It’s evening on the Penn State campus. A phone buzzes. But it’s not a normal text message or phone call.
Dwayne Witmer, 45, glanced at his phone and saw the message sent from PSUAlert that a sexual assault had been reported on campus.
Witmer works full time as a facilities access coordinator and part time with the Penn State parking office and, having worked late on the night of the reported attack, he said, he wished he had known what was taking place in his surroundings.
“It’s strange, but the alert struck me as a call to action,” he said. “I wished I could have been in a position to prevent the assault.”
Witmer is one of about 155,000 people across all of Penn State’s campuses who get the PSUAlerts directly. About 82,000 of them — students, faculty and staff — are at University Park.
With its broad and immediate reach, PSUAlert may be the most visible local sign of the growing attention to the issue of sexual assault on campuses nationwide.
When he created a White House task force on college sexual assault in January, President Barack Obama cited studies reporting that about one in five women who have attended college experience sexual violence.
Since the start of the fall semester in late August, Penn State and State College police have received 21 reports of sexual assaults involving students, six of which were reported to have occurred on campus.
Five sexual assault or rape alerts and one indecent-assault alert have been issued at University Park through the emergency system.
Use of the alerts is in part a response to the federal government’s review of how universities are dealing with the problem of sexual assaults on campuses.
In May, the U.S. Department of Education announced that more than 60 universities, including Penn State, were being reviewed for compliance under Title IX, the law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities receiving federal funding.
That includes how universities deal with and report sexual assaults.
The alerts have made the issue almost impossible to ignore when they arrive on a person’s smartphone screen and have prompted discussion of a problem that is often kept quiet or ignored.
They also have added a sense of urgency to ongoing campus activism on the matter. Those efforts have been augmented by Obama’s “It’s On Us” awareness campaign begun in September to try to end sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign features athletes speaking out on the issue in videos at college football games and during televised NFL games.
“When I get an alert, I know someone’s life has been devastated, and it makes me feel both angry and sad,” Witmer said.
“I think a lot of people are more up in arms against it now,” sophomore Aaron Aumiller said. “The alerts stick with people and concern them on the well-being of others and the state of mind of some people.”
The alerts were put into action in March to follow the guidelines of the federal Clery Act, which deals with reporting crimes on campus. Police send alerts as a “timely warning” to let the community know of any ongoing threat, university spokesman Reidar Jensen said.
When a student reports a sexual assault or rape to Penn State police, it is defined as a Clery Act crime. Police then issue an alert if they think there is an imminent threat to the Penn State community.
Not every reported incident is followed by an alert. Some victims may not report the incident for days or even weeks after it occurred.
Every PSUAlert contains a standard message about the duty of the institution to alert the community about possible “dangerous conditions.” Most messages then give a checklist about what constitutes sexual assault, such as: “Get verbal consent from your partner”; “Don’t assume you know what another person wants”; “Don’t feel obligated to do anything you don’t want to”; and “Trust your instincts. If you feel unsafe, get to a safe place and call for help.”
“It has been our experience in the past that some individuals may not understand what constitutes an assault and may not know where to report an alleged assault,” Jensen said.
Jessi Shisler, 23, a Penn State senior, said she hopes the alerts are “a good reminder to stay safe when you are out.”
“I hope it makes women more comfortable coming forward and makes men feel like they can’t get away with it,” she said.
Though the alerts are reminders that dangerous situations can arise on campus, sophomore Samantha Malizia, 20, said she is thankful for the warning.
At times, Malizia said, she will be with friends when everyone gets an alert. She said they usually discuss the alert and ensure that everyone gets to their next destination safely by sticking together.
“Although we seem to be receiving these warning texts more often, they’re never taken as a normal or casual happening,” she said. “Hearing of any assault is awful, to say the least, but informing the people who are potentially at risk is far more important than the risk of the university receiving poor PR.”
Sophomore Ryan Kiser said he has heard more conversations about the issue on campus.
“Whether that’s because of an increase in sexual assaults I am unsure, but, yes, I have noticed an increase,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say sexual assault has been a topic of any of my conversations. It’s been more of a ‘Hey, did you see the PSUAlert text?’ type of thing.”