Penn State

'Like sharks looking for minnows': Sexual assault is a problem in Penn State's Greek culture

Centre Daily Times photo illustration

Penn State's Greek community has been in the spotlight, both locally and nationally, because of Timothy Piazza's February 2017 death and the subsequent criminal case. Hazing may be a widespread problem in Greek life, but it isn't the only dangerous and criminal activity that universities are seeing.

Two weeks before Piazza died as a result of injuries sustained at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, a 20-year-old victim reported being sexually assaulted there.

At Penn State, sorority women are 50 percent more likely than other female students to be sexually assaulted, and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than other male students, according to the university's most recent Sexual Assault Campus Climate survey.

Erin Farley, programming coordinator at Penn State's Gender Equity Center, said 1 in 4 women and 1 in 16 men say they've been sexually assaulted at Penn State, according to the anonymous survey.

"Because sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes, those numbers are definitely the best indicator we have about the true prevalence of sexual violence on campus and in different communities," Farley said.

Thinking about the small number of text alerts and timely warnings that go out, there's a "huge" difference between those numbers, she said, so reported sexual assaults are really "just the tip of the iceberg."

So far in this academic year, there have been 14 timely warnings sent out to the university community for "forcible sex offenses," two of which involved reports of rape at off-campus fraternities. (Timely warnings are Clery Act-required notifications that go out when there's a potential or ongoing threat of a Clery-reportable offense, like sexual assault. They're sent out via text and email.)

The Clery Act requires disclosure of campus security policy and campus crime statistics. Clery geography includes any campus property and certain off-campus properties that are university affiliated, such as fraternity houses that are recognized by Penn State.

In 2017, State College police investigated 87 sexual assault reports, according to Lt. Keith Robb, who has more than two decades of experience in the State College Police Department. He stressed that those are just what's been reported to the police and that it's a "very low" number because a great number of victims don't come forward for various reasons.

He testified before a grand jury, which released a report about hazing and Greek culture at Penn State in December, that 60 to 70 percent of all sexual assaults investigated by State College police are both alcohol- and fraternity-related.

According to Penn State's annual security report, updated in September and released in compliance with the Clery Act, there were 35 total reports of rape on campus and 28 off campus in 2016. There were 16 total reports of fondling on campus, two on public property and two off campus. The university's 2017 numbers are not yet available.

Unfortunately, Farley said, the rates of sexual assault being higher within Greek life is a nationwide trend. The social aspect and alcohol use help to explain the prevalence of sexual assaults in the Greek community.

Farley said the vast majority of sexual assault cases on college campuses involve alcohol, and perpetrators often target people who have been drinking.

There's a big social aspect to Greek life, and a lot of those social activities revolve around drinking, she said. Beyond that, parties are "really sexualized environments."

"If you go to a frat party, you’re in the big room. There’s a bunch of people very close together. You mostly will find the girls more in the center and the guys more on the outskirts," said junior Daniel Klapper, a brother in Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. "Yeah, you have your mixture of people dancing in the center, but there are occasionally just a couple guys who are just like walking up and down the perimeter just kind of watching, just seeing when they can go in. It’s almost like sharks looking for minnows."

Perpetrators deliberately embed themselves in this environment, said junior Alyssa Salley, a sister of Pi Beta Phi sorority.

There isn't really anywhere else where they can experience so many people in one place, and it makes it easier for them to get away with it, she said.

"While sexual assault and the misuse of alcohol occur in many parts of the student community, fraternities and sororities have normalized certain behaviors that can add to these challenges," Damon Sims, Penn State's vice president for Student Affairs, said in an email. "They are among the few students groups that lawfully discriminate on the basis of gender, which may encourage certain stereotypes about gender relationships and roles.

"And we should recognize that fraternities and sororities are fundamentally secretive organizations that exhibit profoundly tight communal bonds. Their tendency to defend their brothers and sisters can be stronger than their impulse to confront bad acts, which may contribute to the difficulty of identifying the problem, calling it out and ending it."

Anne Ard, executive director of the Centre County Women's Resource Center, said the peer pressure in Greek life can influence students to do really positive things, like raise millions of dollars to fight pediatric cancer through Penn State's IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. But by the same token, she said, that kind of peer pressure can be used to support sexual assault or keep someone from making a report.

Robb echoed that sentiment in his grand jury testimony.

"It is not uncommon for a victim who initially reports a sexual assault to then, several days later, change her mind and say, 'I don’t want to go forward.' And what we found is, in interviewing them, that their sorority sisters are ... encouraging them not to go forward because they don't want to lose that relationship with that fraternity. They do not want to lose ... that party connection," he testified.

Salley, a political science major on a pre-law track, said that's not something she's personally encountered, but it needs to be addressed if it is an issue. She added that since the new Greek life measures were put in place after Piazza's death, she's noticed that the sisterhoods of most sororities have become closer.

She said she also thinks that people have been taking the issue of sexual assault more seriously since then.

Those measures include, among other things, new positions dedicated to monitoring in Student Affairs and social restrictions. No more than 10 social events with alcohol are permitted during each semester, daylong parties are banned and only beer and wine can be served by officially trained servers. Additionally, a Greek scorecard, broken down by chapters, was introduced that includes information on total members, cumulative GPA, chapter suspensions and more. (It has a section for sexual assault violations, but there's nothing listed for fall 2017.)

Klapper, who's studying health policy administration, said he'd like to believe that the new fraternity rules are having a positive impact, but he's waiting to see the numbers.

The university plans to repeat the Sexual Assault Campus Climate survey in the coming year, Sims said, "so we'll know more about any improvements we've seen in that time" once that survey is complete.

So far in 2018, sexual assault reports to State College police are trending down, with 23, Robb said, and he hopes that continues. But he said he cautions his optimism knowing that there could be a spike at any time (which isn't necessarily a spike in crime, but rather a spike in victims coming forward).

"You won't eliminate the problem, but you will reduce it," he said.

And Robb said he doesn't think that shutting down the frats would solve the problem, it would just move it elsewhere.

But members of the Greek community are taking on leadership roles, trying to educate their peers on sexual assault and working together to stop it as much as they can.

Salley and Klapper are both student facilitators in the Greeks CARE program, a six-week sexual assault prevention program for fraternities and sororities. The program — facilitated by Gender Equity Center staff and trained fraternity and sorority members in collaboration with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life — educates sorority and fraternity members about sexual violence, alcohol and consent, normalization of harmful behaviors, bystander intervention and supporting survivors.

It's not mandatory, but fraternities and sororities are "strongly encouraged" to participate, Farley said. The ones that do each send eight members, ideally older students and those in leadership positions who can take the message back and have the power to change the social norms of their organizations.

This semester, the program has more than 200 participants, which Farley said has doubled from last semester.

For Salley, being involved in trying to bring about positive change is personal.

"I have gone through an attempted sexual assault here, and luckily I got out of the situation and everything like that," she said. "But … I’ve had unfortunately a high number of friends who have disclosed to me that weren’t so lucky. So kind of just building on what I went through and how horrifying that was for me and not even be able to imagine what they went through is kind of the reason why I’m so passionate about this topic."

Her experience in Greeks CARE has been both rewarding and frustrating, she said — rewarding because she's able to see the difference in the people educated through the program, but frustrating because, right now, they don't have the capacity to reach out to whole organizations.

The message that Farley wants to convey to members of fraternities and sororities is: "You need to acknowledge the problem, that these numbers are higher than they are outside of Greek life, that sexual assault is an issue, that not all survivors in Greek life are (reporting). And then we can also acknowledge that most people aren’t OK with this. But it’s not enough to not be OK with it, we need to be doing something about it."

Both the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council at Penn State have taken steps to address sexual assault within their community.

According to a statement from IFC's Executive Board, a new position, vice president of civic responsibility, was created to take an active stance in dealing with sexual assault and confronting other issues like hazing, mental health and dangerous drinking.

IFC and Panhellenic councils' executive boards completed Stand for State, a bystander intervention training. IFC and Panhellenic also sponsored University Park Undergraduate Association's Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention Week.

"I hope we can all work together to overcome these challenges, since there can be no tolerance for sexual violence of any kind," Sims said.


Report to Penn State

  • Online:

  • In person: Office for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response; Danny Shaha, Title IX Coordinator, 222 Boucke Building, University Park (867-0099,
  • Anonymous report: Penn State Hotline, 800-560-1637,
  • Note: With the exception of confidential support providers, all Penn State employees are obligated to pass along information about incidents of sexual misconduct

Confidential campus resources

  • Gender Equity Center: 863-2027, 204 Boucke Building
  • Counseling and Psychological Services: 863-0395, 501 Student Health Center
  • Penn State Hotline

Additional resources

  • Office of Student Conduct: 863-0342, 120 Boucke Building
  • LGBTQA Student Resource Center: 863-1248, 101 Boucke Building
  • Residence Life: 863-1710, 201 Johnston Commons

State College police: 911 or 234-7150

Penn State police: 863-1111 or file online,

Centre County Women's Resource Center

  • 24-hour hotline: 234-5050
  • Website:
  • Address: 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College