After a year of trauma after her rape, Jennifer knew she had to make one last stop at Old Main before packing her bags and leaving Penn State indefinitely — not for a final look at the campus but to visit Damon Sims.
Sims, the vice president for student affairs, would be her last hope, she thought, that something positive could come from her sexual assault.
“I felt like I wasn’t being heard by anybody,” Jennifer said. “I knew if I wanted to make a change I would have to go as high as possible. So I just went for it.”
Jennifer is not the student’s real name. The Centre Daily Times does not publish the names of sexual assault victims.
In late September, she and her mother waited in the Old Main lobby with no appointment — only a desperate desire for someone to listen to her deeply held belief that what a man had done to her at a fraternity party was very wrong.
After two hours of waiting, she was told Sims would rearrange his schedule to meet with them. He listened to her story patiently and with full attention, taking notes, Jennifer said.
When she was finished, he told her he wanted ideas on what the university could do to improve its system for handling sexual assault.
Jennifer is now gathering those ideas, which — along with ideas from students, faculty, staff and community members — could factor into the first report issued by President Eric Barron’s sexual assault task force, perhaps by the end of the year.
In a letter to faculty and staff released July 2, Barron announced that one of his first major acts as the 18th president of Penn State would be to create a Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Task Force.
“This group has been charged by the president with providing recommendations on investigating, mitigating and adjudicating sexual assault,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email.
Five months and 21 reported sexual assaults later, six of which reportedly occurred on campus, little has been said — by the university or others — about what exactly the task force is accomplishing.
Just two months before Barron’s announcement, the U.S. Department of Education made an announcement of its own — that Penn State, along with more than 60 other universities, is being reviewed for compliance under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities that receive federal funding.
Specifically, Penn State is being investigated by the federal Office for Civil Rights for how it has handled sexual assault cases.
The spotlight hit the university in 2012 when former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in federal prison on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
That year, Penn State reported 56 forcible sex offenses in its federally required Clery Act campus crime report; the number included many of those abused by Sandusky.
The next year, Penn State reported 17 forcible sex offenses on campus, 10 off campus and one on public property, according to the most recent Clery Act report.
Now, the sexual assault task force is looking to position Penn State as the national leader in appropriately addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment in higher education, Sims said in an email.
The group includes 14 faculty and staff members chosen by Barron for their relevant expertise or experience. Members range from professors to athletic department employees to staff members at campus sexual assault programs, as well as three students.
Its recommendations will deal with creating or improving programs on awareness, reporting sexual assault or harassment, helping victims and training and coordinating with staff involved in these programs, task force member Kim Menard said.
Menard is a Penn State Altoona assistant professor of criminal justice and women’s studies.
Most of the reports will be given to Barron by the end of this year, Sims said. Menard said that as soon as the recommendations are set, they will be made public.
Meanwhile, although she is no longer on campus, Jennifer is compiling a document filled with recommendations and topics she says students think should be addressed, as well as personal stories from students in situations similar to her own.
“I want (Sims) to understand how personal a situation like this is, not just for me,” Jennifer said. “There’s no logical way to stop what’s going on. There’s no step-by-step rules to handle every person” who has been sexually assaulted.
Among the ideas she thinks should be addressed are educating incoming freshmen about sexual assault — possibly in a mandatory seminar — and issuing follow-up PSUAlerts that report when someone accused of sexual assault has been found guilty or punished by the university.
“I think if students knew there was a possibility they could get in serious trouble, they would be much more aware of asking the appropriate questions” regarding consent, Jennifer said.
To try to ensure that as many voices as possible are heard, Jennifer has used social media to encourage those interested in contributing to the document to contact her. So far, she said, 10 to 15 women have contacted her privately, sharing their personal experiences with sexual assault and positive reinforcement.
State College police Lt. Keith Robb said he hopes an affirmative-consent law could be addressed by the task force.
Such a law would be similar to California’s new “yes means yes” law that requires schools with students who receive financial aid to uphold an affirmative-consent standard in disciplinary hearings — meaning that a person accused of sexual assault must prove he or she was given a definitive “yes” before engaging in sexual activity.
Robb said that, in his 20 years of experience, more than 90 percent of reported sexual assaults come down to the issue of consent.
He said he would like to see increased training in the Centre County criminal justice system about how sexual assault victims behave after being attacked.
“In most cases, it’s not uncommon for (those being assaulted to) … physically submit because they’re afraid. It explains why victims delay in reporting. It explains why it’s not uncommon for the victim to have contact with the suspect after the rape,” Robb said.
“These are all things that … you would think a defense attorney would say to a juror, and they would say, ‘Well, how can she be raped?’ ”
Having more experts able to explain this behavior to a jury would help in sexual assault trials, Robb said.
For now, the task force is researching programs, policies and practices on campus, Sims said in an email.
Menard said the group wants to ensure that policies it recommends are based in evidence and fact.
“When you have a major event, people often have a knee-jerk reaction and want to do something,” she said. “Well, yeah, we have to do something, but let’s make sure it’s the right thing … that it’s the thing that research has found works.”
The research extends beyond the campus.
Sims has spoken with representatives of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and plans to work with the Centre County Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Task Force, said Anne Ard, executive director of the resource center.
During the 2012-13 school year, Penn State had 415 documented programs — including workshops, training and speaking engagements — concerning intimate violence, and 273 of those were on campus, Menard said.
“People think there’s nothing going on and, sadly, people aren’t paying attention to these kinds of issues until something horrible has happened,” she said. “There’s a lot the university is doing. Admittedly, we may need to publicize it better.”
Jennifer said she hopes, at the least, the task force can start a dialogue.
“I want to start to make a change because the longer we wait, the more innocent people get hurt,” she said. “Silence isn’t going to do anything.”