victims/survivors of sexual violence.

The CWS follows the White House guidelines for how universities should report sexual assaults under Title IX. That means, as an advocacy center with licensed counselors, those in the CWS do not have to identify a victim/survivor of sexual assault.

“They are not mandatory reporters in that sense,” Powers said.

However, the staff does collaborate with other service providers, including police, and with clients to provide whatever help they can — from providing medical attention to connecting victims with police and making a report.

“Ultimately, it is the victim/survivor’s choice whether or not to officially report an incident of sexual violence,” Powers said. “It is critical that we protect the victim’s confidentiality. CWS offers clients a range of support and services to help them seek the assistance they need and want.”

Ard said the university is “much more cognizant of what they need to do to protect students and faculty.” She also recognizes the positives of the Clery Act requirements and sees benefits in the changes at Penn State.

Ard said that in cases of sexual assault, advocates for victims will not always be on the same side as law enforcement or other agencies.

The difference, she said, is looking at the process not from the perspective of the thousands of other students who deserve to be protected, but from the viewpoint of the one who just experienced something traumatic but is still confused about what happened and trying to reassert the control that was taken away.

“We all have different goals,” Ard said.

‘Very limited resources’

Sometimes those goals dovetail. Sometimes they don’t.

Penn State police Detective Spencer Peters showed an understanding of that at a panel discussion on the issue at Dickinson School of Law last month. He said that when responding to a rape case, he encourages the victim to speak with an advocate before speaking to him, to better understand the options and how to proceed.

“If I explain myself, I’m biased. I want that evidence,” he said.

But he understands that the victim’s needs might have nothing to do with prosecution and he lets her steer that ship.

So, sometimes, that brings victims to the Women’s Resource Center’s doors.

“We have a statutory level of confidentiality mandated by law,” Ard said.

But with a major jump in the number of cases being handled, the center is facing a more mundane problem: money.

“We are always moving the chess pieces around on the board,” Ard said. “We have very limited resources. State and federal dollars continue to shrink. We are running as fast as we can to stay in place.”

Kiss thinks groups like the CCWRC are an integral piece of the response.

“We always encourage relations with local victim service centers,” she said, adding that students could only benefit by more people being available to help.

Lori Falce can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFalce.

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