Four days after unpacking her bags and settling into her freshman home at Penn State, Jennifer was raped.
By the following fall semester, she would be packing her bags to return to her hometown indefinitely after living on campus was no longer worth the trauma and harassment she said she faced.
Jennifer is not the student’s real name. The Centre Daily Times does not publish the names of sexual assault victims.
It was a Thursday night and it was her first time experiencing parties as a college student. She arrived at a party with a group of friends but eventually found herself separated from them.
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Fortunately, she thought, she was not alone — a young man she had met at a party several days before was there. They had bonded over a game of beer pong and exchanged phone numbers, and he had texted her that night asking to meet up.
Some time after midnight, she decided to leave and find her friends, one of whom frequented the man’s fraternity.
The man persuaded Jennifer to return to his frat where they would possibly find someone she knew. No one was answering her phone calls, so she let him walk her back.
Once in the fraternity house, he took her into his room. She was sober, but she had watched him down two beers. Inside the bedroom, she saw five more empty cans. He had been stumbling as they walked to the house, but that changed once he turned to lock the door, she said.
“He was alert and ready to go,” Jennifer said. “He didn’t slur his words. He knew what he was saying.”
He began to get physical with her. She wasn’t interested. It quickly went beyond two young people flirting.
“I left with a lot of bruises. I got choked. I got punched in the throat every time I tried to scream,” Jennifer said.
She said the assault ended sometime after 5 a.m. By 8 a.m., she was able to leave the house and make her way to Mount Nittany Medical Center.
At the hospital, she was introduced to a police officer and an advocate from the Center for Women Students.
At first she was nervous about identifying the man whose number was still in her cellphone. She wasn’t ready to listen to the officer discussing going further with the case.
The sex was unprotected, so she was given Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill, to prevent a pregnancy. She said she was given a combination of 17 pills and shots and faced a year of blood work to rule out any sexually transmitted diseases.
Overwhelmed and without a clue about how to handle the situation, Jennifer took a week off from school to spend time at home.
When she returned to school in late September, she said, she was directed to Karen Feldbaum, associate director of the Office of Student Conduct.
At Penn State, a complainant in a sexual assault case has the options of obtaining an administrative directive and pursuing an informal or a formal university conduct process, Feldbaum told the Centre Daily Times in an email. Complainants are encouraged to file a report with police and are told of school resources, including counseling and medical services, she said.
If a complainant chooses a formal university conduct process, the case is reviewed for university charges and sanctions, which include expulsion, Feldbaum said.
The informal process doesn’t allow the university to formally charge the accused (called the respondent), but “the university would still like to be able to interact with the respondent to set expectations, encourage counseling/intervention or engage the respondent in other appropriate ways,” Feldbaum said.
Jennifer chose a formal process and an administrative directive forbidding the accused from contacting her, including on social media.
She said she was told the district attorney would not take her case.
Although she said she cannot comment on why a specific case was not taken, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said sexual assault cases are no different from any other criminal case and must be able to be proved to a jury on the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
She said sexual assault cases must meet the standards required for any crime to be taken to court, whether regarding physical evidence or simply testimony.
“We take (sexual assault cases) very seriously,” Parks Miller said. “We are committed to prosecuting those cases to the fullest extent. … Sexual assault cases are always on the docket.”
Unable to pursue a criminal case, Jennifer instead began preparing for the hearing, which was scheduled for early November.
She said she met about four days a week with her advocate, along with Center for Women Students Director Peggy Lorah, State College detectives and the university Counseling and Psychological Services representatives she was seeing at the time.
Lorah said the Center for Women Students “provides any kind of support a victim needs,” including offering emotional support by being present when the Office of Student Conduct is notified and even attending the hearing.
Lorah helped her prepare a statement for the hearing, and she and Jennifer’s advocate explained to her what would occur, Jennifer said.
Jennifer said she was told that, during the hearing, she and the man she had accused would be at opposite ends of the room. She would be tasked with questioning him.
She said the idea of speaking to him made her feel like the crime was being simplified, as if she was asking him something akin to why he had stolen her laptop.
“With sexual assault and rape, it’s nothing like that,” Jennifer said. “It’s so emotional. Logic doesn’t fit in the equation well.”
The decision to proceed with the hearing was hard, she said, in part because people attempted to talk her out of going through the “hassle,” leading her to blame herself for the rape.
These feelings were only heightened during one of her preparation meetings. She said Lorah and her advocate asked her questions similar to what would be asked during her hearing — to toughen her skin, she said.
Jennifer said the questions and comments were along the lines of, “You have to expect that when you go into a man’s room”; “You’re obligated to have sex with him, so why did you go in there?”; “What were you wearing?”; “Why didn’t you scream louder?”; and “Why were you so naive to think he wouldn’t do this to you?”
Although, she said, she understood that Lorah and the advocate were trying to make it easier for her by the time of the hearing, it was difficult to hear the questions, which increased her insecurity.
Lorah, however, said those are not the kinds of topics that would be talked about with students, and the hearing board would not ask such questions or let an attorney or advocate for the accused ask such questions.
Instead, she said, to prepare complainants she and the Center for Women Students advocate, Audra Hixson, ask them what questions and concerns they think will be addressed by the board.
“The hearing board is really about coming forward in a way that’s really respectful and gets to the heart of the story,” Lorah said. “It’s always done in the spirit of making sure that a victim doesn’t feel blamed and targeted.”
If the complainant’s advocate thinks questions being asked are not appropriate, the advocate can voice concerns immediately, Lorah said.
In a Penn State hearing, the complainant has several alternatives to being in the room with the accused, including attending via Skype, a Web conferencing service.
“One of the things that’s often difficult for somebody who’s been victimized is to be physically in the presence of the person who committed the crime,” Lorah said. “It can be devastating and really triggering to be in that setting.”
Jennifer said she was told that hearing administrators had planned for her to use Skype because they were concerned about the way the man she had accused was behaving before the hearing.
Jennifer didn’t make it that far.
Less than 24 hours before the hearing was scheduled to begin, she said, she was called to the Center for Women Students and told the man she had accused had admitted guilt and had accepted punishment.
He was suspended for one academic year, Jennifer said. But he had already applied to and been accepted at another school, she said.
Everyone around her took this as good news, she said, but she broke down, sobbing.
“Here I thought I got to dictate this hearing,” she said, “and then he pulled out and the school got to decide what the punishment was, without any of my consent.”
Jennifer said her fear and insecurity did not leave with her accused attacker. She still experiences flashbacks and worries that she could run into him.
She said it’s important for those who have been sexually assaulted to tell their stories and “hold their head high,” but she would hesitate to advise them to go through the hearing process because it is traumatic and there is no way to know if they would be satisfied with the outcome.
“I think every girl that has gone through this process is so strong and so brave because there’s so many times where it was way easier to just stop,” Jennifer said. “It takes up your life.”
Still, she is glad she chose to go ahead, she said.
“I would have regretted it if I didn’t go through with it.”
Since the hearing, she has dealt with harassment from friends and fraternity brothers of the man she accused, she said. She and her family felt so uncomfortable that she pulled out of Penn State for the fall and coming spring semesters.
She does not know if she will return.