Education and awareness keys to preventing sexual assault, Penn State experts say

Find the right education programs and increase awareness of the problem — that’s what some Penn State experts want President Barack Obama’s sexual assault task force to focus on.

"Often what we hear when somebody says ‘prevention of sexual assaults’ is, ‘What can girls and women do to make sure they’re not the victims?’ And that isn’t prevention at all,” said Peggy Lorah, director of the Center for Women Students at Penn State. “The only people who can prevent the crimes are the people that commit the crimes.”

On Jan. 22, Obama gave the task force 90 days to come up with recommendations for colleges to prevent and respond to sexual assaults, increase public awareness of each school’s sexual assault history and increase coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable.

According to the report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls, assaults on campuses are driven by drinking and drug use, and are often committed at parties by someone the victim knows.

Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped in their lifetimes, the report said. On campuses, perpetrators often commit multiple offenses, it said. Seven percent of college men admitted to committing or attempting rape, and more than half of those said they had done so multiple times.

Of people who were assaulted, 12 percent reported the incident, the report said.

Since the start of the fall semester, 24 sexual assaults have been reported to local police, The Daily Collegian reported on Feb. 13.

To some Penn State students and employees, resolving the problem may be as simple as finding the right way to educate students about the reality of sexual assaults.

Lorah said she expects that the task force will implement mandatory programs for students at universities, something Penn State already has in place.

“I’m so glad that President Obama is focusing on it, but I don’t want people to think that him focusing on it means that things aren’t happening, that schools aren’t doing things,” Lorah said.

Penn State requires incoming students to complete PSU AWARE, an online program that takes about 45 minutes and focuses on educating about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

While Lorah said the program helps incoming students, she also said it is important that the message is always present and students are continuously aware of the dangers of sexual assault.

Dylan Howser, adviser for Men Against Violence, said the task force should focus on the lack of communication.

“You see a lot of sexual assault happen their freshman year, especially with young men,” Howser said. “They don’t really know how to ask for consent. They don’t know that they should be verbal.”

Andrea Falzone, a sexual assault specialist at Penn State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, said she believes the task force should focus on communitywide education.

Prevention efforts should be targeted to staff, faculty and students, she said, adding that she hopes to see the culture of sexual assault change in the near future.

Falzone said she also hopes to see myths about sexual assault — that it occurs in dark alleys or is committed by a stranger, for example — cleared up by the task force.